Shifting to Natural Gas Won't Slow Climate Change

Although burning natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal, a study concludes that greater reliance on natural gas wouldn’t significantly slow down climate change.

The study, by Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, underscores the complex and sometimes conflicting ways in which burning fossil fuels affects Earth’s climate.

While using coal causes warming by emitting heat-trapping carbon dioxide, it also releases comparatively large amounts of sulfates and other particles that, although detrimental to human health and the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight.

The situation is further complicated by uncertainty over the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas operations. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas.

"Whatever the methane leakage rate, you can’t get away from the additional warming that will occur initially because, by not burning coal, you’re not having the cooling effect of sulfates and other particles," Wigley says. "This particle effect is a double-edged sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain. But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming."

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. After that, greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow increases in global average temperatures, 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."

The study also finds that methane leaks would need to be held to 2% or less for natural gas to have less of a climatic impact than coal due to the life cycle of methane. Both coal mining operations and the use of natural gas release varying amounts of methane, but the escaping gas’s influence on climate also depends on emissions of other gases, such as carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides that affect the amount of time methane remains in the atmosphere.

The study will appear next month in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.

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