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

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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Figure 1: Global natural gas supply curves in 2050.
Figure 2: Comparison of the model results 2010-2050.
Figure 3: Global energy consumption and radiative forcing in 2050.

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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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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.

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Correspondence to Haewon McJeon.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Radiative forcing composition for high fugitive methane scenarios.

a, Year 2010 and year 2050 composition of radiative forcing for the Conventional Gas scenario with high fugitive methane for five models. b, Year 2050 relative difference in radiative forcing (the Abundant Gas scenario minus the Conventional Gas scenario) all with high fugitive methane assumption for the five models. 1% difference in forcing for model average is equivalent to 0.044 W m−2. Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 Global natural gas supply curves.

The current natural gas supply curves provided by Global Energy Assessment12. Future cost reduction assumptions are documented in the Methods. Source data

Extended Data Figure 3 Natural gas supply curve sensitivity analysis.

a, Global natural gas consumption. b, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. c, Total radiative forcing. d, Global mean surface temperature change (from pre-industrial average 1750–1849). Conventional Gas and Abundant Gas denote the quantity of natural gas supply. The decimal numbers denote the fraction of cost reduction over 2010–2050. Source data

Extended Data Figure 4 Uncertainty ranges in principal components of model projections.

a, Global population. b, Global GDP. c, Total primary energy consumption. d, Fossil fuel and industrial CO2 emissions. Coloured lines are model reported values from this study. Shaded areas are ranges of projections found in the literature obtained from the IPCC AR5 database37. Source data

Extended Data Table 1 Cost reduction in low-carbon energy technologies over 2010–2050 in the Abundant Gas scenario
Extended Data Table 2 CO2 emissions in 2050 from fossil fuels and industry with standard energy market assumptions and with the coal-substitution-only assumption
Extended Data Table 3 2050 emission factors for fossil fuels in each model
Extended Data Table 4 2050 anthropogenic radiative forcing with standard fugitive methane emission assumptions and with high fugitive methane emission assumptions

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McJeon, H., Edmonds, J., Bauer, N. et al. Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas. Nature 514, 482–485 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13837

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