May 2014. This short commentary is a response to the climate change chapter of the House of Lords economic affairs committee report on shale gas and oil.
When it comes to climate change, the latest House of Lords report is yet another in a long line of eloquent obfuscations rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic rather than grasping the wheel and urgently steering a different course.
Just last year the IPCC published its authoritative scientific report outlining the cumulative budgets that accompany the UK (and international community’s) commitment “to hold the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity”. Yet despite such unequivocal and repeated commitments, alongside our rapidly dwindling carbon budget, the Lords’ report retreats to the numerical fog of efficiency, comparable carbon footprints and other such distractions. These have nothing to do with climate change! Society today is many times more efficient and our carbon emissions per unit of energy much lower then they were forty years ago – yet our emissions are almost 250% higher.
Climate change is a cumulative issue – it is about the build up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The 2°C threshold between dangerous and acceptable climate change comes with a carbon budget; i.e. how much CO2 we can emit into the atmosphere. If the report was to exchange some of its eloquence for scientific rigour it would become immediately obvious that shale gas development and use in the UK (or any other wealthy industrialised nation) is neither “consistent with science” nor “on the basis of equity”.
More disturbing still, is the committee’s selective reading of Professor David MacKay’s report on shale gas (for DECC). Whilst they repeatedly emphasise MacKay’s reasoned conclusion that shale gas likely has a lower carbon footprint than both liquefied natural gas (LNG) and coal, they completely ignored his rug-pulling comment that “If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.” MacKay reiterated this point in his evidence to the Committee (see p.353-4) – evidence they chose to ignore in favour of drawing attention to the politically expedient framing of relative emissions. But, however it is played, shale gas is natural gas, comprising 75% carbon and so when combusted emits copious quantities of carbon dioxide.
There may be many arguments for the development of shale gas in the UK (assuming large quantities are there to be extracted), but that, as the Lords’ committee conclude, it is “compatible with the UK’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” is disingenuous at best. Shale gas is categorically not compatible with the UK’s obligation to make its fair contribution to avoiding the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change – the maths on this are clear and unambiguous. In that regard it is certainly not a transition fuel and if we are serious about our explicit climate change commitments the only appropriate place for shale gas remains deep underground.
As I have noted previously, the four arguments that are repeatedly misused (including by the Lords’ committee) to support the industry are that shale gas …:
- … has lower emissions than coal. This is true only if the coal displaced by shale gas remains in the ground and is not combusted elsewhere.
- … offers the prospect of low-carbon energy. Gas is a high carbon energy source, emitting half the quantity of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated as the worst and dirtiest energy source we know, coal. Half the worst is still very high emissions.
- … is a transition fuel to a low-carbon future. Even the shale gas industry acknowledges that it will not produce significant quantities of shale gas before around 2025, by which time our international commitments on climate change would not permit it to be combusted in any significant quantities.
- … with CCS can be a “destination fuel”. Even if the technology of ‘carbon capture and storage’ can be made to work with gas, the level of emissions (at least 80gCO2/kWh) remains too high to make any significant contribution towards meeting the UK’s 2°C commitments (NB. with CCS, gas is still 5-10x higher than both renewables and nuclear).
Kevin Anderson (and his colleague John Broderick) have written extensively on shale gas and climate change, have given evidence at various UK and EU parliamentary hearings, presented their work at a range of industry conferences, and recently were invited to peer-review the UK Government’s 2013 Shale gas review.
For further commentary on shale gas, see:
Tyndall submission to the House of Lords select committee on economic affairs
UK commitments on climate change incompatible with a national shale gas industry
A brief comment on the recent Total Oil announcement of its plans to invest in UK shale & the PM’s and Energy Minister’s responses.
Tyndall submission to the Energy and Climate Change committee.
UK unveils Office of unconventional gas & oil – another nail in the climate change coffin
A quick response to the inception of the government’s Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil
Shale gas: an updated assessment of the environmental & climate change impacts
A more detailed account of the climate change issues is given in chapter 3
Has US shale gas reduced CO2 emissions?
A report suggesting shale gas is likely to add to global fossil fuel reserves and not be a substitute for coal.
Shale gas and avoiding dangerous climate change
A slide show on shale gas recently presented at a Chatham House shale gas summit and later at an ‘all party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas’ seminar (in the House of Commons)