Is coal ‘better for the climate’ than LNG?
Published by Will Owen,
Considering the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, it almost seems inappropriate to discuss other matters. When lives are at stake, everything else becomes secondary. But maybe it is excused considering that this political situation in Europe is also about access to energy.
A new scientific research paper by Dr Lars Schernikau and Professor William Smith (Washington University, St. Louis), ‘Climate Impacts of Fossil Fuels in Today’s Energy Systems’, having recently received peer review and been published (available online at SSRN or on YouTube), gives an example of how distorting and costly energy policy can be when it tries to account for environmental challenges without taking the full life-cycle of energy systems and all available information into account. Presented as a simple research paper, it only uses officially reported IPCC and IEA information on the global warming potential of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and reported anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions.
Key conclusions of the research results:
- First, the research confirmed that less than half of CO2 emitted, 46% according to the IPCC, actually ends up in the atmosphere, and logically only this portion of CO2 can contribute to warming. The IPCC’s other 54% that is not airborne is taken up by nature and oceans, contributing to the greening of our planet (confirmed by IPCC and NASA). Thus, we need to stop talking about human-energy CO2 emissions, but start talking about changes in airborne CO2eq, as only those can contribute to warming.
- Second, the research draws on the CH4 emission data summarised by the IEA for the first time at global scale in 2020 and updated in 2021. Approximately 40% of methane emissions come from natural sources. Anthropogenic methane emissions amount to ~60%, with agriculture being the largest CH4 emitter. Energy accounts for ~20% and waste/biomass burning for ~15%. Per IEA data, it may not be surprising that, of the known energy methane emissions, the majority comes from natural gas and coal. Using IPCC’s 20-year global warming potential1 (GWP20) of 84x, one can calculate that current anthropogenic CH4 emissions make up almost 65% of all airborne human greenhouse gases we call CO2eq. Anthropogenic airborne CO2 ‘only’ makes up 35% of all airborne CO2eq at GWP20.
- Third, because current carbon taxation does not include life cycle emissions of any energy sources, but focuses only on combustion, carbon pricing is misguided and distorts energy policy at the expense of the environment and the economy. If one accepts IPCC’s GWP20, a ~2%2 higher loss of CH4 across the value chain prior to combustion of natural gas vs coal would put coal and natural gas at ‘climate parity’. Analysing public data, natural gas value chains have high CH4 and undocumented CO2 losses. On average globally, natural gas emits ~15% more CO2eq than surface-mined coal, over a 20-year horizon. This difference increases as the use of shale gas and LNG expands. Considering this, as per IPCC and IEA, LNG is on average ‘less favourable for the climate’ than any coal.
The results were surprising even to the authors. The gas industry has used its apparently lower CO2 emissions for decades to increase market share in a hotly competitive power market, however this new research provides the coal industry with the substantiation needed to strengthen the case for its importance to the power mix.
In addition, the conclusions underscore a critically important point for energy and the environment. We need to analyse the true life-cycle emissions and non-GHG environmental impact for the entire value chain for all conventional and renewable energy, including for hydrogen, batteries, and EVs. Doing these analyses would certainly mean surprises. Imagine the European Union (EU) pledging coal and nuclear as ‘green’ rather than natural gas and nuclear.
The authors explicitly believe that today the world requires all reliable and affordable fuels for power generation including gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and selectively wind and solar. Only a balanced power mix can avoid electricity shortages and the devastating effects on humans and industries as experienced globally during the past 18 months. However, there is no one size fits all power solution. Investors should support all energy systems in a manner which avoids an energy crisis, including intermittent renewable energy systems where they make sense. If CO2 emissions need to be reduced, one of the most effective ways would be to install ultra-super critical power plants with CCUS technology. However, benefits of CO2 through fertilization need to be fairly considered and evaluated.
Energy policy must refocus on its three objectives, energy security, energy affordability, and environmental protection. This translates into two pathways for the future: 1) invest in education and base research to pave the path towards a New Energy Revolution; and in parallel, 2) support investment in energy systems to improve their efficiencies and reduce the environmental burden of the energy needed for our lives.
- The global warming potential (GWP) is a hotly debated subject, and IPCC’s 20-year global warming potential GWP20 appears disputed in science. Additionally, CH4’s atmospheric concentration reaches only ~0.0002% while CO2 accounts for ~0.04%. While the authors also have reservations about IPCC’s GWP, for this research paper IPCC’s official numbers have been used. This is because they are used by governments and there is so much discussion about the immediate urgency of solving the ‘climate crisis’ right now, not in 20 years. It should be noted that the 100-year GWP100 is less disputed. This is also discussed in the paper and all calculations are shown for both 20 and 100 years.
- This coal/gas break-even number increases from ~2% to ~5.5% loss of methane using IPCC’s 100-year Global Warming Potential GWP100 instead of 20-year GWP20. Detailed calculations are referenced in the paper.
Read the article online at: https://www.worldcoal.com/special-reports/06042022/is-coal-better-for-the-climate-than-lng/
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