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

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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.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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