Natural Gas: Another Day, Another Carbon-Based Fuel?

I found this post by James Hrynyshyn to be very thought-provoking on the issue of natural gas being better for the environment than coal.  Environmental scientists have been busy crunching the numbers on this, and several different points of view have come out about whether natural gas is going to help reduce climate change.  Some say yes.  Some say no.  …And ome say that natural gas will actually be WORSE than coal.

How could that be?  As Hrynyshyn describes:

"…because burning coal releases lots of aerosols that hang about the atmosphere reflecting sunlight, a significant portion of the warming effect of the practice [from carbon dioxide and other emissions] is masked by a cooling effect [from reflecting sunlight]. If we stop burning coal in favor of technologies that don't involve aerosols, we lose that cooling effect. So, unless the alternative has a really, really low warming effect (something close to zero), we won't be accomplishing much."

How not much are we talking about?  According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, (and drawing from the primary paper by Tom Wigley)

… 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, 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.

…yeah.  That's a good description of "not much".

As Hrynysyn points out, this paints a bleak picture for any of the so-called "stop-gap" fuels between coal and zero-emissions power sources like solar/wind/nuclear.


If getting off of coal (and oil to a similar but lesser degree) means we lose a significant cooling effect, then whatever new technologies we choose have to be squeaky clean, not just marginal improvements. Carbon capture and sequestration, for example, will have to function at near-perfect efficiencies of more than 90%, which is a bit higher than what some researchers say is realistic.

The same logic applies to any modest emissions-reduction strategy. If, as seems to be case, we only have a few decades to get with the program, then we don't have the luxury of time or physics to ease ourselves off fossil fuels. We have to go cold turkey.

A sad thought, as the more I look at how LONG it's taking us to get with the program (ie, how many wind/solar/nuclear plants are going up in your neck of the woods?), the more I'm afraid that we're missing the boat.

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