Even if there is no provable link between man-made global warming and the floods, there’s no denying that Britain’s battering has put those opposed to action on climate change on the defensive.
They do, however, have a fall back position. Many of them are willing to accept the science (as opposed to the campaigning) on climate change, but argue that the lesson of the floods is that instead of mitigation we should devote our efforts to adaptation.
This is a false choice. There are all sorts of ways in which we can reduce our carbon emissions and increase our resilience as a nation – while making some money in the process. For instance, by developing our natural gas resources we can reduce our reliance on dirty old coal, shore-up our energy security and cut the trade deficit.
That, at least, is the theory. The practice is a little trickier, because according to an article by Robin Webster for Carbon Brief there’s a complication:
“Government ministers argue the UK could burn gas – including domestic shale gas – instead of coal as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the energy system. But gas leakage during the extraction and transportation process may mean gas is not as low carbon as official estimates presume.”
Natural gas is basically methane – which, compared to coal, releases only half the amount of carbon dioxide when burned (and even less when you take into account the greater efficiency of gas-fired power stations). However, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right – many times more powerful than carbon dioxide – so if it leaks from pipes and wells before it’s combusted then it won’t be as clean as it’s cracked-up to be.
Webster explains how a Stanford University review of more than 200 studies shows that governments may be down-playing the impact of methane leakage:
“US government regulator the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the effect on emissions of using gas as a fuel in its greenhouse gas emissions inventory. It includes gas leakage in its assessment, but the studies reviewed suggest it’s underestimating the effect.
“The actual leakage is about 1.25 to 1.75 times higher than the ‘official’ estimates from the EPA, the research concludes. And that means gas is more climate-polluting than the EPA thinks it is.”
So is natural gas as dirty as coal after all? Not necessarily. For a start, the authors of the review emphasise that they are looking at worst-case scenarios. Furthermore, even if the problem is as bad as the high-end estimates indicate, there is a solution:
“…the paper argues that the problem could easily fixed. It concludes that just a few sites are responsible for most of the gas leakage measured. 58 per cent of methane emissions come from 0.06 per cent of the sources – so-called ‘superemitter’ sites. This means that is should be easy to fix the leaks as there aren’t as many of them.”
Natural gas is a valuable commodity, not a toxic by-product – letting it escape into the atmosphere is a waste of money as well as a contributor to the greenhouse effect. It should, therefore, be in everyone’s interest to plug the leaks – so why don’t they?
The reality, in both the public and private sectors, is that resources are needlessly wasted all the time. It often requires external pressure before long-established systems get the shake-up they deserve.
Before calling on consumers and taxpayers to shoulder the cost of more expensive solutions, governments need to show that they are pushing for the easy-wins first.