The decision by George Osborne to offer substantial tax breaks to fracking companies has not only infuriated environmentalists. It has caused despair amongst business leaders in the renewable and energy conservation sectors. Whilst fossil fuel companies seem to be the recipients of unending largesse, the government has been decidedly lukewarm towards the green economy and investment has fallen sharply over the past 2 years.
In defense of shale gas, the government claims that it is more fuel-efficient than burning coal, and can therefore be used as a transitional fuel on the way to a low carbon economy. However this argument is highly suspect, firstly because shale gas will last for at least 30 years once the infrastructure is in place, and second because shale gas (methane) is a potent greenhouse gas, twenty times more powerful than CO2 over a 100 year time frame.
Whilst burning gas releases less CO2 per unit of energy than coal, this benefit is negated by releases of methane during the fracking process. Calculations published by Professor Tom Wigley in the journal Climatic Change in 2011 show that unless fugitive emissions of methane are kept below 2 per cent, then shale gas is no better than coal from a global warming perspective. In the US fugitive emissions have been running at around 7 per cent, and the fossil fuel industry has been strenuously resisting methane control legislation proposed by the EPA. This explains why shale gas in the US is cheap, but also means that America’s new energy mix is making climate change worse not better.
Debates about the importance of climate change usually generate more heat than light but there are 4 key facts that put the problem in perspective: First there is no reputable scientific journal that disputes the reality of climate change, nor of man’s contribution to it. Second there is no national scientific academy that diverges from this scientific consensus. Third virtually every government accepts that temperature rises need to be limited to 2 degrees centigrade in order to avoid irreversible climate change. Fourth levels of CO2 in the atmosphere must not exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) in order to stay below the 2 degree barrier.
Currently levels are 400 ppm and are rising by 2-3 ppm per annum: so we cannot afford 30 years of shale gas as a transitional fuel.
Another way of looking at this paradigm is that we can only safely generate another 565 Gigatonnes(Gt) of CO2 and stay within the 2 degree threshold. The Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated that the proven reserves of coal gas and oil globally amount to 2795 Gt, so unless we come up with an effective method of carbon capture, then 80 per cent of proven reserves need to stay below ground. This means writing off 27 trillion dollars in fossil fuel assets, and this simple calculation encapsulates the entire climate change problem.
Ten countries own 72 per cent of proven fossil fuel reserves worldwide, and these are also the countries that have proven most obstructive whenever the UN tries to impose national limits on emissions of CO2. Thus the US signed the Kyoto Protocol but George Bush refused to ratify it. In 2012 Canada withdrew from the Protocol in order to avoid an 8 billion dollar fine. Russia finally ratified in 2005 but has continued to argue against stricter limits, and Australia did not ratify until 2007. Other major players such as China and India are classified as developing countries and are not therefore bound by the Protocol at all ; nor do they wish to be. In effect CO2 emissions worldwide are largely uncontrolled by any international treaty, and as a result annual emissions of CO2 have increased by over 50 per cent compared with 1990, the baseline year for Kyoto.
In the UK emissions have reportedly fallen by 15 per cent, but this is not due to any effort by the Government on behalf of renewables or energy conservation; merely that the UK has exported most of its manufacturing base abroad to places like China. When this is taken into account, CO2 emissions in the UK have actually increased by 20 per cent since 1990.
It is extraordinary that the Coalition has not paid a higher price politically for its neglect of the environment and the Green economy. On smoking and alcohol pricing, the government’s determination to ignore the scientific data on behalf of big business is going to cost them dear: but exactly the same tactics have been used by lobbyists to steer the Treasury down the shale gas route. We have 5 times more fossil fuels in proven reserves than we can safely use, so why on earth is Shell drilling in the Arctic, why are oil companies seeking to develop unconventional sources such as shale gas, and tar sands, and why are politicians subsidizing them in these lunatic ventures? One can only wonder at the scientific advice being offered to ministers, or perhaps their inability to understand it.