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Natural Gas Usage Won't Help Curb Carbon Emissions

Sep 25, 2014 11:42 AM EDT
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Switching from coal to natural gas for power generation will do very little to reduce harmful US carbon emissions causing climate change, according to new research. In fact, burning this cheap gas will just make us use more energy and hinder the expansion of renewable resources like wind and solar.

It's no secret that coal-fired plants, the nation's largest source of power, produce vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas polluting Earth's atmosphere. Increased use of natural gas has been widely credited with having reduced US CO2 emissions in recent years. But the new study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, finds that between 2013 and 2055 the use of natural gas could at most reduce cumulative emissions from the electricity sector by no more than nine percent.

What's more, it might even raise them slightly - by five percent.

"Natural gas has been presented as a bridge to a low-carbon future, but what we see is that it's actually a major detour. We find that the only effective paths to reducing greenhouse gases are a regulatory cap or a carbon tax," lead author Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at the University of California (UC), Irvine, said in a statement.

Many recent studies about the emissions impact of natural gas have focused on methane leakage from wells and pipelines during production. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is itself a potent greenhouse gas. Rather than focus just on methane leakage, the researchers - from UC Irvine, Stanford University, and the nonprofit organization Near Zero - based their results on a model of the US energy sector, as well as analyzed a range of climate policies.

They found that even if no methane escapes during natural gas production, it barely makes a dent in carbon emissions, and offers no significant climate benefits. This is because natural gas actually boosts electricity consumption. According to the study, since the gas is cheaper, people will use more energy rather than cut back to save money. In addition, it discourages the use of carbon-free renewable energy as it "delays up to decades the time period over which renewable energies become economically competitive," the researchers write.

Those effects "essentially canceled out the climate benefits of substituting natural gas for coal, regardless of the leakage rate," according to the study.

These findings come on the heels of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City, which involved leaders discussing the best action to reduce the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, especially in order to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit).

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