Natural gas has been touted as a "bridge fuel" to a clean energy future over the past two decades. Quite the contrary, natural gas extraction and consumption has set us on a path for "climate catastrophe," according to Widener University Commonwealth Law School Sustainability Ethics and Law Scholar in Residence Donald A. Brown.
The boom in US natural gas-shale fracking continues to fuel the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) to a historically unprecedented 415 parts per million (ppm). That's in addition to the environmental impacts shale fracking for natural gas and oil have on water, air and other essential natural resources and the ecosystems services they provide, Brown, who is also an IPCC author, points out in an essay.
Governments, industry, and societies worldwide aren't moving nearly fast or far enough to decarbonize their economies and address the threat of rising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change effectively, according to Brown. Certainly not fast or far enough to meet commitments to the UN Paris Climate Agreement, which sets a voluntary target of capping global temperature rise to 1.5°-2°C (2.7°-3.6°F).
The failure to move quickly or far enough to decarbonize economies
"The failure to move quickly to non-fossil energy in the last decade is partially responsible for the rise of atmospheric CO2 to reach 415 ppm, a concentration never experienced in human history," Brown writes.
Because even modest amounts of additional warming above current global elevated temperatures create the risk that certain thresholds, or 'tipping points,' in the climate system may be exceeded causing much more abrupt climate change, human-induced climate change creates grave threats to life on Earth,"
Natural gas, fracking, rising CO2 emissions and temperature
Natural gas CO2 emissions are 53 percent less than for coal combustion given that methane leakage is less than 3 percent of the natural gas produced. That led to natural gas and oil industry players and supporters to tout natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to a decarbonized, clean energy future, Brown points out.
Add to that natural gas power plants can reliably produce electricity 24x7 with comparatively little downtime and you have the makings for the natural gas-shale fracking boom and widespread displacement of coal for natural gas as the fuel stock of choice for utilities across the US.
GHG emissions have continued to rise nonetheless. And taking a long-term perspective, global mean temperature has risen 1.1°C (1.98°F) since the start of the Industrial Revolution, says Brown.
Although the actual amount of methane leakage from gas production remains somewhat contentious, even if there is no methane leakage from gas production, because the international community has understood for at least a decade that the world must move toward zero carbon emissions within several decades to prevent climate catastrophe, government action to replace natural gas with non-fossil energy should have been an imperative at least throughout the last decade of natural gas fracking expansion to make the transition to non-fossil energy needed to avoid planetary disaster feasible," Brown writes.
The escalating cost of a brewing climate change catastrophe
The costs of climate change are growing and increasingly apparent, despite claims to the contrary by climate deniers and skeptics, according to Brown.
Climate change is not only a horrific future calamity, the 1.1°C temperature rise the Earth has experienced since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has already caused brutal suffering by causing increases in killer hurricanes, unprecedented flooding, droughts, forest fires, storm surges, climate refugees, increases in vector-borne and tropical diseases, killer heat stresses, loss of valued ecological systems including coral reefs around the world, and human conflict in Syria and parts of Africa," he states in the essay.
Furthermore, scientific evidence has emerged indicating that the 1.5°-2°C cap on global mean temperature rise set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is too high. "Recent evidence has frightened many climate scientists," brown says, "because a few of the tipping, including rapid increases in methane and CO2 emissions liberated when arctic permafrost melts, are already beginning to appear, making the climate crisis a staggering global emergency."
These and other developments contradict any notion that expanding natural gas exploration, extraction and consumption can serve as the means to avoiding the worst effects of rapid climate change. Furthermore, purely economic arguments supporting this view have fallen by the wayside given the sharply falling costs of investing in and deploying emissions-free solar, wind and other renewable energy capacity, Brown writes.
This is the reason that growing numbers of national and local governments have set targets to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in the electricity sector and ambitious targets to replace fossil fuel powered vehicles with electrically powered transport in the next several decades."
Then, there are the moral and ethical aspects associated with life on a warming planet and knowingly investing in natural gas and fossil fuels. "Because natural gas combustion has contributed to raising atmospheric GHG concentrations which is causing these horrors, nations have both a moral and legal duty under the 'no harm principle,' a provision of customary international law agreed to by the United States in the 1992 United Nations climate convention to not harm citizens in other countries.
Thus, all levels of government in the US must replace energy technologies which emit GHGs with technologies that don’t raise atmospheric GHG concentrations ASAP," Brown states.