Expanded use of natural gas won’t slow global warming — study

Source: Katherine Ling, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2014

Using more natural gas won’t slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and isn’t “necessarily an effective substitute for climate change mitigation policy,” according to a study published online today in the journal Nature.

The study says inexpensive natural gas would replace not only higher-emission fossil fuels like coal but also low-carbon, expensive sources like nuclear reactors and renewable energy.

Moreover, the study says, greenhouse gas emissions would continue growing because of releases of methane and increased total energy use as the economy is spurred by inexpensive gas.

“The effect is that abundant natural gas alone will do little to slow climate change,” said Haewon McJeon, the study’s lead author and an economist at the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

“Global deployment of advanced natural gas production technology could double or triple the global natural gas production by 2050, but greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow in the absence of climate policies that promote lower-carbon energy sources.”

McJeon added, “Abundant gas may have a lot of benefits — economic growth, local air pollution, energy security and so on. There’s been some hope that slowing climate change could also be one of its benefits, but that turns out not to be the case.”

Even if natural gas consumption rises by as much as 170 percent by midcentury, the study says, there would be only a slight change in the current trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions, either reducing it by 2 percent or expanding it by 11 percent.

Most models reported the increased use of natural gas would cause a small increase of up to 7 percent in “climate forcing” emissions — elements that affect the amount of energy the planet draws from the sun and the amount of energy the planet radiates back into space — that are a major cause of climate change, the study says.

Five research teams from the United States, Australia, Austria, Germany and Italy did the study. In a change from other analyses, the researchers used five independently developed “integrated assessment models” that accounted for energy use, the economy and climate — and those systems’ interactions through 2050 — and all independently came to the same conclusion that abundant natural gas use would not slow climate change.

The project was led by the Joint Global Change Research Institute (JGCRI), a collaboration between PNNL and the University of Maryland. Other groups contributing to the study include BAEconomics, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change and Resources for the Future.

JGCRI is a private-public partnership funded by the Global Technology Strategy Project, whose current and recent sponsors include Chevron Corp., the Electric Power Research Institute, Exxon Mobil Corp., Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies and DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy, according to PNNL.

The paper assumes the world is “acting under market forces with no additional policies,” but the team is working on extending the analyses to consider the implication of additional policies such as limits on greenhouse gas emissions or policies to promote renewable energy, according to a blog post by study co-author Brian Flannery, a fellow at Resources for the Future.