A blight on the poor and the planet
When the next typhoon batters the coastal region of a poorer nation, the number of families dislocated, the infrastructures damaged and the crops destroyed will all have been exacerbated by the 20cm rise in sea level that our emissions of carbon dioxide have already triggered. Climate change is the lived reality of many millions of people today, people with little responsibility for the increase in emissions but who nevertheless suffer the consequences.
Fossil fuels, whether coal, oil or gas, emit large quantities of carbon dioxide when combusted. Shale gas is no different. In all practical terms it is simply natural gas comprising (by mass) 25% hydrogen and 75% carbon.
Wrestling any hydrocarbon from the ground is an inevitably messy, noisy and periodically dangerous and environmentally destructive process. Shale gas is no exception. Extracted carefully, the impacts and risks will be similar to any well-regulated hydrocarbon operation. But however ‘clean’ the extraction, once combusted the carbon emitted will change the climate for many decades and centuries to come.
Science can only advise on the parameters of what’s dangerous; defining it is ultimately a political undertaking. Over many years the international community has established that an increase in global average temperature of 2°C by the latter part of the century is the ‘appropriate’ threshold between acceptable and dangerous levels of climate change.
But such a global average masks huge regional variations, linked to droughts, floods etc. Not surprisingly, the political horse-trading that defined 2°C favoured the rich, powerful and high-emitting nations at the expense of our poorer, low-emitting and more vulnerable neighbours.
So whilst wealthier governments may be broadly satisfied with the 2°C obligation, many others see it as a death sentence and argue for a maximum of just 1°C or perhaps 1.5°C of warming. But, on climate change as with much else, however cogent their arguments, the cries of the weak and vulnerable go unheard.
Acknowledging that 2°C already condemns many to dangerous levels of climate change, what does science tell us about how much carbon can be emitted for a “likely” chance of staying below this threshold?
Here the science is clear: we have a global carbon budget of around 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that we can emit from energy, land-use and industry between 2011 and 2100. Given that we’ve already emitted around 15% of that budget in the first four years, even if our estimates of emissions from land-use and industry are optimistic, we're left with just 650 billion tonnes to be emitted from all sources of energy between now and 2100.
Dividing this rapidly dwindling carbon budget between all nations demands such deep and early reductions in emissions that shale gas, at least within the wealthier nations, can have no significant role to play. The maths and timeline are that clear: if we’re not to renege on our explicit 2°C commitment, there is no emission space for a post-2020 shale gas industry. Even if the elusive promise of large-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is realised, shale gas with CCS will still have lifecycle emissions of carbon that are too high for it to have any meaningful part in our energy future.
Hydrocarbons powered the industrialisation of the twentieth century but not without bequeathing a latent climate change legacy to the twenty-first. The UK benefitted more than most from industrialisation but at the cost of disproportionately high emissions.
We live in a very wealthy and highly educated nation with a world-leading portfolio of renewable energy opportunities. We have all the resources and tools necessary to become a low-carbon and climate-resilient society. What we have thus far lacked is the innovative thinking and courage to conceive of such a future – one in which shale gas remains in the ground, not least as a symbol of our genuine commitment to future generations and the preservation of our unique planet.