Friday, 11 October 2013

CO2, fracking, and fig leaves

Supporters of fracking – and the increased use of natural gas in general – frequently assert that burning gas produces fewer CO2 emissions than burning coal.  It’s one of those statements which is the truth and nothing but the truth - but it isn’t really the whole truth, particularly when presented in such a way as to suggest that it in any way “solves” the CO2 problem.
It isn’t emissions per se which cause the problem (or potential problem, for those still not entirely convinced).  It is, rather, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.  If the earth’s systems – or even man-made systems – could maintain that concentration at a stable level within the right range, we could burn all the coal we like, with complete impunity.  (Well, not quite of course – CO2 isn’t the only problem with coal, but for the sake of an argument, let’s suppose that it is the only thing to worry about the moment.)
But those systems cannot achieve that; and whilst there is still scope for some debate about the impact of an increase in CO2 levels, there are two facts which are not seriously disputed at all.  The first is that CO2 levels are rising; and the second is that burning fossil fuels by mankind is responsible for at least part of that increase.
We know that burning coal and oil adds to CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  We also know that burning methane adds to CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  It may add less, but it is still a net addition to atmospheric CO2. What those advocating fracking and a wider switch to gas are supporting is no more than slowing the rate of increase in atmospheric CO2.  It is not about stabilising that level, and they don’t always seem to understand that key difference themselves.
Is it better to increase the level slowly rather than quickly?  Well, yes – although I’d use the phrase ‘less bad’ rather than better.  And if the choice is limited to ‘bad’ or ‘not quite so bad’, then it makes sense to choose the ‘not quite so bad’.  What we must not do though is to allow people to frame the debate as if these were the only two options.  It’s a typical politician’s trick; but it diverts attention and discussion away from other options by effectively removing them from sight.
Ultimately, the argument for fracking comes down to it providing jobs and adding to GDP whilst being less damaging than coal.  It’s also a fig leaf behind which politicians who know that burning fossil fuels is a problem, but want to oppose wind farms, can hide.  But a renewables based energy policy will provide even more jobs and might actually start to address the real issue.  We need to keep that real alternative in plain sight.  And take away the fig leaf.


Ioan said...

From Wikipedia (so must be true...!)

There is a table for: Lifecycle greenhouse gas emission estimates for electricity generators:

Technology description ...... Estimate (g CO2/kWhe)
Wind 2.5 MW offshore ...... 9
Hydroelectric 3.1 MW reservoir ...... 10
Wind 1.5 MW onshore ...... 10
Biogas Anaerobic digestion ...... 11
Hydroelectric 300 kW run-of-river ...... 13
Solar thermal 80 MW parabolic trough ...... 13
Biomass various ...... 14-35
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon ...... 32
Geothermal 80 MW hot dry rock ...... 38
Nuclear various reactor types ...... 66
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines ...... 443
Fuel Cell hydrogen from gas reforming ...... 664
Diesel various generator and turbine types ...... 778
Heavy oil various generator and turbine types ...... 778
Coal various generator types with scrubbing ...... 960
Coal various generator types without scrubbing ...... 1050

It does explain why CO2 produced in Germany is going up, while CO2 produced in the USA is going down... One is replacing Nuclear with Wind and coal, and the other is replacing coal with gas.

John Dixon said...

Let's assume that Wikipedia is indeed true. Your point seems to boil down to nothing more than that countries which build coal fired power stations will produce more emissions per Kwh than countries which build gas fired power stations. Well, yes, of course, and that was a point that I made in the original post. But countries which build only reneweable power stations will produce less than either.

The choice really isn't restricted to gas or coal. And, to repeat the point in the original post, the real issue isn't about 'reducing' emissions, it's about stabilising or reducing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Merely slowing the rate of increase won't do.

G Horton-Jones said...

Surely the main point is that we are in the main consuming finite global resources at an infinite rate
The focus should therefore be on consumption control not on increasing the rate of consumption by other means
The planet is already adjusting to higher Co2 levels just as we will have to or perish

View the planet as our life boat in the universe. for us there is no option B.

In a lifeboat would you be wanting to go faster or would you want to fix the leak