Reducing CO2 emissions through a shift from coal to natural gas power plants is a key strategy to support pathways for climate stabilization. However, methane leakage in the natural gas supply chain and emissions of a variety of climate forcers call the net benefits of this transition into question. Here, we integrated a life cycle inventory model with multiple global and regional emission metrics and investigated the impacts of representative coal and gas power plants in China, Germany, India and the United States. We found that the coal-to-gas shift is consistent with climate stabilization objectives for the next 50–100 years. Our finding is robust under a range of leakage rates and uncertainties in emissions data and metrics. It becomes conditional to the leakage rate in some locations only if we employ a set of metrics that essentially focus on short-term effects. Our case for the coal-to-gas shift is stronger than previously found, reinforcing the support for coal phase-out.
Access optionsAccess options
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $17.75 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on request.
The computer codes used to generate the results presented in this study are available from the corresponding author on request.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Edenhofer, O. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) 33–107 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).
Faramawy, S., Zaki, T. & Sakr, A. A. E. Natural gas origin, composition, and processing: a review. J. Nat. Gas Sci. Eng. 34, 34–54 (2016).
Howarth, R. W., Santoro, R. & Ingraffea, A. Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Clim. Change 106, 679 (2011).
Cathles, L. M., Brown, L., Taam, M. & Hunter, A. A commentary on “The greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas in shale formations” by R.W. Howarth, R. Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. Clim. Change 113, 525–535 (2012).
O’Sullivan, F. & Paltsev, S. Shale gas production: potential versus actual greenhouse gas emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 044030 (2012).
Weber, C. L. & Clavin, C. Life cycle carbon footprint of shale gas: review of evidence and implications. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 5688–5695 (2012).
Allen, D. T. et al. Measurements of methane emissions at natural gas production sites in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 17768–17773 (2013).
Brandt, A. R. et al. Methane leaks from North American natural gas systems. Science 343, 733–735 (2014).
Howarth, R. W. A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas. Ener. Sci. Eng. 2, 47–60 (2014).
Cremonese, L. & Gusev, A. The Uncertain Climate Cost of Natural Gas: Assessment of Methane Leakage Discrepancies in Europe, Russia and the US, and Implications for Sustainability (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, 2016).
Balcombe, P., Anderson, K., Speirs, J., Brandon, N. & Hawkes, A. The natural gas supply chain: the importance of methane and carbon dioxide emissions. ACS Sustain. Chem. Eng. 5, 3–20 (2017).
World Energy Outlook 2017 (International Energy Agency, 2017).
Alvarez, R. A. et al. Assessment of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain. Science 361, 186–188 (2018).
Hultman, N., Rebois, D., Scholten, M. & Ramig, C. The greenhouse impact of unconventional gas for electricity generation. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 044008 (2011).
Wigley, T. M. L. Coal to gas: the influence of methane leakage. Clim. Change 108, 601 (2011).
Alvarez, R. A., Pacala, S. W., Winebrake, J. J., Chameides, W. L. & Hamburg, S. P. Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 6435–6440 (2012).
Burnham, A. et al. Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas, natural gas, coal, and petroleum. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 619–627 (2012).
Heath, G. A., O’Donoughue, P., Arent, D. J. & Bazilian, M. Harmonization of initial estimates of shale gas life cycle greenhouse gas emissions for electric power generation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, E3167–E3176 (2014).
Zhang, X., Myhrvold, N. P. & Caldeira, K. Key factors for assessing climate benefits of natural gas versus coal electricity generation. Environ. Res. Lett. 9, 114022 (2014).
Lueken, R., Klima, K., Griffin, W. M. & Apt, J. The climate and health effects of a USA switch from coal to gas electricity generation. Energy 109, 1160–1166 (2016).
Farquharson, D. et al. Beyond Global Warming Potential: a comparative application of climate impact metrics for the life cycle assessment of coal and natural gas based electricity. J. Ind. Ecol. 21, 857–873 (2017).
Qin, Y., Edwards, R., Tong, F. & Mauzerall, D. L. Can switching from coal to shale gas bring net carbon reductions to China? Environ. Sci. Technol. 51, 2554–2562 (2017).
Cherubini, F. et al. Bridging the gap between impact assessment methods and climate science. Environ. Sci. Policy 64, 129–140 (2016).
Levasseur, A. et al. Enhancing life cycle impact assessment from climate science: review of recent findings and recommendations for application to LCA. Ecol. Indic. 71, 163–174 (2016).
Levasseur, A. et al. in Global Guidance for Life Cycle Impact Assessment Indicators Vol. 1 (eds Frischknecht, R. & Jolliet, O.) 59–75 (UNEP, 2016).
Jolliet, O. et al. Global guidance on environmental life cycle impact assessment indicators: impacts of climate change, fine particulate matter formation, water consumption and land use.Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 23, 2189–2207 (2018).
Wernet, G. et al. The ecoinvent database version 3 (part I): overview and methodology. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 21, 1218–1230 (2016).
Collins, W. J. et al. Global and regional temperature-change potentials for near-term climate forcers. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 2471–2485 (2013).
Geden, O. & Löschel, A. Define limits for temperature overshoot targets. Nat. Geosci. 10, 881–882 (2017).
Tanaka, K. & O’Neill, B. C. Paris Agreement zero emissions goal is not always consistent with 2 °C and 1.5 °C temperature targets. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 319–324 (2018).
Jackson, S. C. Parallel pursuit of near-term and long-term climate mitigation. Science 326, 526–527 (2009).
Daniel, J. et al. Limitations of single-basket trading: lessons from the Montreal Protocol for climate policy. Clim. Change 111, 241–248 (2012).
Smith, S. M. et al. Equivalence of greenhouse-gas emissions for peak temperature limits. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 535–538 (2012).
Court, V. & Fizaine, F. Long-term estimates of the energy-return-on-investment (EROI) of coal, oil, and gas global productions. Ecol. Econ. 138, 145–159 (2017).
Policy Options for Stabilizing Global Climate. Report to Congress: Main Report (US EPA, 1990).
Lelieveld, J. & Crutzen, P. J. Indirect chemical effects of methane on climate warming. Nature 355, 339–342 (1992).
Lelieveld, J., Crutzen, P. J. & Brühl, C. Climate effects of atmospheric methane. Chemosphere 26, 739–768 (1993).
Reshetnikov, A. I., Paramonova, N. N. & Shashkov, A. A. An evaluation of historical methane emissions from the Soviet gas industry. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 105, 3517–3529 (2000).
Lelieveld, J. et al. Greenhouse gases: low methane leakage from gas pipelines. Nature 434, 841–842 (2005).
Rodhe, H. A comparison of the contribution of various gases to the greenhouse effect. Science 248, 1217–1219 (1990).
Hayhoe, K., Kheshgi, H. S., Jain, A. K. & Wuebbles, D. J. Substitution of natural gas for coal: climatic effects of utility sector emissions. Clim. Change 54, 107–139 (2002).
Jackson, R. B. et al. The environmental costs and benefits of fracking. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 39, 327–362 (2014).
Vengosh, A., Jackson, R. B., Warner, N., Darrah, T. H. & Kondash, A. A critical review of the risks to water resources from unconventional shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 8334–8348 (2014).
Weingarten, M., Ge, S., Godt, J. W., Bekins, B. A. & Rubinstein, J. L. High-rate injection is associated with the increase in U.S. mid-continent seismicity. Science 348, 1336–1340 (2015).
Dong, D. et al. Breakthrough and prospect of shale gas exploration and development in China. Nat. Gas Ind. B 3, 12–26 (2016).
Wilson, I. A. G. & Staffell, I. Rapid fuel switching from coal to natural gas through effective carbon pricing. Nat. Ener. 3, 365–372 (2018).
Zavala-Araiza, D. et al. Reconciling divergent estimates of oil and gas methane emissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 15597–15602 (2015).
Miller, S. M. et al. Anthropogenic emissions of methane in the United States. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 20018–20022 (2013).
Caulton, D. R. et al. Toward a better understanding and quantification of methane emissions from shale gas development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 6237–6242 (2014).
Zavala-Araiza, D. et al. Super-emitters in natural gas infrastructure are caused by abnormal process conditions. Nat. Commun. 8, 14012 (2017).
Levi, M. Climate consequences of natural gas as a bridge fuel. Clim. Change 118, 609–623 (2013).
McJeon, H. et al. Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas. Nature 514, 482–485 (2014).
Hausfather, Z. Bounding the climate viability of natural gas as a bridge fuel to displace coal. Ener. Policy 86, 286–294 (2015).
Hellweg, S. & Milà i Canals, L. Emerging approaches, challenges and opportunities in life cycle assessment. Science 344, 1109–1113 (2014).
Myhre, G. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds T. F. Stocker et al.) 659–740 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
Lashof, D. A. & Ahuja, D. R. Relative contributions of greenhouse gas emissions to global warming. Nature 344, 529–531 (1990).
Tanaka, K., Peters, G. P. & Fuglestvedt, J. S. Policy update: multicomponent climate policy: why do emission metrics matter? Carbon Manag. 1, 191–197 (2010).
Kandlikar, M. Indices for comparing greenhouse gas emissions: integrating science and economics. Ener. Econ. 18, 265–281 (1996).
Manne, A. S. & Richels, R. G. An alternative approach to establishing trade-offs among greenhouse gases. Nature 410, 675–677 (2001).
Shine, K. P., Fuglestvedt, J. S., Hailemariam, K. & Stuber, N. Alternatives to the Global Warming Potential for comparing climate impacts of emissions of greenhouse gases. Clim. Change 68, 281–302 (2005).
Tanaka, K., O’Neill, B. C., Rokityanskiy, D., Obersteiner, M. & Tol, R. Evaluating Global Warming Potentials with historical temperature. Clim. Change 96, 443–466 (2009).
Peters, G. P., Aamaas, B., Berntsen, T. & Fuglestvedt, J. S. The integrated global temperature change potential (iGTP) and relationships between emission metrics. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 044021 (2011).
Allen, M. R. et al. A solution to the misrepresentations of CO2-equivalent emissions of short-lived climate pollutants under ambitious mitigation. npj Clim. Atmos. Sci. 1, 16 (2018).
Joos, F. et al. Carbon dioxide and climate impulse response functions for the computation of greenhouse gas metrics: a multi-model analysis. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 13, 2793–2825 (2013).
Ocko, I. B. et al. Unmask temporal trade-offs in climate policy debates. Science 356, 492–493 (2017).
Abrahams, L. S., Samaras, C., Griffin, W. M. & Matthews, H. S. Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. liquefied natural gas exports: implications for end uses. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 3237–3245 (2015).
Fesenfeld, L. P., Schmidt, T. S. & Schrode, A. Climate policy for short- and long-lived pollutants. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 933–936 (2018).
Wild, O., Prather, M. J. & Akimoto, H. Indirect long-term global radiative cooling from NOx emissions. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 1719–1722 (2001).
Gasser, T. et al. Accounting for the climate–carbon feedback in emission metrics. Earth Syst. Dynam. 8, 235–253 (2017).
Aamaas, B., Berntsen, T. K., Fuglestvedt, J. S., Shine, K. P. & Collins, W. J. Regional temperature change potentials for short-lived climate forcers based on radiative forcing from multiple models. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 10795–10809 (2017).
Etminan, M., Myhre, G., Highwood, E. J. & Shine, K. P. Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide: a significant revision of the methane radiative forcing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 12614–12623 (2016).
Tanaka, K., Cherubini, F. & Levasseur, A. Unmask temporal trade-offs in climate policy debates: but how? Science 356, 492–493 (2017); http://science.sciencemag.org/content/356/6337/492/tab-e-letters
Tol, R. S. J., Berntsen, T. K., O’Neill, B. C., Fuglestvedt, J. S. & Shine, K. P. A unifying framework for metrics for aggregating the climate effect of different emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 044006 (2012).
Allen, M. R. et al. New use of global warming potentials to compare cumulative and short-lived climate pollutants. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 773–776 (2016).
Balcombe, P., Speirs, J. F., Brandon, N. P. & Hawkes, A. D. Methane emissions: choosing the right climate metric and time horizon. Environ. Sci. Process. Impacts 20, 1323–1339 (2018).
Lund, M. T., Berntsen, T., Fuglestvedt, J. S., Ponater, M. & Shine, K. P. How much information is lost by using global-mean climate metrics? An example using the transport sector. Clim. Change 113, 949–963 (2012).
Fiore, A. M. et al. Linking ozone pollution and climate change: the case for controlling methane. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 1919 (2002).
Shindell, D. & Faluvegi, G. Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century. Nat. Geosci. 2, 294–300 (2009).
Johnson, N. et al. Stranded on a low-carbon planet: implications of climate policy for the phase-out of coal-based power plants. Technol. Forecast. Soc. Change 90, 89–102 (2015).
Pfeiffer, A., Millar, R., Hepburn, C. & Beinhocker, E. The ‘2°C capital stock’ for electricity generation: committed cumulative carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector and the transition to a green economy. Appl. Ener. 179, 1395–1408 (2016).
Edenhofer, O., Steckel, J. C., Jakob, M. & Bertram, C. Reports of coal’s terminal decline may be exaggerated. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 024019 (2018).
Spencer, T. et al. The 1.5°C target and coal sector transition: at the limits of societal feasibility. Clim. Policy 18, 335–351 (2018).
Schmale, J., Shindell, D., von Schneidemesser, E., Chabay, I. & Lawrence, M. Air pollution: clean up our skies. Nature 515, 335–337 (2014).
Schrag, D. P. Is shale gas good for climate change? Daedalus 141, 72–80 (2012).
Newell, R. G. & Raimi, D. Implications of shale gas development for climate change. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 8360–8368 (2014).
Zhang, X., Myhrvold, N. P., Hausfather, Z. & Caldeira, K. Climate benefits of natural gas as a bridge fuel and potential delay of near-zero energy systems. Appl. Ener. 167, 317–322 (2016).
Fuglestvedt, J. et al. Implications of possible interpretations of ‘greenhouse gas balance’ in the Paris Agreement. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 376, 20160445 (2018).
Dones, R. et al. Life Cycle Inventories of Energy Systems: Results for Current Systems in Switzerland and other UCTE Countries. Final report ecoinvent data v2.0. No. 5 (Swiss Centre for Life Cycle Inventories, 2007).
Moreno Ruiz, E. et al. Documentation of Changes Implemented in the ecoinvent Database v3.4 (ecoinvent, 2017).
Boucher, O. & Reddy, M. S. Climate trade-off between black carbon and carbon dioxide emissions. Ener. Policy 36, 193–200 (2008).
Azar, C. & Johansson, D. J. A. On the relationship between metrics to compare greenhouse gases—the case of IGTP, GWP and SGTP. Earth Syst. Dynam. 3, 139–147 (2012).
Bond, T. C. et al. Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: a scientific assessment. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 5380–5552 (2013).
Reddy, M. S. & Venkataraman, C. Inventory of aerosol and sulphur dioxide emissions from India: I—fossil fuel combustion. Atmos. Environ. 36, 677–697 (2002).
Kupiainen, K. & Klimont, Z. Primary emissions of fine carbonaceous particles in Europe. Atmos. Environ. 41, 2156–2170 (2007).
Aasestad, K. Emissions of Black Carbon and Organic Carbon in Norway 1990–2011 (Statistisk sentralbyrå, 2013).
Fry, M. M. et al. The influence of ozone precursor emissions from four world regions on tropospheric composition and radiative climate forcing. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 117, D07306 (2012).
Yu, H. et al. A multimodel assessment of the influence of regional anthropogenic emission reductions on aerosol direct radiative forcing and the role of intercontinental transport. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 700–720 (2013).
Reisinger, A., Meinshausen, M., Manning, M. & Bodeker, G. Uncertainties of global warming metrics: CO2 and CH4. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L14707 (2010).
Boucher, O., Friedlingstein, P., Collins, B. & Shine, K. P. The indirect global warming potential and global temperature change potential due to methane oxidation. Environ. Res. Lett. 4, 044007 (2009).
Gillett, N. P. & Matthews, H. D. Accounting for carbon cycle feedbacks in a comparison of the global warming effects of greenhouse gases. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 034011 (2010).
Cherubini, F. & Tanaka, K. Amending the inadequacy of a single indicator for climate impact analyses. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 12530–12531 (2016).
This research was partially supported by the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund (2–1702) of the Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency (Japan). K.T. was supported by a Senior Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (Potsdam, Germany) to conduct the early phases of this study. F.C. and W.J.C. acknowledge support from the Research Council of Norway (project numbers 244074 and 235548, respectively). The authors are grateful for comments from O. Boucher and A. McLean, which were useful to improve this study.
Supplementary Tables 1–8, Supplementary Figs. 1–9 and Supplementary references.