Bridge To The 2020s? Natural Gas Use Must Peak Between 2020 And 2030 To Meet Key Climate Goals, Report Finds

A new report finds natural gas must peak “sooner than many policymakers currently realize is necessary—if the United States is to meet its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.”

The report, from the Center for American Progress (where I am a senior fellow), concludes:

There needs to be a swift transition from coal to a zero-carbon future by ensuring that the use of natural gas, particularly in the electric-power sector, peaks within the next 7 years to 17 years.

This is based on climate science, pure and simple:

… the crux of this report is that any long-term expansion and dependence on natural gas for electricity generation is incompatible with climate-stabilization targets because it also results in carbon pollution, although less than coal. The increase in global temperature must be kept within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, which means that the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gas must be stabilized within 450 parts per million, or ppm, CO2 equivalent by 2050. This is the internationally recognized threshold, which was adopted in 2010 at the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Exceeding the 2 degree threshold would cause severe and frequent droughts, heat waves, floods, and storms, and lower-income households would be harmed the most, as they are less able to prepare for and recover from climate disasters.

To meet the 2C (3.6F) goal, the Obama administration set these emissions-reduction targets, relative to 2005 levels:

  • A reduction of 17 percent by 2020
  • A reduction of 42 percent by 2030 as an intermediate target
  • A reduction of 80 percent by 2050 for climate stabilization

A key point the report makes is that “This is a modest level of emissions reductions; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, endorses a significantly more ambitious target of 25 percent to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.” Equally important, the IPCC says that stabilizing at total atmospheric greenhouse gas levels of 450 ppm CO2-equivalent requires taking U.S. emissions down more than 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.

So, while the 2020 target is “easy” to meet at low cost by substituting gas for coal (if we ignore the issue of methane leakage), the 2030 and 2050 targets set a very sharp constraint on total fossil fuel consumption, including natural gas:

In the most recent set of data released by EPA, total domestic CO2 emissions were 5,612.9 mmt in 2011, with 5,277.2 mmt of those CO2 emissions coming from the combustion of fossil fuels. By 2030 it is possible to expect approximately a 50 percent decline in emissions from coal and a 30 percent decline from oil, assuming aggressive vehicle-fleet turnover with new fuel-economy standards, strict EPA regulations of carbon pollution from coal plants, and increased coal-to-gas switching. Even if natural-gas use stays constant during this interval to 2030, therefore, CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels would still be at 3,716.5 mmt, which exceeds the modest 2030 emissions-reduction goal of 3,334.3 mmt of CO2. The use of natural gas therefore cannot expand unchecked. Even minor increases in the near term mean that we will need to aggressively drive coal and oil from the U.S. fuel mix.

There simply is no room for substantial expansion of natural gas over the next decade. And for those who don’t want very sharp decreases in gas after the next decade, the only hope would be successful demonstration and commercialization and mass deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which right now is going nowhere due to myriad practical problems and general disinterest by the fossil fuel industry.

That’s why the CAP report has this key recommendation:

Ensure that natural-gas infrastructure and capacity are not overbuilt. The increased supply of natural gas has lowered gas prices, thereby increasing demand for gas to generate electricity. This should not, however, lead to a significant increase in natural-gas electricity-generation capacity. Modeling of a natural-gas bridge in the context of climate change suggests that natural-gas generation should peak within approximately 40 percent of total energy supply. Any new natural-gas generation capacity in excess of what is needed to meet this 40 percent threshold could lead to new capital investments in natural-gas plants that would have to be retired early once the transition to lower-carbon sources is complete, thereby wasting some of these investments. Writing off these assets would likely translate to a rate hike on consumers, a scenario that would make a transition to zero-carbon fuel sources much more expensive and difficult. A national CES would help prevent overbuilding natural-gas capacity. State-level renewable portfolio standards, or RPS, would help achieve this goal as well. (An important note of caution regarding any decision to increase natural-gas exports is that increased demand is likely to contribute to overbuilt infrastructure, which, as we note, could make the transition to renewable fuels difficult.)

I explained last year why “Exporting Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Is Bad For The Climate — And A Very Poor Long-Term Investment.”

Any substantial investment in new, long-lasting natural gas infrastructure is a major diversion of resources far better spent on the inevitable transition to carbon free power. That is why the report recommends policies to ensure that natural gas does not substitute for or slow down renewable energy: Any “expansion of natural gas should be used to create dedicated revenues to support aggressive investments in research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies; aggressive investments in energy efficiency; and investments in the resilience of communities threatened by climate-related extreme weather.”

In short, “the expansion of natural gas should be used to create a financial bridge to a zero-carbon economy and climate stabilization.”

As part of that, CAP continues to recommend a carbon price to help ensure that any new natural gas only displaces coal, not renewables.

Develop a domestic carbon price. CAP has advocated several policies for pricing carbon, both directly through a carbon tax and market-based mechanisms such as cap and trade and indirectly through measures such as EPA regulation. A carbon tax would raise revenue, stimulate investment in clean energy technologies, and create jobs while reducing carbon pollution. It is a win-win measure that could untangle the ongoing federal budget debate.

The report notes that because natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, any substantial leakage of methane during the entire life cycle from production to combustion vitiates much if not all of the climate benefit of shifting from coal to gas. Some recent studies find a very high rate of leakage — see “NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.”

I think it is at best premature to expand natural gas use substantially until we have resolved the leakage issue.

Finally, the report recommends, “The natural-gas expansion must be managed in an environmentally sustainable manner.” I personally believe the jury is out on whether that is even possible (see “Natural Gas, Once A Bridge, Now A Gangplank”). A Propublica exposé in Scientific American, “Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?” reported:

“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”


21 Responses to Bridge To The 2020s? Natural Gas Use Must Peak Between 2020 And 2030 To Meet Key Climate Goals, Report Finds

  1. rollin says:

    The President’s reduction agenda is probably similar to the actual decrease in fossil fuels that will occur naturally. That is good, because the ROW will have to reduce their carbon output due to lack of resource.

    Problem with this scenario is that it still pushes the world into the 3 to 4 degree range. If we stop putting out CO2 by 2070, the full effects will be felt by 2100 and after. Add to that the increased sunlight due to global dimming and the decreased albedo due to reduction in ice/snow coverage and the possibility for kicking methane hydrates from shallow ocean areas and methane from tundra is likely.

    I think that we need to reduce carbon output to 20% by 2030 and start on carbon removal strategies at the same time to have a reasonable change at staying away from dangerous temperature rises.

    Someone needs to do a study on the effectiveness of decreasing carbon output rates at various levels.

  2. BobbyL says:

    “To meet the 2C (3.6F) goal, the Obama administration set these emissions-reduction targets, relative to 2005 levels:

    A reduction of 17 percent by 2020
    A reduction of 42 percent by 2030 as an intermediate target”

    I don’t understand the relationship between these targets and staying under 2C. These reduction targets just seem to be arbitrary without any relationship to 2C.

  3. Joe Romm says:

    They were the Waxman-Markey targets.

  4. Jack Burton says:

    2C is just a number. Somebody dreamed it up and everyone is now fixated on it. It is meaningless, as nobody knows what stopping at 2C means, the idea that we can stop is 2C is meaningless, as what we have already done, plus feed backs underway make 2C just a signpost we will see FLASH past in the rear view mirror.

  5. Jack Burton says:

    The Climate Goals were set at a time when we thought climate change was a linear and very slow process. Every year was just a slow linear climb upward, with a slowing of CO2 emission growth an easy way to reduce global warming. Things like arctic sea ice melting in summer, or permafrost melting, or Green Land melting, or world glacier melting, or ocean warming etc. etc. were decades off and would be easy to measure as their linear rise would be very slow and easy to read.
    Well, I think climate goals have all been thrown out the window just in the last year and a half. For some reason, the arctic sea ice decided to go into a run away melt scenario, the normal jet stream came unglued and is now causing extreme weather hardly dreamed off until 2050. Warming seas have given us a break by being in a La Nina mode, the natural cooling helped buffer the recent huge heat spike, it could not prevent the continued record heat, but it slowed it a bit. El Nino is going to comes, then the heated up oceans will not buffer global warming, they all add to it.
    So, climate goals? Lets talk about them in two years time. Nobody then is going to give a “tinkers damn” about some out of date climate goals. In case people aren’t reading the news out of Siberia, Canada, the Arctic Seas or from glaciers across the globe from the Andes to Greenland. A climate shift is underway, 50 years ahead of time. Just google Siberian heat wave and forest fires, google methane release over the arctic. Or just read up on the insane weather extremes smashing into the British Isles for the last year and a half.
    Google the jet stream, and read up on how unglued it really has become!
    I feel like people are living in the past, acting like what was written and said about 2C and climate goals a few years ago is still valid. Like we are still in the linear model driven slow change climate.
    Not so! I dare say that in two years time just about anything can happen. Like the greatest hurricane in human history, the complete melting of summer ice in the arctic seas, an unheard of spike of methane release somewhere in the arctic seas, or a cumulative spike from Siberian tundra melt.
    I mean it is 90 degrees in the north of Siberia! Methane has spiked, forests are burning. Australia has had extreme heat, Melbourne setting a winter heat record.
    Take a few hours and google away at all these issues, you will be shocked at what is happening right now! The US Corporate Media has buried all these stories, they have hidden them and taken them off of the news wires. How come?

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    What about?

    What about what Jim Hansen and other scientists have said about 350 ppm as the necessary safe target, rather than 450 ppm? Can you, Joe, help us understand the status and implications of any “gap” that exists (or might exist) between the aims CAP has assumed (and seems to have accepted and endorsed) in these sorts of reports, and the aim of 350 ppm that the scientists say is important? Is the 350 ppm figure even mentioned in the report, and if so, in what context and to what purpose?

    (This comment doesn’t have anything to do with my other key theme, so I trust it will not count — in terms of “frequency” — against my ability to post a comment on that theme in Saturday’s Open Thread. Thanks.)

    Cheers and Be Well,


  7. Spike says:

    In the UK the government is keen to go down the gas route with fracked UK gas and a new generation of nukes. At one new site this week the locals turned out to block the companies vehicles from accessing the site however.

    The public however are strongly in support of renewables and are beginning to realise the potential of wind and solar in particular

    The question is whether the commercial interests favoured by the politicians will trump public desire for a new clean green energy system as in Germany.

  8. fj says:

    By current observed climate dynamics we have gone way beyond safe thresholds.

    We have to go net zero as fast as possible. The economics has to fit the crisis and not the non-rational way we are trying to do it now.

    We have to figure out how to stop the feedback systems accelerating climate change.

    We have to restore the environmental services that support us.

  9. Tony says:

    So, the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases must remain below 450 ppm CO2e? But it is already at 478 ppm. And I suspect that the number is understated as it presumably uses a methane factor of 25 or so. However, methane is much more powerful over a short timescale and, with methane emissions resulting in an increased concentration each year (i.e. they more than replace the amount lost as methane breaks down), then the higher methane factor of at least 100 should be used. This gives us a CO2e of something like 550 ppm. Right now.

    What is the plan to get that down to 450 quickly to avoid the catastrophic warming of 2 degrees?

  10. Rob says:

    We are having crazy weather already, and we haven’t even hit 1C. Basing policy on wishful quantification while ignoring feedback loops and systemic methane leaks is dangerously useless.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, Jack, I agree. In answer to your question about the corporate media’s burying these points, that’s been going on for a while, and gets worse all the time. Good reporters get fired, and everybody works for the advertisers. It’s pitiful.

  12. Mike Roddy says:

    Joe, you seem to be equivocating on your prior posts showing that we gain nothing from switching from coal to gas. The media keeps repeating gas is “half the CO2 levels of coal”, which is true, but is about like a high school debaters’ trick. Methane emissions from gas are not mentioned. In reality, the only difference between gas and coal is that one poisons the water, the other the air.

    Howarth said the oil companies didn’t even dispute the studies he cited about fugitive methane emissions from gas. Meanwhile, Obama keeps repeating the rumor that gas will help us, and falsely attributes our flat emissions to the switch to gas.

    We depend on you, Joe, please return to the truth as confirmed in the NOAA study you have cited here.

  13. Spike says:

    Protesters arrested in UK:

    As The Guardian points out elsewhere, “the problem (for the right) is that the willful destruction of the planning system and weakening of every regulatory agency in sight has not worked. Indeed, it is has created even more glaring contradictions as the government simultaneously strengthens planning guidance to constrain renewables and weakens it to assist fracking.”

  14. Robert in New Orleans says:

    Excellent post Mr. Burton.

    I am surprised that I do not see any ads for anti depressants on this site. My state of mental health would be such much better if I avoided Climate Progress, but alas I am like the moth drawn towards the flame.

  15. Daniel Coffey says:

    Tell that to Sierra Club. They have been blocking projects for years on the theory that we don’t need large-scale renewables, wind, solar and transmission. For all the fine talk, the behind-the-scenes actions of the large environmental organizations has looked essentially like big business and lobbying. Think about the fact that Sierra Club took 25 million from natural gas fracking interests and promoted rooftop solar and natural gas combinations instead of rapidly deploying large-scale renewables. The sins are not appreciated when the halo effect takes hold. Time to see what must be done and do it!

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Spike, those aren’t ‘contradictions’. They are deliberate actions. The hard, hard, Right ideologues of the Osbourne regime hate environmentalism with the fervour that those who are ‘born to rule’ always feel for the rabble when they refuse to ‘tremble and obey’. I still admire the sheer audacity of such creatures promising to be the ‘Greenest ever Government’, and the habitual credulity of the plebs in believing it for even one second.

  17. Tony says:

    Can this be refuted? Aren’t we already well past 450 ppm CO2e? If so, doesn’t this change the whole picture? Those who are trying to get change to stay below 450 ppm must now see those attempts as having failed. What now? Especially if, as seems more likely, the effective concentration of CO2e is more like double preindustrial times, already?

  18. fj says:

    We must be working at wartime speed, urgency, and resolve to stop this extremely dangerous and accelerating climate change crisis.

    Anything that undermines this extreme effort must stop.

  19. fj says:

    This is why it must be a wartime-like effort.

    Dramatic social change must rapidly transition us to a society that must act immediately and with great clarity on this extremely dangerous crisis.

  20. fj says:

    This is a crisis gravely threatening national and global security.

    Literally, billions of lives are at stake.

  21. fj says:

    This must become the common wisdom of the vast majority of people on this planet.