Green credentials of fracking ‘exaggerated’, says IPCC author

Yacob Mulugetta tells RTCC he was surprised by level of focus given to role of gas in cutting emissions post WG3 report

Fracking: a clean answer to climate change or simply an old answer to growing problems? (Pic; BHP Bilton)

Fracking: a clean answer to climate change or simply an old answer to growing problems? (Pic; BHP Bilton)

By Ed King

The role of shale gas as a green source of energy has been overstated, according to one of the lead authors of the UN’s most recent climate science study.

Proposals to decarbonise the world’s energy supplies were released on April 13 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its Working Group 3 report compiled by 235 scientists and economists.

Recommendations included the wide deployment of solar and wind energy systems, replacing coal power plants which are responsible for the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But many commentators and media outlets picked up on the IPCC’s assertion that shale gas, sourced by ‘fracking’ underground reserves, could offer a low carbon alternative to coal and help avoid dangerous climate change.

In an interview Yacob Mulugetta, coordinating lead author on the IPCC chapter which focused specifically on energy, said he was “surprised” at how much focus the role fracking as a short-term climate solution generated after the IPCC launch.

He told RTCC: “Certainly there is an interest group that is trying to push the shale gas agenda. That was not a major part of the technology options that we were presenting or assessing in the chapter.”

Natural gas has half the carbon content of coal, and climate policies to encourage this transition could offer a temporary solution to rising levels of warming gases, said the IPCC report.

But the UN panel warned that fugitive emissions from drilling sites, allied to a substantial expansion of gas use would mean the world missing its climate targets.

And its use in power generation would likely need to fall below present levels by 2050, to avoid temperature rises in the range of 3-5C.

“A lot of this is driven by what has happened in the United States,” added Mulugetta, who is a Reader in energy, climate and development at the University of Surrey. “If you displace coal there may be some viability, but if you’re displacing gas there’s a zero gain.”

Vested interests

Interest in how countries could slash carbon pollution levels has been especially intense given the precarious state of international negotiations on a global climate change treaty.

The final week of discussions on what the IPCC report’s influential Summary for Policymakers (SPM) should say about how the world should decarbonise were described as “intense” and “knackering” by Mulugetta.

Other scientists say they were left “shaking” by a series of last-minute edits by government officials involved in the Berlin meeting, keen to inject their own national interests into the UN document.

China and Saudi Arabia both stand accused of blocking graphs and text linking emissions to income levels, preferring to maintain the traditional ‘developed and developing’ country demarcations.

Mulugetta describes the final outcome as “fairly balanced” and “not hugely changed from before”, but admits there was pressure from some states to alter the text.

“In the plenary process, that’s somewhat different, because countries are looking at their own vested interests, how their energy system is evolving and so on,” he said.

“You would have oil producing countries who would make a case for CCS technology, and others who are pushing heavily on renewables and making a case on that front.”

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Global commons

Far from being disappointed in the final SPM, he says the inclusion of references to sustainable development, equity and justice on page 4 mark it out as a progressive report.

Referencing these issues in a way all countries could accept proved challenging, and required the establishment of a specially convened contact group discussion to construct a compromise.

But Mulugetta says the fact that countries now recognise climate change and carbon pollution as a ‘global commons’ issue is significant, potentially heralding greater international cooperation.

“It’s the first time that the collective recognition of responsibility is in black and white in such a report. It was the first time the IPCC was testing it,” he said.

“People were nervous and there was a lot of discussion about framings to use, but in the end it was a worthwhile effort. We may have underestimated the ability of countries to accept the notion of global commons, and I think they do accept that.”

How countries act on the report is likely to depend on their financial situation, and what levels of support they can attract from development banks and the private sector.

The IPCC says “large changes in investment patterns” will be needed by 2100 to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2, with the low carbon energy sector expected to demand an extra $147 billion by 2030.

Large parts of this investment are likely to be needed in the developing world, with African and Asian countries set to play a significant role in determining whether carbon dioxide levels rise or fall.

Mulugetta argues the report demonstrates how green growth is the best way to develop an economy in a low cost way, describing the risks, costs, policies, financing and mechanisms that governments will need to consider.

He points to Ethiopia and Rwanda as proof it is possible for developing countries to achieve economic growth while keeping emissions down, and says the continued fall in costs of renewable technology should make this a realistic ambition for other African states.

“The key message [from the IPCC report] is that it is possible to limit warming to 2C if we were to deploy existing technologies… it is possible,” he said.

“The challenge we have is institutions and the political will.”

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