What role will natural gas play in moving Canada to a low-carbon economy that keeps our climate from warming more than two degrees? That was the question the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute wanted to answer with their recent report, Is natural gas a climate change solution for Canada? Many people see natural gas as a key fuel to help us move away from more emissions-intensive fuels like coal and refined petroleum. The potential for natural gas seems compelling. It's commercially available, can lower our emissions and, with recent advances in our ability to exploit shale gas reserves, it won't run out any time soon.
Those are the arguments. But do they stand up to scrutiny? As we know, although natural gas is cleaner, it's still a fossil fuel and therefore emits carbon dioxide when we burn it for energy. Can we simply replace our coal power plants and gasoline vehicles with natural gas fuels and achieve emissions reductions to avoid two degree warming? The answer is no; we cannot simply shift from coal power and gasoline cars to natural gas vehicles and a natural gas fired electricity system to get emissions down to the required levels.
Natural gas is also a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, and creates warming effects 20 times more powerful than CO2. If we increase development and exploitation we also risk more leaks and warming. We are already seeing increased fugitive emissions from natural gas development in Canada. Some recent research even indicates that fugitive leaks of gas from shale gas development could be much higher than what we currently emit from conventional natural gas wells. It is clear that natural gas is not viable if we want to reduce emissions.
If natural gas isn't a destination then maybe it's a transition. Because commercial natural gas equipment is already mature, we have existing distribution systems, and because clean energy technologies are still relatively new and we are not as familiar with them, it could be cheaper to use natural gas until renewables become cheaper. But once again, this argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Our report looks at four "least-cost" pathways to 2050 to get to a GHG emission target that's consistent with two degrees warming. These pathways were developed by reputable agencies like MIT and the International Energy Agency. David Suzuki and Pembina also commissioned their own pathway. What each pathway found was that natural gas use did not increase and, in fact, declined as the least-cost pathways unfolded. In other words, each low carbon future we analyzed used less natural gas than we currently use today. If that's the case, we need to understand that accelerating natural gas development and shale gas exploitation is likely not consistent with a least-cost option to reduce our emissions.
It's important to understand that getting the least-cost pathway right is important from both an environmental and societal point of view. Costs that are higher than the lowest-cost path to get to a low emissions future mean fewer resources for other societal goals like investments in education or healthcare. Essentially, we'll pay more to get less.
What we found was that if we are to get to the low emission target by 2050 then investing in natural gas only delays our inevitable transition to renewables and makes it more expensive than just investing in these renewable technologies and energy efficiency in the first place. That's because to transition to natural gas means investing in new natural gas power plants, replacing our fleets with natural gas vehicles, and so on. But a natural gas power plant has a lifespan of more than 30 years, and vehicles are normally used for about 10 years. It's costly to buy a piece of equipment and then replace it before its useful life is over. The energy pathways we evaluated all confirmed that it wasn't cheaper to transition. The least-cost pathways made natural gas uncompetitive to clean energy technologies.
What does this mean? Well, it means that if we're serious about getting to a low-emissions future, natural gas, another fossil fuel, doesn't have an increased role. Natural gas use will eventually decline relative to other energy sources. That means that we shouldn't expand our development of new natural gas reserves over and above what we're already doing in the name of reducing emissions. This pursuit will only saddle us with more costs and an even more difficult transition to a real low-emissions future.