Over the past decade, the U.S. shale gas revolution has dramatically increased supplies of low-cost natural gas, upended U.S. coal markets, and led many electric utilities to switch from coal to natural gas. Despite continuing concerns about local impacts of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) practices, natural gas is expected to remain abundant and relatively inexpensive in the U.S.
The U.S. experience has heightened interest in whether natural gas can serve as a “bridge” fuel on the path to a global low-carbon future. Along with rising energy demand, the growing share of coal in the global fuel mix has been the main contributor to the rise in global greenhouse gas emissions in the last decade, and without new policies, the International Energy Agency projects that more than 1,000 GW of new coal power capacity will be added in 2013–2035 alone, mostly in Asia.
Slowing the emissions lock-in of new coal power is thus a top priority for climate policy, one that no single resource – whether renewable energy, nuclear energy, or energy efficiency – can accomplish on its own. As the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel, amenable to higher-efficiency generation technology, natural gas could, in principle, make an important contribution.
Yet the climate implications of increased natural gas supply are far from straightforward. While building out new infrastructure for the supply and use of natural gas can support climate goals by avoiding the “lock-in” of new coal power plants, it also poses risks, for example, of “locking-out” other, lower-emission alternatives. Achieving one while avoiding the other will require careful policy design.
This paper synthesizes published literature, recent modelling studies, and interviews with sector experts, and offer some “guardrails” for a potential climate bridge.
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Note: This paper is an output of the New Climate Economy, the flagship project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, a major international initiative to analyse and communicate the economic benefits and costs of acting on climate change.