Switching To Natural Gas From Coal Will Reduce Global Warming Much Less Than Hoped

coal power plant photo

photo: Daniel Boyd/CC BY

Natural gas may have lower greenhouse gas emissions when burned than coal, but widespread switching over to natural gas for electricity won't have much of an impact on reducing global warming, a new study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concludes.

Two well-documented situations are at the heart of the matter: Particulate emissions from coal masking warming and methane leaks from natural gas.

[NCAR's Tom Wigley]'s computer simulations indicate that a worldwide, partial shift from coal to natural gas would slightly accelerate climate change through at least 2050, even if no methane leaked from natural gas operations, and through as late as 2140 if there were substantial leaks [10% leakage]. After that, the greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow down the increase in global average temperature, but only by a few tenths of a degree.

"Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem," says Wigley, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. "It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges." (Science Daily)

Here's the original research in Climatic Change: Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage
More Renewables The Answer, Not More Fossil Fuels
No doubt there will be coal industry boosters spinning this research to show that rapidly moving away from coal isn't needed, assuming that the substitute for coal is natural gas (and probably from fracking).

I'll spin it another way: More than anything this research shows that the better solution to both our pressing climate change, and energy supply/security, problems is to invest in more renewable energy sources, more truly clean energy sources, not marginally cleaner fossil fuels.

More on Global Climate Change
Coal Costs US Public Up to $500 Billion Annually: Harvard Study
Studying Radioactive Sulfur From Fukushima Teaches Us About Coal Pollution From China

Related Content on Treehugger.com