Climate change infographic

Climate change infographic

This infographic came my way via Learnstuff and it looked interesting. I have a love-hate relationship with infographics and this one evokes the same feelings of “I really appreciate the effort someone put into this and it looks great” vs. “how is this going to influence our policy makers, or create the intensity (read this link, it’s really good stuff by David Roberts of Grist) that is required to foster the system change we need”?


US CO2 Emissions down due to Natural Gas. GHG Emissions? Not so fast!

US CO2 Emissions down due to Natural Gas. GHG Emissions? Not so fast!

Let the celebrations begin!!

In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the U.S. has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal

via Associated Press.

Coal is evil, for many reasons, natural gas is less evil, but don’t tout its climate benefits, it has none.

While natural gas is a much cleaner burning fuel, and its mining is less harmful than coal’s, there’s a big variable that doesn’t get discussed very often in the media, its leakage during mining, processing and transport. Methane is 25 times more potent (pdf) than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. So, it would seem that knowing how much escapes into the atmosphere would be a fairly important variable.

It is very easy to estimate CO2 emissions from burning natural gas, it is much more difficult to measure fugitive and diffuse emissions from natural gas, fracking or otherwise. After all, the emissions occur at industrial sites controlled by drilling companies who have no interest in releasing that data. Also, it is site, and technique dependent. A conscientious driller may be able to avoid most leaks, but where’s the motivation? Natural gas is very abundant, and the price it is selling at demands high volume production and low margins. No need to plug the leaks, just the whole thing flow.

The scientific community and environmental community is well aware that comparing natural gas and coal is not as simple as looking at CO2 emissions.  Methane and CO2 also have different lifetimes in the atmosphere, with methane being shorter lived, but forcing more intensely. The short-term and long term prognoses are therefore very different. Three separate papers (see references) have looked at this issue and concluded that natural gas is no panacea.  Alvarez et al still espouses natural gas as a bridge fuel, but Howarth et al and Wigley are less optimistic.

Here’s a nice image from Wigley’s paper that shows the consequences of switching from coal to natural gas once all factors are taken into account:

It’s all about Methane leakage

Note that under all scenarios, even under zero leakage, natural gas use actually causes an increase in short-medium term climate forcing. Why? Dirty burning coal also puts out enough sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to create fine particles that reflect incoming sunlight and cancel out some warming. It takes until 2050 at least for climate forcing from natural gas to start showing benefits over coal. Even then, the benefits are not sufficient to fight climate change. Wigley estimates that the change is 0.1°C “out to at least 2100”, big whoop.

So, what exactly might the leakage rate be? Industry and the US Environmental Protection Agency estimate it at 2% or less. When Pétron et al. went around measuring it around Denver, they measured it at 4%, with pretty high uncertainty, which makes natural gas fairly useless for fighting climate change.

It is troubling that people treat this transition to natural gas so cavalierly. One doesn’t even need to look at all the problems arising from fracking for natural gas use to be no panacea. There is some evidence that natural gas investment is also driving out wind and solar energy investment. Here in BC, our wonderful Premier Christy Clark declared that natural gas was clean energy as far as the government’s policy framework was concerned. The opposition, and government-in-waiting NDP also thinks natural gas is clean. This is disturbing, and very shortsighted.

What I say is not new, Joe Romm put it well “Natural Gas is a bridge to nowhere“, unless a very high carbon price is established (I don’t see one today, do you?).


  1. Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. “Methane and the Greenhouse-gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations.” Climatic Change 106, no. 4 (April 12, 2011): 679–690.
  2. Wigley, Tom. “Coal to Gas: The Influence of Methane Leakage.” Climatic Change 108, no. 3 (2011): 601–608.
  3. Alvarez, Ramón A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, William L. Chameides, and Steven P. Hamburg. “Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 9, 2012).
  4. Pétron, Gabrielle, Gregory Frost, Benjamin R. Miller, Adam I. Hirsch, Stephen A. Montzka, Anna Karion, Michael Trainer, et al. “Hydrocarbon emissions characterization in the Colorado Front Range: A pilot study.” Journal of Geophysical Research 117, no. D4 (February 21, 2012): D04304.

Bridge to Nowhere featured image courtesy GarlandCannon Flickr Photostream used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Obama and Harper, saving a tree

Canada hopes to achieve a North American climate-change deal with U.S. president-elect Barack Obama and will begin working on the file within weeks, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Wednesday.Meantime, officials told The Canadian Press the Harper government has been waiting for the departure of President George W. Bush to work with his successor on an integrated carbon market.While states and provinces have been cobbling together a patchwork of approaches, federal officials said they have been eyeing a continent-wide solution for some time. Canada to seek climate deal with Obama

Interesting and potentially promising news. I have thought for a while that Canada would have no choice but to start some kind of emissions cap/trade or carbon tax, given the way the wind was blowing down south. Harper, for all his reliance on Alberta’s oil votes, realises that with or without his say, the country’s leading trading partner is going to impose a carbon tax (a cap and trade is a price on carbon, or a tax, semantics aside) on Canadian-US trade.

It is also interesting that this statement came out right after Obama’s election, and the foreign minister went out of his way to say that they were waiting for Bush to get out of the way. Nice cozying up, Harper, making up for all your stupid previous statements about Obama. But do not worry, this new emperor is more gracious than the previous one!

We are going to be living in interesting times, good ones, finally.

Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law

The threat of global warming is so great that campaigners were justified in causing more than £35,000 worth of damage to a coal-fired power station, a jury decided yesterday. In a verdict that will have shocked ministers and energy companies the jury at Maidstone Crown Court cleared six Greenpeace activists of criminal damage.Jurors accepted defence arguments that the six had a “lawful excuse” to damage property at Kingsnorth power station in Kent to prevent even greater damage caused by climate change. The defence of “lawful excuse” under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 allows damage to be caused to property to prevent even greater damage – such as breaking down the door of a burning house to tackle a fire.

Cleared: Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law – Climate Change, Environment – The Independent

In England, mind you, not some “lawless” country. This is a crazy verdict, and a very interesting statute. By the same token, should the people in low lying areas in Bangladesh be held liable for sabotaging huge coal powered plants in India and China? I am sure they would!

Also, removing graffiti costs 35,000 pounds? Can I get that job?