Climate Game Changers

By Keith Kloor | May 20, 2013 8:25 am

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.

Coal IEA

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.

  • Steve Crook

    In some respects I think that the fact the the carbon intensity hasn’t changed much over the last 20 years could, possibly, be construed as good news. Given the rapid industrialisation of India, China and several other countries over that period it’s amazing that it’s not increased significantly.

    I’d agree that the best thing we could do is to stop burning coal, that shale gas offers us the best route to doing that and that the hair shirt greens are a threat to us all…

  • jh

    In other news, a new paper by many IPCC lead authors in Nature Geoscience indicates a climate sensitivity value of about 2.0°C – substantially lower than previous IPCC estimates. Judith Curry has a nice piece on the new paper.

    http://judithcurry.com/2013/05/19/mainstreaming-ecs-2-c/

    • Steve Crook

      James Annan has some interesting comments on the paper http://julesandjames.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/more-on-that-recent-sensitivity-paper.html

      It sounds like he’s unimpressed with the spin that Dr Otto and others have put on the results. The BBC seems to be pretty unquestioning http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22567023

      • Keith Kloor

        Yeah, I’m following that news. Seems blog post worthy.

      • Buddy199

        The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that the short-term temperature rise would most likely be 1-3C (1.8-5.4F).

        But in this new analysis, by only including the temperatures from the last decade, the projected range would be 0.9-2.0C.

        ——-

        So, long story short, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

      • jh

        Annan is pointing out that the paper’s statements (they say their new results don’t really affect long term projections of temperature increases) are at odds with it’s own results and data, as well as with the growing number of papers estimating sensitivity.

        The BBC article is heavily slanted. It avoids mentioning that the primary estimate of equilibrium sensitivity has fallen from 3°C to 2°C. It also states that the new estimates are derived from only the last decade. This isn’t true – they are consistent with new estimates for the last 40 years presented in the same paper.

        Despite the statements in the paper, ECS of 2°C effectively eliminates the “catastrophic” part of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.

        • Steve Crook

          I think the paper is good news. As you say, it *should* contribute to burying the whole ‘catastrophic climate change’ meme.

          I’m not holding my breath however, because there are too many reputations (political, journalistic and scientific) that are on the line for this to be accepted without a fight.

          While I dislike the watermelon analogy, it’s true that, for many, this is as much about a political/philosophical world view as it is about actual science, and such opinions are not going to be swayed by science when it conflicts with those views.

          The uncritical stance of the BBC on the policy implications of climate change is pretty shameful.

    • Tom Scharf

      The curious paradox is whether this is considered to be good news or bad news to the greens. Mostly they hate news like this, which I have never quite figured out. They have gone “all in” on doom and gloom, so this emotional investment tends to have priority over the planet being saved by not ever having been in danger.

  • Buddy199

    The perfect is the enemy of the good. Ideologues never seem to understand that.

  • http://twitter.com/CountCarbon Robert Wilson

    There are some reasons for caution here.

    First there is a very important distinction between shale gas in the US in China. The US emissions cuts from shale are more or less entirely due to running existing gas power plants more often. Fuel switching on that scale in China is impossible, simply due to a lack of gas plants. So, they will have to fracking operations plus gas power plants to get things moving.

    China’s awful death rate due to coal mining should also give us pause (over one hundred times higher than in the US). Questions still remain around methane emissions from US shale gas operations, and you would be pretty naive to assume that China will get this issue under control right away.

    That being said if it was a straight choice between coal and shale gas in China you would have to go with shale gas, even if the nutty utterings of Josh Fox are correct.

    • Keith Kloor

      Robert,

      All good points. About the methane issue–all the more reason why it’s so important that China the right technology.

      • Matt B

        If reducing carbon emissions is the goal, the right technology in nuclear…..

      • kdk33

        Gee Keith, these technologies did not fall from the sky. They were developed over many years and at high cost.

        Before you hand over other peoples money, let’s start with you sending your paycheck to the Chinese. As a show of good faith and all….

    • Steve Crook

      Given the rate at which China is building new infrastructure I doubt construction will be an issue. Replacing all planned coal plants with equivalent gas capacity would be a good place to begin.

      Sadly, I don’t think that the death rate in Chinas coal mines will mean much to their government unless it stops people becoming coal miners.

      Probably is a straight choice between coal and shale, nothing else will deliver the required capacity increase in the same time.

    • jh

      “Questions still remain around methane emissions from US shale gas operations”

      False. The “questions” are posed by people actively seeking to undermine shale gas and they’re created specifically for that purpose. In reality, the questions have been answered. Some people just don’t want to accept that. I think there’s plenty of evidence of denial among the environmental community. After all, they’re still claiming that it’s the FF lobby that’s preventing action on climate change – as opposed to the increasingly clear science that climate change will have little impact, and the fact that climate change policies that have thus far been suggested will have very large – and destructive – economic impact.

      Giving away our edge in FF production to China is just about the stupidest thing we can do. Amazing that anyone would suggest it, but Greens never stop searching for a way to grab other people’s money and funnel it to themselves. No shame.

  • Nullius in Verba

    China could simply hire American drilling firms to do it for them.

    Although actually, it sounds like what they’re really saying is that in China they don’t have a bunch of environmentalists standing in the way of progress, and they can go ahead with development at full speed, (which sounds like an excellent idea to me, but which is apparently terribly bad for some reason). Given that keen American firms are themselves being held back by the EPA, I rather think that if the US firms went over there they’d soon be dropping a lot of the precautions, too. That’s not going to work.

    So what you’re really asking for is not that we share our drilling technology, but that we share our environmentalist protesters. We urgently need to ship a few thousand environmentalists over to China, (where they will enjoy the novel experience of being “right wing”) to help the Chinese regulate and shut down their nascent gas industry to Western standards.

    Wasn’t Richard Windsor of the EPA recently looking for a new job? It sounds like the ideal post!

    I can’t see anything wrong with this plan…

    • Tom Scharf

      My guess is McKibben will run into bureaucratic problems getting a visa to China. You know, paperwork problems, etc.

  • Skeptic

    The biosphere is responding extremely well to the enhanced CO2 in the atmosphere with an overall increase in biomass of 7% in the last 5 years alone worldwide. Warming of the planet is far more beneficial than cooling and all the latest peer-reviewed papers and results from actual studies such as ERBE show that the disaster scenarios assumed by a climate sensitivity of 4 degrees are way way off the mark. The models predicted much more warming yet the earth’s temperature has flatlined for the last 17 years. The sky isn’t falling.

  • xuyf

    The auto engine system is a decisive factor in vehicle’s performance. The spark plugs and ignition distributor are major components of gasoline engine. We’d better change the spark plugs for at a time. The car turbocharger makes for air intake and exhaust. And the air filter can affect the performance of internal combustion engine.

  • David Young

    Keith, You are absolutely right on the money with this one

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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