Although the burning of natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide than coal, a new study concludes that a greater reliance on natural gas would fail to significantly slow down climate change. The study by Tom Wigley, who is a senior research associate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), underscores the complex and sometimes conflicting ways in which fossil fuel burning affects Earth’s climate. While coal use causes warming through emission of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, it also releases comparatively large amounts of sulfates and other particles that, although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight. As always the final picture of climate effect is very complicated to put together.
Wigley’s computer simulations indicate that a worldwide, partial shift from coal to natural gas would slightly accelerate climate change through at least 2050, even if no methane leaked from natural gas operations, and through as late as 2140 if there were substantial leaks. After that, the greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow down the increase in global average temperature, but only by a few tenths of a degree.
The burning of coal releases more carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, as well as comparatively high levels of other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particles such as ash. Since natural gas emits lower levels of these pollutants, some energy experts have proposed greater reliance on that fuel source as a way to slow down global warming and reduce the impacts of energy use on the environment.
But the effects of natural gas on climate change have been difficult to calculate. Recent studies have come to conflicting conclusions about whether a shift to natural gas would significantly slow the rate of climate change, in part because of uncertainty about the extent of methane leaks.
Wigley’s new study attempts to take a more comprehensive look at the issue by incorporating the cooling effects of sulfur particles associated with coal burning and by analyzing the complex climatic influences of methane, which affects other atmospheric gases such as ozone and water vapor.
By running a series of computer simulations, Wigley found that a 50 percent reduction in coal and a corresponding increase in natural gas use would lead to a slight increase in worldwide warming for the next 40 years of about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit (less than 0.1 degree Celsius). The reliance on natural gas could then gradually reduce the rate of global warming, but temperatures would drop by only a small amount compared to the 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C) of warming projected by 2100 under current energy trends.
The main direct effect of sulfates on the climate involves the scattering of light, effectively increasing the Earth's albedo. This effect is moderately well understood and leads to a cooling from the negative radiative forcing, partially offsetting the larger warming effect of greenhouse gases. The effect is strongly spatially non-uniform, being largest downstream of large industrial areas.