Change from Coal to Natural Gas Won’t Help Global Warming, New Study Finds

A new study claims that switching from coal to natural gas would not create a significant slowdown in global warning, challenging the views of natural gas proponents.

The study, set to be published in the October issue of peer-reviewed journal Climate Change Letters, argues that while the change “would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide,” it would also reduce the release of sulfates and particles that block some of the sun’s rays and cool the earth. In other words, the study says, though burning coal contributes to global warming, it also helps control it.

“This particle effect is a double-edged sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain,” said the study’s author, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Adelaide in Australia. “But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming.”

Though eventually a switch to natural gas would slightly decrease global warming, the study finds, the process would take time. A lot of time.

“Relying more on natural gas…would do little to help solve the climate problem,” said Wigley. “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.”

Indeed, Wigley’s computer models indicate that an international transition to natural gas would only slow global warming by “a few tenths of a degree” Fahrenheit. Actually, he found, it would even mildly accelerate the rate of global warming until about 2050, without methane leaks. With methane leaks, 2140.

Methane, Wigley said in a statement, is a greenhouse gas around twenty times stronger than carbon dioxide. An increased use of natural gas could create an increased risk in methane leaks, he warned.

The new study supports research done by Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth.

But not everyone agrees.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) advocates natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” or a tool that could ease our move from fossil fuels to greener energy sources. The group claims that a shift to natural gas could reduce oil consumption by 1.2 million barrels a day by 2035. 

“It is imperative that our nation continues to move away from its heavy reliance on coal. Even if the greenhouse benefits of natural gas turn out to be less than now assumed, gas is preferable because it produces fewer other pollutants compared to coal,” wrote one of CAP’s environmental experts, Tom Kenworthy, in an August 2011 article.

According to 2009 numbers from the CIA World Factbook, the United States produces an estimated 593.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, while it consumes 646.6 billion cubic meters. The graphic above displays a map of natural gas production in cubic meters by country according to November 2006 CIA World Factbook figures. (Photo Credit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Natural_gas_production_world.PNG)

However, the number of natural gas rigs in the US is slightly declining, set at 892 this week by oil service firm Baker Hughes.

But amidst the numbers and stark opinions, Wigley maintains that climate change isn’t as simple as it appears.

“From the CO2 perspective, gas is cleaner, but from the climate perspective, it gets complicated.”

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Strip_coal_mining.jpg

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