Natural gas provides only a “short and narrow bridge” to a low-carbon future – John Reilly

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer John Reilly

From The Energy Collective

The oil industry is pinning its hopes on natural gas. To hear oil executives tell it, natural gas is a veritable “bridge between a fossil fuel past and a carbon-free future,” as Bloomberg News put it recently.

It’s a story that makes sense on its face: natural gas emits about one-half of the carbon dioxide of coal and about three-quarters that of gasoline. Power plants can get more electricity per BTU of natural gas than coal, giving it a further advantage. And in an electric vehicle world, the future of gas could look bright.

But natural gas is not our climate savior. The fuel—which consists primarily of methane—is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is by no means carbon-free. For regions of the world potentially new to gas, expensive investments in pipeline or ocean transport and distribution infrastructure are required.

At best, any “bridge” that the fuel provides to a future where zero-carbon-producing power generation technologies take over is short and narrow. True, gas generation may help firm up intermittent renewables, but the goal would be to operate these as little as possible, minimizing the use of gas. And yes, gas could come back with success of carbon capture and storage (CCS), but advances in this technology have so far not panned out.

Are big investments in new gas infrastructure worth it if fully utilized for only 20 years or so? The gas bridge is getting shorter and narrower as we delay serious action on fighting climate change.

In 2015, delegates from 195 nations—including the U.S.—reached a landmark accord in Paris committing nearly every country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of the pact is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. The Earth has already warmed 1 degree since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution when humans began burning fossil fuels. (Technically the U.S. withdrew from the climate pact in June, but under the rules of the deal, the earliest any country can exit is November 2020. That means the U.S. will remain a party to the agreement for the next three years and just about all of President Trump’s current term. In any event,  devising an aggressive climate policy involves looking beyond any one administration.)

So what is our best hope of achieving that 2-degree target? How can we optimize that short and narrow bridge to the future?

Read the full post at The Energy Collective.

John Reilly is the co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *