A new study published by researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield has shown that the UK’s ability to cut emissions from electricity production by 25% in 2016 could be used as a model for other countries to adopt and quickly reduce global carbon emissions by 3%.
The UK has been steadily stepping down its reliance upon coal, but in the last few years, the drop-off has been staggering. In 2016, CO2 emissions fell by 5.8% due in large part to a 52% collapse of coal use, and a larger 25% drop in electricity production. While the declines were not as steep in 2017 they nevertheless continued, with emissions falling by 2.6% driven by a 19% decline in coal usage. Natural gas has, primarily, been the energy generation source to pick up the slack, but there is growing reliance upon wind energy across the country. For example, in 2016, electricity generated from wind outperformed that from coal, with 11.5% of total contribution compared to 9.2% respectively.
Published on Sunday in the journal Nature Energy, researchers from Imperial College London along with colleagues at the University of Sheffield showed that global carbon emissions could be cut by 1 gigatonne (Gt) per year, or around 3% of global emissions, in less than five years if other countries followed the same strategy that led to the UK’s massive declines — i.e. prioritizing natural gas over coal and switching off unused coal plants and introducing strict carbon pricing.
The new report, Rapid fuel switching from coal to natural gas through effective carbon pricing, further explained that their research is not reliant upon countries building more and newer natural gas infrastructure, but rather using existing infrastructure to its full potential and capacity.
“Switching from coal to gas is not a long-term solution, but it is an important step to start reducing emissions quickly and at minimal cost,” explained Dr Iain Staffell from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial and a co-author of the new report. “This will give us time to build up the required renewable energy capacity to permanently cut global carbon emissions.”
“Having a longer-term view, it is likely to prove vastly cheaper not to emit a tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere over the near-term, rather than to have to take it back out of the atmosphere after 2050,” added Co-author Dr Grant Wilson, from Energy2050 at the University of Sheffield. “This is especially the case if the infrastructure has already been built but is underutilised. This report suggests that the option of fuel switching in the power sector deserves greater consideration to reduce emissions.”
Researchers investigated the 30 largest coal consuming countries around the world to determine whether the savings seen in the UK could be replicated elsewhere. They found that by utilizing existing underused capacity, and without the need to build new infrastructure, annual emissions could be reduced by 0.8 to 1.2 Gt of CO2 if natural gas, which produces less than half the CO2 emissions as coal was burned instead.
“To avoid the worst impacts of climate change we cannot afford to build new fossil-fuel power stations,” continued Dr Staffell. “Building high-carbon infrastructure, such as new gas power plants, is at least a 30-year commitment, which will further lock countries into dependence on carbon.
“The UK is leading by example. In the last year all new power stations were renewable; powered by the wind and sun. With the cost of these new technologies coming down rapidly, the economic case for eliminating carbon-based electricity is very strong, but there are still difficult political issues to tackle.”
The authors also dove deeper into two countries in particular — Germany and the US — and found that the opportunities are available, but that political willpower (and in the case of Germany some legitimate security risks when considering the need to import gas from Russia) is missing and would make the transition from coal to gas tricky.
In the end, this is another theoretical option for countries to investigate if they are serious about meeting their climate goals and contributing to the Paris Climate Agreement. “Fuel switching is no silver bullet, but any opportunity to reduce emissions in years rather than decades deserves attention,” said Dr Staffell.