Phasing out coal-based energy for cleaner-burning gas will offer benefits that ‘outweigh’ the dangers associated with fracking, a new study has concluded.
A shift to natural gas will be key to helping countries meet their climate change targets and is less risky than sticking with coal, suggests the study, led by the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) in Japan.
The study, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, will prove challenging for opponents of fracking, a gas exploration technique that has long been controversial due to its potential health and environmental impacts.
However, the study’s authors stressed that a global move towards the use of natural gas should not serve as ‘the end goal’, but merely a bridge towards more sustainable energy systems.
Katsumasa Tanaka, a senior climate risk researcher at the NIES, said: ‘Many previous studies were somewhat ambivalent about the climate benefits of the coal-to-gas shift.
‘Our study makes a stronger case for the climate benefits that would result from this energy transition, because we carefully chose metrics to evaluate the climate impacts in light of recent advances in understanding metrics.’
‘Given the current political situation, we deliver a much-needed message to help facilitate the energy shift away from coal under the Paris Agreement,’ Tanaka added. ‘However, natural gas is not an end goal; we regard it as a bridge fuel toward more sustainable forms of energy in the long run as we move toward decarbonization.’
The study examined the impacts of a variety of direct and indirect emissions from the transition from coal to gas, focusing on global power generators such as China, Germany, India and the United States.
It found that natural gas power plants have smaller short- and long-term impacts than coal power plants, even when the risks of methane leakage, greenhouse gases and other air pollutants were considered.
Sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and black carbon – all of which can be emitted by natural gas power plants – were among the short-lived climate pollutants considered by the study.
Tanaka said the study’s conclusion that the benefits of natural gas outweigh the possible risks was ‘robust’ when it came to methane leakage and emissions.
However, he added that future studies could consider the other environmental impacts of a move to natural gas power, such as the increased risk of earthquakes associated with fracking.
‘Air quality is not part of our analysis, but including it would likely strengthen our conclusion,’ said Tanaka. ‘Other environmental effects, such as drinking water contamination and induced seismic activities, could also add important dimensions to the debate.’
The study is part of a growing line of scientific literature that stresses the world’s need to phase out coal-based energy in order to combat climate change.
China – the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal – was recently criticised after it was revealed to have failed in its goal to reduce methane emissions from coal mining.