Moral relevance of the ‘dash to gas’

Between 1990 and the present, a significant reduction in European greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions took place because coal based electricity generation was replaced by natural gas plants. Here’s the big question: should that switch be considered an act of climatic virtue on the part of the European states, and thus be taken into account when identifying their fair share of remaining necessary emissions reductions, or should it be ignored? This is in some ways akin to the matter of additionality, as mentioned here before

There are naturally arguments on both sides. It seems fair to say that at least some of the motivation for the switch came from concern about climate change and a desire to meet Kyoto Protocol targets for emission reductions. At the same time, it is very difficult to determine how much was driven by other considerations: from the state of gas production in the North Sea to concern about non-GHG pollutants to long-term estimates of the relative price of coal and gas.

Another issue to consider is long-term energy use. If the European states had chosen to stick with coal, but they had switched to natural gas at some point in the relatively near future, the impact would largely have been the same, in terms of climate. The same additionality problem that applies in the present exists for the recent past. Using the gas in the distant future would have less of an effect (assuming successful climate change mitigation does occur) since the timing of emissions is important for climate stabilization pathways.

Pragmatically, giving some credit to the Europeans for the transition may be a necessary step in negotiations. That being said, the conundrum is enough to make one wonder whether a metric ignoring ‘additionality’ would be more manageable in practice. Ignoring the question of whether emissions reductions were motivated by concerns over climate change or not, and instead focusing only on the magnitude of reductions, would probably be a more efficient form of calculation. That being said, it would arguably be less equitable. Also, it might be incompatible with the notion that different states or sectors should spend ‘comparable’ amounts on climate change mitigation.

Thoughts? Does it make the most sense to give the European states full, partial, or no credit? Secondly, is ‘additionality’ sufficiently ethically important to justify the headaches it produces?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “Moral relevance of the ‘dash to gas’”

  1. Additionality

    The issue of what qualifies as a bona fide offset and why largely boils down to a concept called “additionality.” Usually phrased as the question “is the project reducing emissions in a way that is business as usual, or is it beyond business as usual,” the concept of additionality reflects people’s gut feeling that if a project was or is reducing emissions regardless of the prospect of offset revenues, we shouldn’t be giving it offset revenues. Instead, we should give offsets revenues only to those projects that really need them. Where people begin to disagree is on how to put that concept into practice – how high and in what manner should we set the additionality bar.

  2. I think you may be confusing two different issues here: firstly, was the coal to gas switch a good thing, from a climate change perspective (sounds like the answer is a qualified yes), and secondly, why did they do it.
    I’m not at all convinced the latter matters unless you’re talking about offsets, otherwise you disregard the good things done for non-climate change related reasons. Whether the result is good re. climate change is independent of whether that was their reason for choosing it.
    For instance, if Germans are sensible enough to know that well insulated houses save them money, and/or prefer that insulation, then should we ignore their lower domestic energy use because it wasn’t driven by Kyoto commitments? Should predominantly vegetarian countries be told that their lower resource usage per head is irrelevant if it is motivated by religious or moral reasons instead of a desire to be green?
    I think applying an additionality test is a huge gamble, since we have yet to see whether significant change can be driven largely by a desire to reduce CO2 emissions (or otherwise to mitigate climate change). Further, it risks alienating some of the ‘good guys’ who are driving international efforts, & it’s difficult to see how things can progress without such leadership.

  3. firstly, was the coal to gas switch a good thing, from a climate change perspective

    In terms of climate change, moving from coal to gas is almost unambiguously a positive step. The only reason I can think of for disagreeing is that the gas plants will last a long time and you could have installed something even greener instead.

  4. Regarding additionality, I basically agree with you.

    One area where this is sure to come up is in relation to base years for future agreements. In whatever treaty succeeds Kyoto, countries will probably commit to reduce emissions to X% below year Y levels by year Z. Including the span from 1990 to 2000 (or 2005) flatters countries that cut emissions during than span, with the opposite effect for states where they rose.

    In situations where emissions fell for environmentally motivated reasons, it seems unambiguous that credit should be given. It is a bit more dubious whether changes made for non-climatic but voluntary reasons should be counted. The biggest controversy surrounds big involuntary cuts – particularly those that arose from the collapse of communism. Europe has basically been treating that drop in emissions as equivalent to improvements in British power plants or Norwegian houses.

  5. Why does it matter if the cuts are ‘involuntary’ (and involuntary for whom)? From the perspective of an ex-Soviet, you’ve already seen hugely increasing poverty, falling living standards, food shortages etc due to the fall of the Soviet Union, and now some imperialist bastard Westerners are telling you that your living standards need to fall further because the involuntary nature of your CO2 emission cuts doesn’t meet their moral standards.

  6. The Eastern European states themselves are unlikely to adopt binding targets. At issue is whether other states that do have emissions reduction commitments will be able to ‘buy’ the cuts that resulted from the failure of the USSR, rather than make domestic cuts.]

    For example, an energy company in Germany or France could buy credits from Bulgaria (which had emissions fall by 49% after 1998) and count them the same as cutting emissions domestically.

    Given that the cuts in Eastern Europe have already happened, all keeping those credits on the market permits is cheaper compliance for firms in Annex I states.

  7. The pavement there looks pretty artificial. I think you over-sharpened it.

  8. I’m not sure of the numbers, but from my first hand experience, methane (i.e. “natural gas”, a nice name for what’s left over after all the valuable propane is taken out) is a pretty shit fuel with an extremely low energy content. I’m sure it’s better than coal, if the numbers say so, but it’s just as un-renewable. Also, it’s much scarcer than coal (it’s not really possible to ramp up production of it, as it is with coal).

    Emissions reductions should be made through the reduction of energy consumed, not the “increased efficiency” of energy production and consumption. The real solutions to climate change all involve social change – working from home, different style of personal dwellings, taking transit, (many of these things imply a reduction of emphasis on personal safety), and probably most importantly less emphasis on gaining individual wealth. It’s not as if the “me comes first” mentality of late capitalism (specifically, the capitalism of psycho-analytically informed advertising) needs to be permanent.

  9. Natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit energy released. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal. Combined cycle power generation using natural gas is thus the cleanest source of power available using fossil fuels, and this technology is widely used wherever gas can be obtained at a reasonable cost.

  10. Emissions reductions should be made through the reduction of energy consumed, not the “increased efficiency” of energy production and consumption.

    Both tactically and strategically, it makes sense to focus on all three links in the emissions chain: pushing conservation, energy efficiency, and the decarbonization of energy production. That last may be especially important, given the difficulty involved in getting people to actually reduce energy use.

    The real solutions to climate change all involve social change – working from home, different style of personal dwellings, taking transit, (many of these things imply a reduction of emphasis on personal safety), and probably most importantly less emphasis on gaining individual wealth. It’s not as if the “me comes first” mentality of late capitalism (specifically, the capitalism of psycho-analytically informed advertising) needs to be permanent.

    Climate change could be solved in many ways, some of which might require very little change in individual behaviour. Hoping for a change in the basic philosophy of society may be the least realistic way to achieve a solution. Choosing successively better options (gas over coal, wind over gas) seems a lot more pragmatic.

  11. Britain will fulfil its 2010 obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty—a 12.5% cut in emissions compared with 1990 levels—but largely because the energy-market liberalisation of the early 1990s caused a one-off switch from expensive coal-fired power stations to cheaper and, incidentally, cleaner gas-fired ones. Greenhouse-gas emissions overall have fallen only slightly since Labour came to power in 1997, and carbon emissions have risen slightly (see chart). Other pledges, such as the government’s promise to generate 15% of Britain’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, stand little chance of being met. Admittedly, all this amounts to a better record than many other countries can show, but it makes British aspirations to “global leadership” look a touch threadbare.

  12. “For decades plentiful production from the North Sea meant that storage was unnecessary. Production has been declining since 2000 (in 2008 it was around two-thirds of its 2000 level), and Britain is importing more and more of its gas from Norway, Europe and the Middle East. But storage capacity—vital to smooth over fluctuations in supply and demand—has risen by only about 1% since 2000, according to National Grid, which runs the gas network. Some of the rise reflects small, new projects, but most has come from upgrades to Rough, an old gasfield now run as a storage site by Centrica, a big energy firm. Rough provides three-quarters of Britain’s storage, which is worrying in itself: in February 2006 a fire disabled the field for several months. Fortunately, the worst of the winter that year was over.

    Demand for gas is likely to rise. Around a third of British power stations will need replacing by 2015. Although the government talks a lot about nuclear and renewable energy, so far much of the new capacity looks likely to be gas-fired.

  13. The true cost of carbon

    SIR – Your article discussing the costs of different carbon emissions reduction policies (“Efficiency drive”, July 31st) seems to imply that every tonne of reduced carbon dioxide emissions has equal value in the effort to mitigate climate change, regardless of context. However, so far the primary effect of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme has been to increase the running hours of gas-fired power stations at the expense of coal. In the medium term, the most likely impact of the scheme will be new gas turbines. Ultimately this may not be a good thing.

    Although electricity from gas has about 50% lower emissions than from coal, it still has higher emissions than the level required to meet long-term climate goals after 2020. The net cost of a diversion into gas that lasted for a couple of decades might well prove higher than the net cost of biting the bullet today and supporting zero-emissions technologies right away. The significance of identifying the cheapest way to reduce emissions today, this month, or this year, is easily exaggerated. Whatever the policy mechanisms selected, people interested in working for effective and economic solutions to this problem need a strategic approach and long-term focus.

    Joel Lindop

  14. Gas is a hydrocarbon, albeit the cleanest, so burning gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to the IEA, if its “golden rules” for shale-gas development are followed, emissions in 2035, at about 36.8 gigatonnes, will be 20% higher than in 2010. Lower gas prices will increase energy consumption and displace some lower-carbon nuclear power and renewables, but will also squeeze out some dirty coal and oil. In net terms, emissions are likely to be much the same as they would have been without a significant shift to gas, provided that goverments stand by all the commitments they have made to curb carbon emissions.

  15. To the extent our leaders have cared about climate change, they’ve fixed on CO2. Partly as a result, coal-fired power plants have begun to close across the country. They’ve been replaced mostly with ones that burn natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane. Because burning natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than burning coal, CO2 emissions have begun to trend slowly downward, allowing politicians to take a bow. But this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

    The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong. This error is the rough equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange announcing tomorrow that the Dow Jones isn’t really at 17,000: Its computer program has been making a mistake, and your index fund actually stands at 11,000.

    These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spread.

  16. Because here’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere.

    In January 2013, for instance, aerial overflights of fracking basins in Utah found leak rates as high as 9 percent.

    If you combine Howarth’s estimates of leakage rates and the new standard values for the heat-trapping potential of methane, then the picture of America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions over the last 15 years looks very different: Instead of peaking in 2007 and then trending downward, as the EPA has maintained, our combined emissions of methane and carbon dioxide have gone steadily and sharply up during the Obama years, Howarth says. We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse.

  17. B.C. environment minister says climate scientists’ letter ‘doesn’t meet with reality’

    Mary Polak defends B.C. Liberals’ committment to LNG, the ‘cleanest burning’ fossil fuel

    International climate change experts have decried plans for a liquified natural gas industry in B.C., but Environment Minister Mary Polak says LNG has a key role to play as a transition fuel — and that those experts haven’t taken a wide enough view of the industry.

    In a letter addressed to federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, 90 scientists and policy experts said the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG plant near Prince Rupert would make it “virtually impossible” for B.C. to meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets.

    But Polak said the letter’s authors have taken a myopic view of the situation and that the provincial government would be announcing a number of GHG reduction measures later this month.

    “By their own admission in the letter, they say that they have based their estimates on no new actions in terms of climate,” Polak told On the Coast host Stephen Quinn.

    “Their assumption from the beginning doesn’t meet with reality.”

    The letter’s authors say the new facility would increase B.C.’s GHG emissions by as much as 22.5 per cent. But Polak said the LNG from the plant would be used in place of GHG-rich fuels like coal and diesel and would therefore mean a net reduction in emissions.

    “You would likely only see about 3.7 megatons annually as a result of [the Pacific NorthWest facility], which is far, far below what the scientists are estimating in their letter,” Polak said.

    Polak said that, while a complete transition to clean energy is a desirable goal, it won’t happen overnight, especially in less developed countries like China. She said LNG has an important role to play as a “transition” fuel that burns cleaner than current energy staples like coal that can fill the gap until clean energy technology is more viable.

  18. Since 1990 the UK has achieved a 37% reduction of its territorial CO2 emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. And that does sound very impressive. But these numbers do not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. If these numbers are included the reduction is around 10% since 1990 – or an an average of 0.4% a year, according to Tyndall Manchester.

    And the main reason for this reduction is not a consequence of climate policies, but rather a 2001 EU directive on air quality that essentially forced the UK to close down its very old and extremely dirty coal power plants and replace them with less dirty gas power stations. And switching from one disastrous energy source to a slightly less disastrous one will of course result in a lowering of emissions.

  19. Unusually for a right-wing politician, Margaret Thatcher was an early believer in the dangers of global warming. But the impetus she gave to decarbonisation was a by-product of policies with other aims. In crushing the coalminers’ unions in the 1980s, she neutered a powerful industry dedicated to the emission of carbon. Privatising Britain’s energy markets and opening up the North Sea for oil and gas exploitation weakened the coal industry further. Emissions declined gently after Thatcher left office, long before climate change was on the national agenda, simply because a growing proportion of Britain’s electricity and heat was being generated by burning gas, which emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal when burned.

  20. “And although gas helped decarbonise Britain’s grid, it is a hindrance when it comes to heating and transport. That is because Britain has one of the world’s most robust and extensive infrastructures for moving gas around; 85% of its 29m homes are heated with gas boilers. In Germany 47% are. Decades of investment in the gas grid mean that Britain’s electricity grid is not as robust as it needs to be in order to carry the extra power required to replace gas in the heating of Britain’s homes. If it is to charge all the cars and run all the heat pumps, the grid will need to be upgraded at a cost of tens of billions of pounds.”

  21. That has both expanded the economy and diversified it, adding new resilience. And because the boom in gas came at the expense of coal, it has reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite having had little federal climate policy worth speaking of until recently, America’s industrial carbon-dioxide emissions are 18% below their mid-2000s peak. Now that America is deliberately turning its attention to other resources which its size provides in abundance—such as sunshine and windy plains and coasts—it should accelerate that trend.

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