A recent article published online by the journal Nature suggests that natural gas may not be of significant benefit in addressing climate change. The researchers suggest that gas from unconventional sources such as fracking could even add to the climate change problem. Many organizations, including some environmental groups in Canada, have advocated increased use of natural gas as an environmentally preferable substitute for higher carbon fuels such as coal.
The paper, by scientists from the Joint Global Change Research Institute of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland as well as others from around the world, states that increases in global supplies of unconventional natural gas do not discernibly reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. The findings are based on five different models but the fundamental reason for this situation is that natural gas provides a substitute not only for high GHG emitting coal but also for existing low emitting energy technologies such as renewables and nuclear. Use of abundant natural gas is shown to change carbon dioxide emissions by an amount in the range of a 2% decrease to an 11% increase. The authors state that “results show that although market penetration of globally abundant gas may substantially change the future energy system, it is not necessarily an effective substitute for climate change mitigation policy”.
Apart from the obvious impacts of this report on a natural gas industry that has been touting its benefits as a transitional fuel to a low carbon economy the findings of this report may also have impact in the long-term on users of natural gas. If carbon pricing eventually comes to Canada, as it appears likely it will, the pricing of natural gas as a fuel with little climate change benefit instead of as a transitional fuel could lessen the economic benefit which it provides.
An abstract and a link to the full paper (fee or subscription required) is available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13837.html#access