The International Energy Agency recently announced that global carbon dioxide emissions were flat for a third straight year, allowing it to proclaim: “[d]ecoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed.” IEA gave three big energy-related reasons for flat emissions: “renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas, [and] improvements in energy efficiency.” Yet one of these things is not like the others.
According to the IEA, the rise of renewable power and energy efficiency bear major responsibility for flat emissions of the last three years. The fact that this set of technologies is now driving changes in global emissions is astonishing and a ray of hope amid the gloomy prospects for our warming world. As the IEA put it, “electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015.” Here in the U.S., over just a three-year period, wind and solar generation grew from producing 5 percent of our electricity to 7 percent. By contrast, in 2001, wind and solar produced only 0.2 percent of our electricity.
Meanwhile, energy efficiency has allowed the U.S. to actually reduce total energy consumption, even as the population has grown. Today, the U.S. uses less energy than we did in the year 2000 – when the population was almost 40 million less. Reductions in energy use, while partly driven by changes in the economy, reflect the implementation of policies like fuel economy standards, appliance efficiency standards, and building codes; each year, these and other measures save energy equivalent to around 20 percent of our total annual energy consumption.
And then there’s natural gas. On the surface, the decline in carbon pollution resulting from the shift from coal to natural gas appears to be a big win. But not only are the carbon benefits of natural gas often overstated, natural gas has no place in the carbon-free energy system we need to be building to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.
Unlike renewable energy and energy efficiency, natural gas is an extension of our current fossil fuel paradigm, not a shift away from it. Burning gas may be cleaner than burning coal, but it still requires us to extract resources from the earth – at great risk to our environment and our health. In the case of natural gas that means fracking, which as we (and many, many others) have reported extensively is a disastrous practice that results in widespread contamination of drinking water, destruction of natural places, and more.
But then there’s the question of whether natural gas is actually appropriate for combating climate change. Burning natural gas does release far less carbon dioxide than burning coal. But when you look at the entire life-cycle of natural gas, its benefits are far less certain. The reason is methane. As we covered in our 2016 report Natural Gas and Global Warming, “natural gas production, transportation and storage results in major leaks of methane to the atmosphere that erode or nullify the climate benefits of shifting to natural gas.” The extent of these emissions is not fully understood. But a wide variety of research suggests that emissions are quite high and, as we noted in our report, emissions from natural gas leaks in 2014 may have been “equivalent to 956 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide or 251 coal-fired power plants.”
The dramatic rise of renewable energy and energy efficiency are reason to celebrate – these technologies are proving that they should be front and center in global efforts to fight climate change. Natural gas, on the other hand, brings many of the same problems that fossil fuels have brought for decades. It’s time to put to bed the idea that natural gas can play a major role in any kind of a clean, sustainable future.
 The fourth, non-energy reason IEA gave was “structural changes in the global economy.”
Photo: Hydraulic fracking operation in southwestern Pennsylvania. Credit: Doug Duncan, USGS.