Unrestricted gas boom, fuelled by abundant and cheap shale gas, could increase the use of the fuel by 170 per cent by 2050, but this could actually increase, rather than cut, overall CO2 emissions – a new study led by the US department of energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has found.
The new research – which involved teams of scientists from the US, Australia, Austria, Germany and Italy – has found that the impact of a gas boom on CO2 emissions ranged from a small cut of two per cent to an increase of 11 per cent. The scientists have developed five independent computer models to assess how carbon emissions between now and 2050 would be affected by a global gas boom.
“We were surprised how little difference abundant gas made to total greenhouse gas emissions, even though it was dramatically changing the global energy system,” said James Edmonds, also at PNNL. “All five modelling teams reported little difference in climate change.”
Another member of the research team, Nico Bauer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, said. “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of [lower emissions than] coal turn out to be misguided because market effects dominate.”
This comes as another blow to shale gas proponents who argue that energy from shale can serve as a ‘green bridge’ to renewables. Natural gas is often presented as a cleaner alternative to coal because, when combusted, it produces about 45 per cent less carbon dioxide than does coal in producing the same amount of electricity.
The study questioned these claims by showing that the lower cost of abundant gas will replace, rather than promote, renewables and nuclear energy.
“The paper uncovers a serious crack in the gas bridge,” said Steven Davis and Christine Shearer, at the University of California, Irvine, in a comment article for Nature. “In the absence of new climate policies, increased supplies of natural gas could actually delay decarbonisation of the global energy system.”
But they added: “If we get the technologies and the policies right, natural gas might help us to cut emissions by working with renewable energy sources, rather than against them.”
The recent study was the latest among voices questioning the validity of the ‘gas bridge’ theory. There is a widespread concern that the uptake of natural gas will redirect the funds that otherwise could be invested in renewables.
The voices are not unanimous, though. A study carried out by the Manchester University and published last month found that with regard to greenhouse emissions and other environmental impacts, shale gas was in many respects better than popular renewables such as solar and wind.
These surprising result were put down to the fact that manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a countries which, like the UK, don’t get much sunshine.
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