Researcher and professor at University of Maryland, Klaus Hubacek, explains the costs of the natural gas boom in terms of its impact for overall emissions and growth of renewable energy
You have concluded in your study that the 2007-09 meltdown was chiefly responsible for bringing US emissions down. What specific factors during this period contributed to this trend?
The study shows that consumption volume was the main contributor, followed by production structure and fuel mix for the period from 2007-09.
Media is abuzz with reports of decarbonisation of the US power sector due to the switch from coal to gas and the resultant drop in emissions. But your study attributes only a modest drop to the coal-to-gas trend. Isn't it possible that the benefits of the switch are yet to be realised and measured fully?
For the time period we investigated, the fuel mix (which would include a switch from coal to gas) was not an important factor. We only looked at the effect in the US. Due to increased use of gas, more coal was exported so the global effect might have been even negative. Just because more gas is used does not mean that the coal stayed in the ground. It was exported and potentially sometimes to countries with less efficiency and, thus, (with) overall negative effects for greenhouse gas emissions. We also did not look at fugitive methane emissions associated with gas extraction, which would also impact the overall effect of gas and further diminish the potential contribution of a switch to gas. To summarise, for the time period we investigated, gas was not a major driver for the decline.
How do you evaluate the combined effect of gas and renewables on emissions? Is it a winning combination? What is missing?
Cheap gas not only competes with coal (which still was mined and exported, thus creating emissions elsewhere) but also with renewables, which become less attractive if gas prices are relatively lower. If you want to have a low carbon future, you might want to invest in renewables rather than taking the detour of investing in gas (which has fugitive methane emissions, competes with renewables, still has carbon emissions, and does not prevent coal exports and thus causes potential overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions). In any case, in our study, energy mix only made a rather small contribution.
While the economic crisis helped curb emissions, it is not an ideal scenario for any country. For developing countries, a slowing down in consumption is even more disastrous. Then, how does your study seek to influence countries' climate change policies?
We are working on a global study comparing carbon footprints within and between countries and we see that the richer the people, the more they consume and therefore, the higher the carbon footprint. There are rich folks with high carbon footprints in poor countries and poor people with low carbon footprints in rich countries. We need to move away from the one-size-fits-all policies. There are important disparities within countries that need to be addressed in a world with finite resources and the atmosphere’s ability to deal with our emissions is certainly finite as we can see in the mess we are moving into.
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