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Fracking = Wrong Way Forward for Climate

'High hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided,' says study co-author

Switching from coal to natural gas is no panacea for climate change, researchers say. (Photo: Jakob Huber/Campact/flickr/cc)

A global energy approach that adopts the kind of natural gas boom currently underway in the U.S. is "misguided" and a path towards further climate change, new research shows.

The finding, based on projections from five research groups from Germany, the U.S., Austria, Italy and Australia, was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Natural gas—booming in the United as a result of fracking technology—has been touted as a "bridge fuel" and embraced by the Obama administration as part of his "all of his all of the above energy strategy." But the new analysis shows that it is not a viable path towards addressing climate change.

Though natural gas produces fewer CO2 emissions than coal, the researchers' projected scenarios of 2050 based on integrated energy–economy–climate systems models revealed that increased use of natural gas could actually lead to as much as ten percent higher CO2 emissions.

The problem, the researchers found, is that the boom would lead to lower costs, causing displacement not only of coal but also of renewable energy; further, the lower energy costs could lead to more overall energy use. Lastly, the methane—a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2—released from the production and distribution of natural gas would add to climate change.

"The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating," explained co-author Nico Bauer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. "The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply."

Rather than shifting towards increased natural gas production, what is needed are effective climate policies, they found.

"Global deployment of advanced natural gas production technology could double or triple the global natural gas production by 2050, but greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow in the absence of climate policies that promote lower carbon energy sources," stated lead author Haewon McJeon of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Previous studies have also pointed to climate change worsening from natural gas as a result of its methane emissions and its displacement of renewable energy investments, and critics have pointed to the "insanity" of trying to solve a fossil fuel-created crisis with more fossil fuels.

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