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Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas

Nature volume 514, pages 482485 (23 October 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

The most important energy development of the past decade has been the wide deployment of hydraulic fracturing technologies that enable the production of previously uneconomic shale gas resources in North America1. If these advanced gas production technologies were to be deployed globally, the energy market could see a large influx of economically competitive unconventional gas resources2. The climate implications of such abundant natural gas have been hotly debated. Some researchers have observed that abundant natural gas substituting for coal could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions3,4,5,6. Others have reported that the non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas production make its lifecycle emissions higher than those of coal7,8. Assessment of the full impact of abundant gas on climate change requires an integrated approach to the global energy–economy–climate systems, but the literature has been limited in either its geographic scope9,10 or its coverage of greenhouse gases2. Here we show that market-driven increases in global supplies of unconventional natural gas do not discernibly reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions or climate forcing. Our results, based on simulations from five state-of-the-art integrated assessment models11 of energy–economy–climate systems independently forced by an abundant gas scenario, project large additional natural gas consumption of up to +170 per cent by 2050. The impact on CO2 emissions, however, is found to be much smaller (from −2 per cent to +11 per cent), and a majority of the models reported a small increase in climate forcing (from −0.3 per cent to +7 per cent) associated with the increased use of abundant gas. Our results show that although market penetration of globally abundant gas may substantially change the future energy system, it is not necessarily an effective substitute for climate change mitigation policy9,10.

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Acknowledgements

B.F. and R.M. and their development of BAEGEM were supported by BAEconomics with assistance for special applications to the resource sector from Rio Tinto (Australia). H.M., L.C., J.E. and B.P.F. were supported by the Global Technology Strategy Project. V.K., K.R. and H.R. were supported by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis cross-cutting project on unconventional natural gas. N.B. and J.H. were supported by funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in the project ‘Economics of Climate Change’. G.M. and M.T. were supported by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research and the Italian Ministry of Environment, Land and Sea under the GEMINA project. We thank M. Jeong and E. Golman for research assistance. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone.

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Affiliations

  1. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, JGCRI, 5825 University Research Court, Suite 3500, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Haewon McJeon
    • , Jae Edmonds
    •  & Leon Clarke
  2. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, PO Box 60 12 03, D-14412 Potsdam, Germany

    • Nico Bauer
    •  & Jérôme Hilaire
  3. BAEconomics, PO Box 5447, Kingston, Australian Capital Territory 2604, Australia

    • Brian Fisher
    •  & Raymond Mi
  4. Resources for the Future, 1616 P Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20036, USA

    • Brian P. Flannery
  5. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria

    • Volker Krey
    • , Keywan Riahi
    •  & Holger Rogner
  6. Centro Euromediterraneo sui Cambiamenti Climatici and Politecnico di Milano, Via Lambruschini 4b, 20156 Milan, Italy

    • Giacomo Marangoni
    •  & Massimo Tavoni

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Contributions

H.M., J.E., L.C. and B.P.F. proposed the research design. H.R. provided the resource supply curves. H.M. and J.E. provided GCAM data and wrote the first draft of the paper. N.B. and J.H. provided REMIND data. B.F. and R.M. provided BAEGEM data. V.K. and K.R. provided MESSAGE data. G.M. and M.T. provided WITCH data. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Haewon McJeon.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13837

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