Environment

Climate Game Changers

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 20, 2013 12:25 PM

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In a recent report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) lamented:

The picture is as clear as it is disturbing: the carbon intensity of the global energy supply has barely changed in 20 years, despite successful efforts in deploying renewable energy.

Another fact, noted in the IEA's report, will disturb anyone concerned about climate change:

The unremitting rise in global coal demand for power generation continued in 2012. Global coal-fired power generation is estimated to have increased by around 6% between 2010 and 2012, building on strong growth over the past few years...China and, to a lesser extent, India continue to play a key role in driving demand growth. China’s coal consumption represented 46.2% of global coal demand in 2011; India’s share was 10.8%, up 7% and 9% respectively on 2010 levels.

Worldwide, coal accounts for 43% of CO2 emissions. Reducing that number is key to reducing the severity of global warming. Yet global demand for coal shows no sign of slowing in the near-term future, as this IEA graph makes clear.

What could potentially head off this disaster is China switching from coal to natural gas, Elizabeth Muller argued last month in a New York Times op-ed. As she wrote:

A modern natural gas plant emits between one-third and one-half of the carbon dioxide released by coal for the same amount of electric energy produced. China has the potential to unearth large amounts of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing. In 2011, the United States Energy Information Administration estimated that China had “technically recoverable” reserves of 1.3 quadrillion cubic feet, nearly 50 percent more than the United States.

So China could potentially do what the United States has done with respect to its carbon emissions. That would obviously be good for the air in China and the world's climate. It would also be good for the United States (geopolitically speaking), Steve LeVine recently said:

It is indisputably in the interest of the US—the possessor of the world’s most cutting-edge hydraulic fracturing technology—for China to successfully and rapidly develop its shale gas, and to turn down the coal furnaces.

But as Muller observed in her NYT piece, China lacks the expertise to drill safely:

The risk is that what is now a nascent Chinese shale gas industry may take off in a way that leads to ecological disaster. Many of the purchasers of drilling rights in recent Chinese auctions are inexperienced.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria, in a weekend commentary, echoed these concerns, while also promoting the climate benefits of a China transition from coal to gas:

Beijing is going to try and mine these [shale gas] reserves in every way it can. But many experts worry that China lacks the experience and technology to frack effectively. As important, it really has no understanding of how to frack safely. Here in the United States, we have environmentalists and a free press to push authorities to regulate and monitor this very new industry. China, on the other hand, may not have the same checks and balances. This is why the United States needs to share its expertise, not keep it secret.

This is all starting to sound like another call for a bridge to a low-carbon future. Will that resonate within the environmental community? Possibly. Or not. Regardless, the shale gas revolution has scrambled the climate and energy equation in ways that anti-fracking greens have yet to grasp, much less accept. *This post has been revised to add additional information and for clarity purposes.

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