UK unveils Office of unconventional gas & oil – another nail in the climate change coffin?

As the UK government establishes an Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, Secretary of State for energy and climate change (Ed Davey) claims shale gas development is compatible with the UK’s international 2°C commitments; Tyndall Centre researchers disagree!

Yesterday (11 March 2013) I attended an event in Westminster with the title Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil: scoping the incentives and barriers to the development of unconventional gas and oil in the UK.

The event was invite only and included a breadth of opinion, though I got the strong impression that it was dominated by those broadly in favour of shale gas development, but certainly a light peppering of more dissenting voices was also evident.

The brief workshop element of the day was bounded by an opening address from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, and brought to a close by the ever-affable DECC minister John Hayes. Whilst both politicians made the appropriate noises about balancing environmental concerns with the needs of the UK economy, jobs, etc., the delegates were left in no doubt that the UK Government had already decided to proceed with shale gas – albeit within an appropriate, but not too burdensome, regulatory regime.

Given the Secretary of State had made considerable play of how his ministerial portfolio included climate change as well as energy, I enquired of the minister “if it could be demonstrated conclusively that the UK’s international, and I emphasise international, commitments on 2°C could not be reconciled with the UK’s development of shale gas, would the government establish a moratorium on shale gas exploration or renege on its international 2°C commitments?”

The response was lengthy and not one I could fully follow, but nevertheless the central message was clear – we can meet our legally binding climate change targets (under the 2008 Climate Change Act) and develop a thriving UK shale gas industry; we can have our cake and eat it. Ed Davey finished his response by saying he had asked David McKay (the DECC chief scientist) about the shale and carbon issues, and he had subsequently not been made aware of any evidence that demonstrated shale gas extraction and the UK’s climate change obligations were incompatible.

John Broderick, I and other Tyndall colleagues have, for over two years, repeated our conclusions that the UK’s international 2°C commitments are quantitatively and unambiguously incompatible with UK shale gas development. We have made this point at numerous industry, government, EU and civil society events, as well as explicit evidence sessions with the UK parliament’s Energy and Climate Change committee, EU parliament hearings, with the Welsh Assembly Government’s cabinet and at an International Energy Agency evidence session.

In the end the pivotal difference between the position of the Secretary of State and our conclusions arises from the reasonableness or otherwise of our different sets of starting assumptions.

The UK’s national position under the Climate Change Act, is for a 63% of exceeding 2°C; global emissions reaching a peak around 2016; China peaking around 2017; and the rest of the poorer nations a year or two later. Moreover, it assumes that the wealthy part of the world takes no responsibility for emissions from deforestation – despite the UK having deforested itself – and it requires highly optimistic assumptions about the cumulative emissions budget of non-greenhouse gases from food. If all this is considered reasonable, then there is a small and very short-lived opportunity for UK shale gas development – but even with such highly partisan assumptions, shale gas development would rapidly become a stranded asset.

By contrast John, my and colleagues work takes the Government’s repeated international commitment for the UK to make its equitable contribution to staying below a 2°C rise at face value. We work on the premise that when the UK Prime Minister reiterated this commitment at the G8 event in Camp David just ten months ago he was being clear, direct and honest about his intentions for the UK. Consequently, we do not hold that Government’s inequitable distribution of emissions for a 63% of exceeding 2°C is an appropriate reflection of the Prime minister’s and the UK’s stated obligations.

Borrowing from the IPCC’s taxonomy of ‘likelihoods’ we take the view that PM’s language represents, at most, a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C. However, given where we are in 2013, we choose a much laxer probability of around 40% allied with a global peak in emissions of 2020, with poorer nations, on average, peaking by 2025 and with deforestation emissions accounted for as a global overhead. We argue that, though challenging, these assumptions are much more appropriate than the unsupportable starting point of the Government’s analysis. Allying our assumptions with the PM’s express commitment on 2°C delivers an uncompromising and unambiguous conclusion – their is no emissions space for shale gas in the UK’s national carbon budgets and emission pathways – and consequently, the only appropriate place for shale gas remains in the ground.

In Brief our arguments revolve around four main points:

Shale gas is the same as natural gas – it is a high carbon fuel, with around 75% of its mass made up of carbon. For the UK and other wealthy nations shale gas cannot be a transition fuel to a low-carbon future – anyone who says differently does not understand our explicit international commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun and Camp David Agreements  – or, alternatively, is bad at maths. 

The UK’s commitment to make our fair contribution to reduce emissions in line with keeping global warming below a 2°C rise gives a very clear global carbon budget – and hence a UK budget – i.e., how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere over this century. Here the maths is unambiguous – we have insufficient budget for the carbon we are already emitting and by the time shale gas is produced in any quantity (five to ten years) there will be no emissions space left for it. The maths is that simple, even if the conclusion is not what we want to hear. 

Another fundamental mistake made by many experts on shale gas is that they assume it is lower carbon than coal, but this is valid only if we don’t burn the coal! In a world that is hungry for energy, any UK shale gas used here will mean we import less gas and coal – gas and coal that will simply be burnt elsewhere. The climate does not care from which country the carbon comes from – so burn shale gas here and UK emissions may go down but global emissions will go up. Shale gas is another high carbon fossil fuel – it just adds to the problem – in the absence of a stringent limit on total carbon emissions it will not substitute for coal.

 Finally, even if the technology of ‘carbon capture and storage’ can be made to work with gas – the level of emissions reductions will not be enough to meet our international carbon commitments. In the UK and globally we are now reaping the reward of a decade of hypocrisy and self delusion on climate change. We pretend we are doing something ourselves, whilst blaming others for rising emissions. The truth is out – it is a tragedy of the commons par excellence – we are all to blame and we have left it too late for a technical fix. We are heading towards a global temperature rise of 4°C to 6°C this century; if we want to get off this trajectory shale gas needs to stay in the ground and we, in the wealthy world, need to consume much less energy – now!

NB: Whilst the arguments above are developed for shale gas specifically, they similarly apply to any new fossil fuel resources being developed in the wealthier OECD nations. Early signs are that we’ll soon be battling for rights to drill under the Arctic; the referendum in the Falklands was as much about access to oil as it was about citizenship; and the Canadian’s are merrily disregarding their wilderness in favour of tar sands. We are delusional if we think such activity is compatible with ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’ – however well regulated! Like it or not, the only way to get off the accelerating emissions curve is to radically reduce energy demand, to keep fossil fuels in the ground – and to do both within a guiding framework of equity.

For further reading on shale gas from Tyndall, see:

A summary of the argument is within the:
Tyndall submission to the Energy and Climate Change committee.

A more detailed account is available in:
Shale gas:an updated assessment of the environmental & climate change impacts (chapter 3 for the climate change focus)

An example of how shale gas is likely to be add to global fossil fuel reserves and not be a substitute for coal can be found at:
Has US shale gas reduced CO2 emissions?