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Gas vs coal: why the IPCC is wrong

World Coal,

Sam Dodson examines the merits of the “gas bridge” and its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The role of gas as a “bridge” fuel in the fight to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is often touted – not least by the gas industry itself. The logic is seemingly clear: gas is a far cleaner-burning than coal that could easily be deployed to reduce GHG emissions now while carbon-free sources of energy are perfected. The argument came up again in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which stated that “the rapid deployment of hydraulic-fracturing [has] allowed for a more extensive switching of power and heat production from coal to gas; this is an important reason a reduction of GHG emissions in the US.”

The “gas bridge” is an attractive theory. It is a simple idea and it allows politicians to carry on burning fossil fuels without necessarily investing in new and more expensive technologies – while still claiming the environmental high ground. But is it all that it claims?

A very long bridge

In a recent comment piece for the Guardian, author and social activist Naomi Klein noted that the gas industry itself “came up with the clever pitch that natural gas was a ‘bridge’ to a clean energy future” in 1981. “That was 33 years ago. Long bridge.”

Klein does on to argue that the “gas bridge” is no bridge at all. Far from encouraging a transition to carbon-free energy, it would lock countries into fossil fuel use for decades to come: “You don’t build multi-billion dollar pieces of infrastructure unless you plan on using them for at least 40 years,” she argued.

There is also debate as to whether gas is as clean as its supporters claim. In an article for World Coal, Drs Johannes Lambertz, Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer and Thomas Thielemann, RWE, explained that, while gas-industry professionals may claim that gas emits lower CO2 than coal, it still releases significant amounts of methane, which is 34 times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2: “The figures often cited in the media for the CO2 emissions of fossil fuel energy sources in power generation ignore the overall value chain – from extraction, via transport, to combustion in power plants. If the entire supply chains of coal and gas are analysed, the climate relevance of various fossil energy sources converges.” When shale gas is compared, the differences in life-cycle GHG emissions between coal and gas are even smaller.

Indeed, the IPCC report itself contains this contradiction, arguing on the one hand that fracking and shale gas have helped to reduce GHG emissions and on the other that fugitive methane emissions should be “a renewed focus on fugitive methane gas emissions, especially those associated with gas production”. As Alex Kirby wrote for the Ecologist: “critics will conclude that the IPCC's search for a bridging strategy to move us rapidly to a world of clean energy has scored an own goal by failing to rule out a fuel which entails a large and avoidable increase in greenhouse emissions.”

Finally, there is the not insignificant issue of gas’s price volatility, as Tony Lodge, research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, recently noted in an op-ed for World Coal. Lodge’s conclusion is clear: “Retaining coal [as part of the energy mix] will provide a hedge against future volatility in the gas market that would otherwise be passed onto the consumer.”

A clean coal bridge

If switching to gas is not the solution, then technology is – including efficiency increases in power plant processes, as well as carbon capture and storage (CCS). This means conventional fossil fuel sources, such as coal, will remain integral to the shift towards a clean energy future. Instead of investing money in the methane-ridden gas industry, investment in clean coal technologies can provide the energy the world needs without the huge release of GHG.

The potential benefits of CCS are well-known. Indeed, the IPCC report notes that in all scenarios in which low CO2 equivalent concentration levels in the atmosphere are achieved, fossil fuel power generation without CCS “is phased out almost entirely.” The IPCC also notes that all of the components of integrated CCS systems exist and are in use in various parts of the fossil energy chain.

The clear example here is SaskPower’s Boundary Dam project. The recently completed project is the world’s first commercial-scale post-combustion coal-fired CCS retrofit project. The project has transformed the aging Unit 3 at Boundary Dam power plant into a reliable, long-term producer of 110 MW of baseload electricity. It is set to capture 90% of emissions – equivalent to 1 million tpa of CO2 or taking more than 250 000 cars off Saskatchewan’s roads annually. The company is currently commissioning and testing all parts of the integrated carbon capture process before full commercial launch in the summer.

SaskPower’s achievements can be used as a target for other coal-fired power plants across the globe. With the knowledge that CCS can indeed work on a commercial scale, there is now little reason why the Boundary Dam model could not be repeated Rather than forcing the closure of existing coal-fired power plants, these power plants could become a central part of reducing global GHG emissions. As Lodge argues, it is vital for “the transition to the future low carbon generation portfolio” that existing coal-fired plants are optimised and fitted with CCS technology. This is the other bridge toward a clean energy future, and it is one supported by coal; not gas.

Changing attitudes

Simply choosing to continue on the volatile and emission-heavy bridge proposed by those in the gas industry, rather than a bridge supported by clean coal, is neither the right nor easiest option available. If the attitudes of both the general public, and of policy makers and governments can change, coal has the potential to provide secure, affordable low carbon energy through 2030 and beyond. Ignoring the potential offered by CCS and coal, will, as Lodge explains “materially add to the risk of security issues and price rises,” and there is no guarantee that we will be any better for it.


KLEIN, N., 'Why US fracking companies are licking their lips over Ukraine', The Guardian (10 April 2014).

KIRBY, A., 'IPCC's shale gas error', The Ecologist (14 April 2014).

LAMBERTZ, J., SCHIFFER, H-W. and THIELEMANN, T., 'Leaving footprints', World Coal (February 2012), pp. 81 – 84.

LODGE, T., ‘The UK’s Clean Coal Bridge’, World Coal (March 2014), p. 14.

Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; April 2014).

Written by Sam Dodson

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