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Climate Change Jeffrey Sachs: Natural Gas Is “Absolutely Not Clean Enough”

Published on January 23rd, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan

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Jeffrey Sachs: Natural Gas Is “Absolutely Not Clean Enough”

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January 23rd, 2013 by Zachary Shahan 

Dr Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary‐General on the Millennium Development Goals, gave one of the strongest presentations of the first-ever Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and the 6th Annual World Future Energy Summit — it might have been the strongest presentation, in my opinion. His goal definitely seemed to be to wake us up to the urgency of addressing global warming and global climate change, and I think he did a good job of that. He also focused quite a bit on the shortcomings of natural gas. Here’s a video of his speech, followed by what I think were some of the highlights / key points:

In my opinion, the messages or quotes in bold below were some of Dr Sachs’ most compelling points:

1. Natural gas production is not sustainable — it’s also harmful to our climate. “The hydrofracking revolution that is bringing shale oil and shale gas to many parts of the world is very profitable, but it is not putting the world on a trajectory that is sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.”

Later in the speech, he added: “while we are in the middle of our new ‘gold rush’ of hydrofracking, and we tell ourselves conveniently that natural gas is clean, it is cleaner than coal, but it is absolutely not clean enough to divert us from a trajectory of grave damage on the environment — let’s be clear about that. We use rhetoric, which lulls us to complacency, to say that natural gas is a clean energy source. It is not a low-carbon energy source. It’s low-carbon only in comparison to coal. But it is high-carbon in comparison to what our climate can take.”

This triggers an excellent analogy Karl-Friedrich Lenz recently made (which I shared in a news roundup yesterday): “Using gas is like smoking a ‘light’ cigarette. It may contain slightly less harmful substances, but it will still kill you. That’s why the European Union has a ban in place on using words like ‘light’ or ‘mild’ in connection with cigarettes since 10 years ago.”

That’s the sad truth. And while natural gas could help renewable energy technologies power the majority of the grid without any support from nuclear or coal power plants, the truth is that we don’t currently need it (at today’s renewable energy saturation levels), and it is far too overhyped.

Of course, even with optimistic assumptions about natural gas, it is not clean enough to be a significant part of our energy mix:

However, due to uncontrollable and perhaps grossly underestimated natural gas leakage, the scary thing is that natural gas might be even much worse than we tend to assume.

2. Climate change is already hitting us. It is already a challenge. And this is just the beginning. “And I do think we are seeing, if we care to open our eyes, a rather alarming reality about climate change. It’s not news anymore, but I’m going to say it anyway, and that is — the issue of climate change used to be talked about as a problem of the future, and it is now a problem of the immediate present. In every part of the world, in every year, there are a number of calamities that vastly outnumber anything that we experienced even 20 years ago. The global climate system is simply changing a lot faster than our minds are changing, our institutions are changing, or our energy systems are changing.”

In reference to that point just above, he had this great quote: “I come from New York City. It’s a place that considers itself pretty sophisticated. It’s a place that couldn’t get the power supply on millions of people for a month after a major hurricane hit in November, and the city was unprepared, as was the East Coast unprepared, for a massive amount of flooding, which has come from the fact that the sea level has increased/risen by about a foot over the past century, and so when a massive storm hit, the amount of flooding was of an unprecedented character.

“But the United States was actually hit by pre-shocks this past year — the warmest year in the instrument history of the United States; the massive drought that hit more than 60% of the US, and caused a huge damage to the food supply, and sent wheat and soybean and maize prices worldwide soaring once again; and the hurricane, Hurricane Sandy, which struck in early November.

“But if you look in almost any part of the world, the story is the same. The size of the shocks, the droughts, the floods, the extreme events are coming at an alarming rate.”

What more is there to say about all of that? The catastrophes of global warming and climate change are already hitting us… and they are only projected to get worse.

3. “I don’t think that our discussion is adequate yet. We do not have a solution trajectory that is, first of all, even identified. The United States, for example, does not have an energy plan. We have no policy that is agreed in the United States, not even a policy that has been put forward clearly in the United States, to explain how we will get on a low-carbon trajectory.”

Again, not much to add there.

4. “And in the United States, for various reasons, we have not been able to create a framework that describes to the American people, for example, what is a trajectory to reach a low-carbon economy. Even less do we have a public policy. We don’t have a carbon tax. We don’t have a permit system. We have no agreement on this.

“And if you look around at the major economies of the world, this is basically true, with the partial exception of Europe.”

A bit chilling. For those of us aware of this, I think all we can do is keep pushing as hard as we can to change things in the countries, communities, and circles where we live.

For more content from CleanTechnica’s trip to Abu Dhabi, check out our archive pages for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the World Future Energy Summit, and/or the International Renewable Energy Conference.

Full Disclosure: my trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week was funded by Masdar. That said, I was completely free to cover what I wanted throughout the week, and at no point did I feel under pressure to cover any specific events or Masdar in any particular way.

Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.



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About the Author

spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as the director/chief editor. Otherwise, he's probably enthusiastically fulfilling his duties as the director/editor of Solar Love, EV Obsession, Planetsave, or Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and wind energy expert. If you would like him to speak at a related conference or event, connect with him via social media. You can connect with Zach on any popular social networking site you like. Links to all of his main social media profiles are on ZacharyShahan.com.



  • silqworm

    AGW is nothing but a genocidal scam and Sachs should be brought to justice at a new War Crimes tribunal in Nuremberg, Pennsylvania. The Earth hasn’t warmed in 16 years, the sea levels are behaving normally, global sea ice is normal (which doesn’t change sea level anyway.) There is no real physics basis for believing CO2 is a significant influence on the weather. These criminals simply want to keep power for themselves by destroying America first and foremost.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Let me offer an edit –

    “Natural gas is the short-term future of energy.”

    Natural gas is better than coal. Less CO2, no mercury, etc. And it is dispatchable. NG can be used as a fill-in for wind and solar until we get better storage.

    It looks like affordable storage is on its way and when it is we can also start leaving natural gas where it belongs. Deep underground. Just let sleeping carbon lie.

    I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see better storage emerge this year, certainly before the end of next. At that point NG will start its fade into oblivion and the world will be a better place.

    • ronwagn

      You are a real idealist, but price does matter, and you need to get a little more grounded in reality.

      • Altair IV

        Hahaha. Bob is one of the most “grounded” posters I’ve yet seen on an environmental website. What he says isn’t idealistic, it’s just a simple description of the true nature of these technologies, and what is going to happen with them. NG will replace coal, then solar+wind+storage will replace NG. All you have to do is look at the trend lines to see it.

        NG, BTW, is only as cheap as it is now due to an unnatural speculative bubble. In a few years that bubble is going to burst and costs are going to start climbing again. Like all fossil fuels, it’s a limited resource, and it’s only going to get tougher and more expensive to get at as time goes on. In that respect the only idealist I see here is you.

  • lemstoll

    It is important to note by Sachs at the end of interview that he has a
    disclaimer about his funding from Masdar Clean Energy owned by Mubadala
    Development Company PJSC. Mubadala was established in October 2002 as a
    Public Joint Stock Company and is a wholly owned investment vehicle of
    the Government of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.

    Mubadala’s mandate is to facilitate the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s
    economy. Its focus is on managing long-term, capital-intensive
    investments that deliver strong financial returns and tangible social
    benefits for the Emirate. The company pursues opportunities with the
    potential to deliver strong social returns for Abu Dhabi as well as
    generating a commercial profit

    Masdar Clean Energy invests in the development of large-scale clean
    energy projects, ranging from utility-scale wind and solar to energy
    efficiency and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Masdar Clean Energy is
    involved with pioneering projects around the world and across the
    technological landscape.

    In the UAE, Masdar Clean Energy projects include: Shams 1, a 100MW
    concentrated solar power project with Abengoa Solar and Total in the
    western region of Abu Dhabi; Masdar City’s 10MW solar PV array in Abu
    Dhabi. Masdar Clean Energy also strategically invests in the development
    of carbon capture and sequestration projects in the UAE that seek to
    simultaneously add value to the national economy while reducing
    industrial carbon emissions.

    Masdar is also spreading its clean energy vision to projects in the
    region including a wind farm in the Seychelles; renewable projects in
    Tonga and Afghanistan that are being developed in response to the United
    Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative; a 15MW Solar PV farm in
    Mauritania as well as several other regional projects currently in the
    development pipeline.

    Internationally, Masdar Clean Energy has . the development of some of
    world’s highest-profile utility-scale renewable energy projects
    including: Torresol, a joint venture with SENER that operates 120MW
    worth of CSP plants in Spain; and the 630MW (Phase 1) London Array
    offshore wind farm in the Thames Estuary, a joint venture with DONG
    Energy an E.ON, that when completed will be the largest offshore wind
    farm in the world.

    Therefore, is stands to reason that Sachs is against Natural Gas energy.
    I agree, “fracking” shoud be banned, but natural gas must play a role
    in reducing oil and coal fossil fuels that are the biggest contributor
    to global climate change, not natural gas. Thanks.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Who writes checks to you Lem?

      How about everyone disclosing?

      • lemstoll

        I work for a publishing company. How about you? Some sort of apologists group with fiduciary or actual investments with Masdar Clean Energy and/or any of its subsidiaries?

        I appreciate Sach’s disclosure. But who the heck knew whom Masdar was? He certianly didn’t explain who they were did he? No. The writer has a clear responsibiklity to be more forthcoming with funding sources. He should have described Masdar Clean Energy….not me.

        • Bob_Wallace

          What sort of publishing company?

          Me? I’m retired. Haven’t earned a paycheck of any sort in almost 25 years.

          I might own some Masdar in one of my stock index funds. There are a few thousand companies altogether, I’ve never read the lists.

          • lemstoll

            This has nothing to do with you being retired? This is about natural gas being falsely labled as notclean enough…we are engaged in relativism….so-what is your real motive here?

            I think you qualify as an internet troll

            A troll is someone who posts inflammatory,[ extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[ or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Look, Lem. Let’s review facts.

            1) The quoted presentation was made by Dr Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary‐General on the Millennium Development Goals. There is nothing in the article about him getting funding from Masdar.

            2) The person who disclosed getting some goodies from Masdar was Zach – who runs the site. He recently attended a conference which was funded by Masdar.

            3) You asked me if I was “Some sort of apologists group with fiduciary or actual investments with Masdar Clean Energy and/or any of its subsidiaries?” I told you no. I’m retired.

            4)”This is about natural gas being falsely labled as notclean enough” Yes, this is about natural gas not being clean enough.

            Natural gas is not clean enough. We cannot keep burning large amounts of natural gas and reduce our CO2 levels to where they need to be. And the there is the fracking/ground water problem along with the methane leak problem.

            5) “I think you qualify as an internet troll”

            If I pass do I quality for a stipend? Can you send me an application form? Can I list you as a reference?

          • lemstoll

            We still need natural gas in the interim.

            Coal and oIl, especially oil extracted from tar sands in Canada, is extremely detrimental to the planet, and is the chief cause of global climate change.

            Natural gas fracking should be illegal. Period.

            Read this:
            Unpacking health hazards in fracking’s chemical cocktail:

            http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.3/unpacking-health-hazards-in-frackings-chemical-cocktail

            And of course, we should be going full speed ahead with solar, wind, wave turbines, and other viable alternative clean technologies mentioned here.

            Short term, however, natural gas has to play a part as it is the least “offensive” fuel compared to oil, coal, and nuclear.

            Finally, no one is taking into consideration methane gases produced by multi-national big industrial farming. Methane and other air pollutants
            are thinning our ozone layer.

            For What? A billion burgers of beef?

            We are destroying rainforest and other sources of oxygen producing
            forests and lands simply because we have a planet based in eating meat.
            Big Farm agriculture for beef, pork and poultry is an extremely
            polluting, methane producing industry.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            it has been studied extensively. it’s not clean enough: http://cleantechnica.com/2012/03/02/clean-energy-is-needed-now-climate-scientists-climate-economists-say/
            apologies if you have connections to the industry.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            Masdar’s not publicly traded, so you don’t. But I wouldn’t be ashamed if i did!

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          I’ve got a long piece planned on Masdar and Masdar Clean Energy. :D Stay tuned.

    • Bob_Wallace

      “It is important to note by Sachs at the end of interview that he has a
      disclaimer about his funding from Masdar Clean Energy owned by Mubadala
      Development Company PJSC”

      Lem, would you please go back and read more carefully. Perhaps you can point out to me where Sachs says that he is funded by Masdar. I can’t find it.

    • ronwagn

      Natural gas supply depends on fracking, which is as clean as solar or wind.
      Watch Fracknation for the truth on the matter. Solar and wind have many environmental downsides. Visual blight, killing birds, noise, dangerous chemical components, taking up large areas of land etc. I am not against them though. I just want them to compete on a fair basis, not sliming the opposition.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      I think you misread: I wrote the disclaimer (about my trip). And I can guarantee you that it didn’t influence me on any of the matters I’m writing about.

      Regarding Sachs: he will give you the same speech anywhere. he’s focused on helping the world and is anything but bought. please, look into it.

  • Otto

    I remember reading that the flume from burning natural gas [at a utility scale ] was far more manageable for extracting CO2 than from coal.CO2 could be used for algae growth , making cement, etc. Yet you always refer to the use of natural gas as if there is no way to mitigate the CO2. Does your bias against natural gas prevent you from considering the technologies available to make natural gas truly clean?

    • Bob_Wallace

      We could capture some of the CO2 from natural gas. We don’t have technology to capture all from the stream.

      If we did use CO2 capture it would raise the cost of natural gas generation and lower the energy produced. We’d have to burn more to get the same output which would mean even less CO2 un-captured.

      Make NG electricity more expensive and we’d likely delay the closing of coal plants. It’s likely better to get coal shut down which reduces CO2, mercury, etc. And NG is dispatchable. We can shut NG down with wind and solar.

      Then there’s the issue of what we would do with massive amounts of CO2. No one, as far as I’ve seen, has come up with a cheap, safe way to store it back underground where it stay safely.

      Using the CO2 for algae growth just slows down the time at which it enters the atmosphere. As soon as we burn the algae oil – Bingo!

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      There are simply a TON of issues with natural gas. I’m technology-neutral from the start, but what I’ve learned about natural gas over the years (several diff aspects of it), it simply seems like it has more negatives than positives.

      And, well, on the global warming front, it simply doesn’t do the job.

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