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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Study: only climate policies - not natgas - will save us

US carbon emissions have dropped, thanks in significant measure to natural gas.  But that decrease is illusory and likely temporary, because it has so far relied on the fickle free market

In the battle against global climate disruption, policy is everything.  

That's the finding of a new paper published in published in Environmental Resource Letters. 

The effect of natural gas supply on US renewable energy and CO2 emissions models the effect of natural gas supply on CO2 emissions and finds that abundant natural gas will not reduce GHG emissions and will compete with renewable energy:
more abundant natural gas decreases use of both coal and renewable energy technologies in the future. Without a climate policy, overall electricity use also increases as the gas supply increases...In our results, only climate policies bring about a significant reduction in future CO2 emissions within the US electricity sector. Our results suggest that without strong limits on GHG emissions or policies that explicitly encourage renewable electricity, more abundant natural gas may actually slow the process of decarbonization, primarily by delaying deployment of renewable energy technologies.
I'm quoted about the study in this piece in Science magazine.  

Natural gas can be a climate stabilization tool if we much more strongly regulate its production, minimize methane emissions across the full lifecycle from production to use, and leverage its attributes to aggressively propel renewable energy deployment. We have not come close to doing any of that yet.  It's also clear that if natgas is to have a long-term role in our energy generation portfolio, it can only happen if CCS/CCUS is required.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Etown bound (personal)

I'm speaking at 11AM today at Elizabethtown College at an event that's part of their Social Justice and the Environment Week.  

Along with 2 great co-panelists, I'll discuss the relationship between environmental policy decisions and environmental activism. 

I'm looking forward to my second visit to the college.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Study - use natgas to shut down coal, but don't build new fleet of natgas power plants - UPDATED

A new study published in The Electricity Journal finds that, from the standpoint of tackling global climate disruption, while burning natural gas for electricity offers a 50 percent reduction in GHG emissions over coal, building whole new fleets of natgas-fired power plants will exacerbate the climate problem.

Natural Gas versus Coal: Is Natural Gas Better for the Climate, according to an issue brief released in conjunction with the study, finds that with methane leakage at every stage of the natural-gas lifecycle:  
under the best of circumstances, natural gas-fired electric power plants can only make a modest dent on abating climate change—and, if developed poorly, with serious methane leaks, or if used to displace energy efficiency or renewable energy, natural gas could instead seriously contribute to the problem. Over a timeframe of 100 years, natural gas with careful leak control offers some reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, these reductions are not large enough for natural gas to play an expanded role in efforts to manage GHG emissions. 
Not without requiring CCS/CCUS for natgas plants

The study goes on:
It makes sense to use excess capacity from existing natural gas plants to help shut down the United States’ aging fleet of coal plants. But investment in many more large natural gas power plants would not be sensible. New advanced gas turbines that are flexible – able to ramp up and down quickly while maintaining high efficiency – do have an important role going forward to help integrate variable renewable electricity sources like wind and solar power. But such plants are just one option in a portfolio of strategies available to handle renewables variability. A principal driver of natural gas’s contribution to climate change is leaking methane. It is important, then, that the federal government and the states should put in place stronger regulations to reduce methane leakage to close to zero—and limit other environmental impacts.
Stronger regulations on natural gas development are a must.  To win the climate battle, so, too, are energy choices that are driven by strong policies and not left to the unguided free market.

September 24, 2014 update:  Here is the full paper.  Friends - who are researchers at at Carnegie Mellon University University - have pointed out that the authors' brief - quoted in my post - uses much stronger language than the paper itself. The conclusion in the full paper is still relevant:
Natural gas proponents present it as the logical next step down the staircase of environmentally destructive energy...(M)ore than incremental progress is needed when thinking about the future of the U.S. electricity system. Moreover, while natural gas is often hailed as a cleaner alternative, the reality is more complex. The research described in this article illustrates that when there are opportunities to substitute for coal power on the margin, looking at GHG emissions alone, it likely makes sense under a wide range of circumstances. This is even before the criteria pollutant advantage of natural gas is considered. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize the difference between running current plants more intensively and building out further infrastructure. If the case for new investment in natural gas is motivated in part by GHG mitigation then it is necessary to calculate cost per ton abated and to compare this to other alternative mitigation investments. Significant leakage in the methane system may not completely eliminate the GHG benefit of new gas over coal, but it will erode the relative climate benefit of natural gas as a GHG mitigation option.
Moreover, there is an urgent need to reduce both short-term and long-term GHGs. It is not enough that gas substitution for coal does no harm in the very long run. We need to be minimizing methane emissions including leakage from the natural gas supply in order to make short-term progress in averting increasingly severe impacts from climate change. Measurable impacts and economic damage are already occurring.
My thanks to Costa Samaras and Subu Subramanian for reading, for these insights, and for educating me.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Patterns emerging

In June, the World Bank issued a report that found that tackling global climate disruption would grow the economy.

In August, MIT researchers found that the co-benefits of decarbonizing the economy - the health benefits of cleaner air that will accompany that effort - will yield huge societal savings, pay for themselves, and perhaps dwarf the costs of those policies.

Now, two new papers from influential sources have dittoed these findings.

A new report from the New Climate Economy Project finds that once the multiple benefits of measures to reduce GHG emissions are accounted for - such as the potential health gains from better local air quality - many of the costs of those policies can be reduced or eliminated.

Better Growth, Better Climate says that, to take advantage of this opportunity, the world's response to decarbonizing the economy in the next 15 years is crucial, and makes 10 key recommendations:
  1. Integrate climate into economic decisionmaking at all levels of business and government.
  2. Enter into a strong international climate agreement.
  3. Eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels, agricultural inputs, and incentives for urban sprawl.
  4. Put a price on carbon.
  5. Reduce capital costs for low-carbon infrastructure.
  6. Scale up innovation in low-carbon and climate resilience technologies.
  7. Make connected, compact cities the preferred mode of urban development.
  8. Stop deforestation by 2030.
  9. Restore at least 500 million hectares of lost or degraded forests and agricultural lands by 2030.
  10. Phase out new unabated coal plants without CCS technology in developed economies immediately and in middle-income countries by 2025.
Similarly, a new paper from the International Monetary Fund is very much along the same lines.  It finds that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth.

How Much Carbon Pricing is in Countries’ Own Interests? The Critical Role of Co-Benefits also calls for a carbon price, and says that the public health co-benefits of decarbonization tip the balance well in favor of climate action. 

Sounds hopeful - if we can muster the yet-undemonstrated capacity to develop wise climate policies.  Then there's the reality.

NCE's recommendations present a tall order even for developed countries. How tall? Global emissions of greenhouse gases jumped 2.3 percent in 2013 to record levels, according to the Global Carbon Project.  As Justin Gillis writes in this New York Times piece:
Scientists said the figures show that vastly greater efforts would be needed to get the world on a course to keep long-term global warming within tolerable limits.
At this rate, according to this NYT opinion piece from Robert N. Stavins:
The world is now on track to more than double current greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by the end of the century. This would push up average global temperatures by three to eight degrees Celsius and could mean the disappearance of glaciers, droughts in the mid-to-low latitudes, decreased crop productivity, increased sea levels and flooding, vanishing islands and coastal wetlands, greater storm frequency and intensity, the risk of species extinction and a significant spread of infectious disease.
We face an existential threat - and immense, but surmountable, political, economic, and technical challenges.  On the latter point, it's also clear from a plain reading of the NCE report and this analysis by Michael Levi that CCS/CCUS is essential to meeting our climate challenges.