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The climate case against shale gas

fracking3This post is by Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth’s energy campaigner.

It’s no surprise that a task force funded by the shale gas industry has produced a report saying fracking can help tackle climate change. But its arguments – repeated in the blog here this week by Stephen Tindale, an advisor to the task force – doesn’t present the whole picture and glosses over some vital issues.

The fracking industry and its advocates tell us that shale gas is cleaner than coal, and that we must shift from coal to gas to cut emissions, as happened in the US. But that’s a red herring. First, as four eminent energy academics concluded earlier this year, the jury is still out on the relative climate impact of coal and shale gas. Nor is the US picture as the industry paints it. Recent research found that the main cause of falling emissions in the US was the economic slowdown and that the coal-to-gas shift played only a minor role. In addition, these emissions weren’t avoided but were simply exported as US coal exports increased and the glut of coal on the international market caused its price to drop.

New gas is incompatible with climate change targets
There is also a very large question mark over whether fracking would – or even could – replace coal in the UK. The Committee on Climate Change says there is no role for conventional coal-fired power generation beyond the early 2020s, and government figures say their use will have virtually ended by this point. But the shale gas industry doesn’t think we will have appreciable quantities of shale gas before the early to mid-2020s. This is too late to replace coal.

The picture painted of shale gas is as a ‘transition’ fuel, helping us move to a renewable-powered future. But the Conservative manifesto promised a “significant expansion in … new gas” presumably, in their eyes, supplied by UK-produced shale gas. This isn’t shale gas as part of a transition, it’s shale gas as a destination. And the Committee on Climate Change has said that the construction of significant new gas-fired power generation capacity would be “completely incompatible” with the UK’s legally binding climate change targets.

Adding to the unburnable stockpile
Are we going to get a renewable-powered future? Not with current government policies of restricting onshore wind and slashing solar subsidies. And earmarking revenue from fracking to support renewables, as the task force suggests, isn’t the answer. The UK has, for the first time, dropped out of the top 10 in an international league table on renewable energy. We need action and support now, not possible funding sometime in the future.

The task force talks up carbon capture and storage, saying it is essential if shale gas develops at scale. But progress on CCS is very slow. What happens if it isn’t deployed?
Like the task force, Stephen Tindale skates over the issue of unburnable carbon. Experts say we will have to leave around 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves underground if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Fracking would set up a whole new fossil fuel industry, making the problem worse by adding to this unburnable stockpile. And neither he nor the task force addresses if, or how, we will get other countries to produce less gas if we start fracking. Fracking is presented as a solution for the UK, what happens elsewhere is disregarded.

In the words of John Ashton, a former special adviser on climate change to Labour and Tory foreign secretaries, “You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time”.

How much gas do we really need?
Importantly, there’s no need to step on the gas to address energy security concerns. The first question to ask should not be “where can we get more gas?” but “how much gas do we really need?” Analysis by Friends of the Earth shows that even with fracking, UK gas imports are likely to be the same in 2030 as they are now. But, if we adopted a suite of ‘Climate Safe’ policies including economy-wide energy efficiency and faster development of renewables, then we could cut gas imports by up to 30 per cent. According to National Grid, we could get most of that gas from Norway which, as Stephen Tindale points out, does not represent a security or climate threat.

Stephen Tindale says the view of anti-fracking campaigners is ‘anywhere but here’. He couldn’t be more wrong. The message is a very clear ‘not here, not anywhere’. Campaigning against fracking is not NIMBYism. Local communities have valid, well-founded reasons for not wanting this risky process in their local area. Fracking was banned last year in New York State because of the health risks. Communities don’t want fracking near them, but they don’t want anyone else to suffer either.

Other solutions can be implemented quickly
Tackling climate change has to start with leaving fossil fuels in the ground. How can the UK go to the Paris climate talks and call for action to cut emissions when it is government policy to “maximise the economic exploitation of fossil fuels”, or, in other words, squeeze every last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea and to push ahead with fracking as fast as possible?

We know what the answers to our energy problems are: a nationwide, economy-wide energy efficiency programme and a vastly-increased role for renewable power. And, unlike fracking, these solutions can be implemented quickly. Friends of the Earth has calculated that the UK can move to generating three-quarters of its electricity from renewables by 2030. It is this possibility that is most threatened by fracking in Britain, not the coal industry.

An energy system based around energy efficiency and renewables would bring a multiple win for the UK: better for the climate, better for energy security, better for energy bills, better for jobs and better for the economy.

@tonybosworth

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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