It concludes the increasingly abundant natural gas, most of it from hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” operations, will do little to slow climate change or reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change,” says Haewon McJeon, an economist with the U.S. energy department and lead author of the report in the journal Nature.
The gas boom could even delay decarboniztion of the global energy system and slow the move to clean alternatives, the study suggests.
Previous studies have predicted using natural gas instead of coal could reduce global CO2 emissions, while others have indicated the “fugitive” emissions associated with fracking and natural gas extraction may increase global emissions warming the climate.
McJeon and colleagues from Germany, Austria, Italy and Australia independently assessed the impact of the gas boom.
The study combines the results from their five energy-economy-climate models and projects a global increase of up to 170 per cent in natural gas consumption by 2050. But it forecasts a “limited” impact on global CO2 emissions. The study says abundant natural gas could lead to anywhere from a two per cent reduction in global CO2 emissions to an 11 per cent increase.
Gas-fired power plants do emit only half as much CO2 as coal-fired operations. “But that is not the end of the story,” McJeon, an economist with the energy department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said in an interview.
He says a supply of abundant, inexpensive gas could also compete with and replace low-carbon forms of energy, such as wind or nuclear energy.
The gas could also lead to a lower energy prices, increasing energy consumption and decreasing investment in energy efficiency.
“In economics if you have low-cost, abundant anything you consume more,” says McJeon.
The third big factor in the equation is methane, the potent greenhouse gas found in the so-called “fugitive” emissions that leak from fracking operations and gas transport systems.
The five models used in the study were consistent in forecasting natural gas will do little to reduce global CO2 emissions by 2050. “I think that’s a very powerful message,” says McJeon.
The researchers are now assessing policies that could be put in place to reap more climate benefits from abundant natural gas – things like a “universal” price on carbon pollution, standards that would allow natural gas to displace coal but not renewables, and programs to capture fugitive emissions.
As for a natural gas “bridge” to the clean, green economy, McJeon said he is not sure what people means by the term. But he hopes the study will lead to “informed” decision making.
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