Lewis Brown is Digital Communications Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies
Record levels of air pollution meant the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau was forced to close factories, curb car use and suggest that children stay indoors on Friday. It was just the latest in a series of worrying smog incidents that plague Asia’s rising superpower. But this is not just an environmental disaster. A little known particle within the polluted air called PM2.5 was responsible for 3.2 million deaths in 2010, including 1.2 million in China, according to Institute of Health Studies figures.
PM2.5 refers to particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, microscopic dust particles created directly from burning fuel but also by secondary chemical reactions from emitted sulphur and nitrous oxides (SOx and NOx).
These particulates are so tiny that they penetrate deep into human lungs where they are absorbed into the blood and lead to cardiorespiratory disease. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates PM2.5 is responsible for about 75,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, even though US measured air quality levels are typically ranked in the good to moderate categories, with an AQI (air quality index) of 0 to 100.
Globally, PM2.5 kills more people per year than AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis. It is astonishing that we do not hear about this daily from politicians, environmentalists and journalists, as we do with the far more vague and distant threat of climate change.The number one source of PM2.5? Burning coal. A recent study of inhabitants around China’s Huai River showed that those living to the north (where free coal has been provided for heating and cooking) had their lives shortened by an average of 5.5 years when compared to their southern neighbours (where coal was forbidden in homes).
So it is of growing concern that environmentalists are not backing technological advances that can mitigate PM2.5 levels. In a new report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last Friday, physicist Professor Richard Muller and Elizabeth Muller argue the world has to back fracking for shale gas if it is to tackle the twin threats of air pollution and global warming.
Compared to coal, shale gas has been shown to result in an average 400-fold reduction of PM2.5, a 4000-fold reduction in sulphur dioxide, a 70-fold reduction in nitrous oxides (NOx), and more than a 30-fold reduction in mercury. So George Osborne was right to say “we should not turn our backs on new sources of energy such as shale gas” during the Autumn Statement. The Treasury believes tht his announcement of a new tax allowance that halves rates on early profits gives the UK the most the most competitive tax regime for fracking in Europe, and even more attractive than the US, where the shale revolution has meant that it is on course to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in just a few year’s time
Other nations are not so sympathetic. France recently confirmed it has no intention of reversing its nationwide fracking ban. China, with the world’s highest annual death toll from PM2.5, became a net importer of natural gas in 2007, and by 2012 imports grew to 29 per cent of its gas consumption. And yet, China is believed to have enormous reserves of shale gas, perhaps 50 per cent larger than those of the US. Some of the concerns of environmentalists have been largely debunked – such as the “flaming faucets” made famous by the Hollywood documentary Gasland, which have been a problem long before fracking.
Some concerns are real, but can be addressed by appropriate regulation. Fugitive methane emissions, in particular, can and must be mitigated – but the impact of even the highest estimates of these emissions is far below that of coal. The headline-grabbing association of fracking with earthquakes has been exaggerated: typically, earthquakes generated directly by fracking are too small to feel, although detectable by seismometers. Contrast the energy output of a match compared to ten pounds of TNT: that is the ratio of the minor tremors associated with fracking compared to a small natural earthquake that might cause minor damage to buildings.
But what of the effect of shale – a fossil fuel, after all – on climate change? Professor Muller believes that global warming is real, and best explained by greenhouse gases. It’s another reason why he backs fracking. The Chancellor also stated that “going green does not have to cost the earth.” To mitigate global warming it is essential to slow emissions, but it must be achieved without slowing economic growth.
Presently, coal use is still widespread in Europe. In 2009, it produced 28 per cent of the electric power in the UK, 56 per cent in the Czech Republic, and 42 per cent (more recently up to 50 per cent) in Germany. Renewable forms of energy are expensive and inefficient at present. The developed world can no longer afford to pay a premium for the development of low carbon energy forms such as solar and wind. Shale gas can perform the role of a “bridging fuel”, allowing a speedy transition away from coal burning. The low cost, the absence of an intermittency problem, and good existing gas infrastructure means Europe is well placed to develop shale quickly.
In China, shale gas development has been proceeding slowly, in part because of complex geology, but also because of a comparative inexperience with free enterprise. The first attempts at introducing competition, based on open bidding for shale gas leases, have been disappointing; many of the winning companies not having the necessary technical or financial capability for rapid, innovative development. China has also found it difficult to decontrol prices, a key step towards making shale competitive.
Properly utilized, shale gas offers a wonderful opportunity for such countries as China to tackle air pollution while still allowing energy growth. Professor Muller argues until China masters the free-enterprise system, rapid technological advances are more easily achieved in the West through competition and iteration, and then exported. We need to advance shale gas technology as rapidly as possible and to share it freely. Shale gas, with its near-total reduction of PM2.5 provides a solution to the pollution. Utilised correctly, it can be a clean technology. Environmentalists should recognise the beneficial role the shale gas revolution can play and lend their full support to its advance.
Why every serious environmentalist should favour fracking is written by Professor Richard Muller and Elizabeth Muller and published by the Centre for Policy Studies.