Thanks to shale gas, the US is burning less coal. But the coal not used by the US is being exported to the UK, Europe and Asia, casting doubt on the overall benefits of the switch, say researchers.
The study, Has US Shale Gas Reduced CO2 Emissions, led by John Broderick from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University calculates that CO2 emissions from domestic energy use in the US have declined at the equivalent of 1.4% a year since 2005 by a total of 8.6%.
But more than half of that decline in emissions from the power sector may simply have been displaced overseas with the exported coal.
Since 2008 when shale gas started to become significant in the US, coal exports have started to increase. As the US has burned less coal, the UK, Europe and Asia have started to burn more.
“Research papers and newspaper column inches have focussed on the relative emissions from coal and gas. However, it is the total quantity of CO2 from the energy system that matters to the climate,” says Broderick.
The researchers’ findings appear to be borne out by the latest figures from the UK government, which show a nearly 60% increase in coal generation during the second quarter of the year.
Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre warns:
“The role for gas in a low carbon transition is extremely limited, with shale gas potentially diverting substantial funds away from genuinely low and zero carbon alternatives.”
The study, which was commissioned by The Co-operative, is based on several years of research and submissions to the UK and European Parliaments as well as the International Energy Agency.
“The proponents of shale gas have always claimed that it is a lower carbon alternative to coal. However, this is only true if the coal it displaces remains in the ground and isn’t just burnt elsewhere,” says Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager at The Co-operative.
For further information:
UK coal generation up 60% but renewables taking off (1-Oct)
UK coal power station closes as gas gets going (26-Sept)
Shale gas no ‘silver bullet’ for UK but will bring benefits (19-Sept)
US energy-related emissions hit 20-year low (3-Aug)
29 October 2012