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Climate impacts of fossil fuels in today’s electricity systems 

Author:  | Emissions


Oil, coal, and gas account for approximately 80% of global primary energy, but only a portion of total airborne CO2eq (approx. 35% at GWP20 to 65% at GWP100), even though they account for 95% of total measured CO2 emissions. The benefits of these energy sources, as well as their related costs, are not all incorporated in current energy policy discussions. Global greenhouse gas policies must include documented changes in measured airborne CO2eq to avoid spending large amounts of public funds on ineffective or sub-optimal policies.

The authors examined airborne CO2, which is less than half of emitted CO2, as well as reported CH4 emissions and the global warming potential of CH4 as published by the IPCC for coal and natural gas. The surprising conclusion is that surfaced-mined coal appears ‘better for the climate’ than the average natural gas, and all coal appears beneficial over LNG. Therefore, current CO2-only reduction policies and CO2 taxes are leading to unintended consequences and the switch from coal to natural gas, especially LNG, will not have the desired impact of reducing predicted future global warming; in fact, quite the contrary. A large portion of anthropogenic global warming is attributed by the IPCC and IEA to CH4, but it must be noted that CH4 emissions from natural sources and from agriculture account for approximately 40% and 25% of annual global CH4 emissions respectively. Energy accounts for about 20% of documented CH4 emissions.

CO2 contributes only approximately 35% of annual airborne anthropogenic GHG emissions after accounting for CH4, over a 20-year horizon. At a 100-year horizon, the contribution of CO2 increases to approximately 60%. Energy policies that do not consider all GHG emissions along the entire value chain will lead to undesired economic and environmental distortions. All carbon taxation and CO2 pricing schemes are incorrect and need to be revised.

At IPCC’s GWP20 an approximately 2% higher loss of CH4 across the value chain prior to combustion of natural gas versus coal will lead to ‘climate parity’ of coal with natural gas. According to public data, natural gas value chains have high CH4 and undocumented CO2 losses. On a global average, using only IEA-documented CH4 data, natural gas emits approximately 15% more CO2eq than surface-mined coal, over a 20-year horizon. This difference will increase as the use of shale gas and LNG expands.

Investors should support all energy systems in a manner that avoids an energy crisis, including intermittent renewable energy systems where they make sense. If CO2 emissions need to be reduced, one of the most effective ways would be to install ultra-supercritical power plants with CCUS technology. However, the undisputed benefits of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere because of its promotion of photosynthesis and plant growth effects (fertilization) need to be considered in energy policy decisions as well. The authors suggest that future research and development should concentrate on reducing net emissions from fossil fuel power plants and providing cost-effective and reliable new conventional power generation capacity, utilizing clean coal and clean natural gas technology.

L. Schernikau, Berlin, Germany
W.H. Smith, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
vol. 122, n. 3, Johannesburg, Mar. 2022

Download original document: “Climate impacts of fossil fuels in today’s electricity systems

This material is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this material resides with the author(s). As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Queries e-mail.

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