Opinion: B.C.’s LNG can cut global pollution
China: Country’s switch from coal to natural gas would have a substantial impact on emissions
Written by Elizabeth and Richard Muller, for The Vancouver Sun, April 7, 2015To many people, natural gas seems to be more of the same, a continuation of the old fossil fuel path that has driven industrialization, air pollution and global warming. As we worry about the future environment for our children, it would seem that British Columbia, with its carbon neutral economic development, is demonstrating a cleaner path to a richer and cleaner world. A carbon neutral province is indeed something that sets an example for others.
But focusing on local carbon neutrality alone misses the larger point — especially if you are worried about global warming. Our non-profit, Berkeley Earth has reached strong independent conclusions showing that global warming is real (although small, so far), caused by the human emissions of greenhouse gases, and we also believe that it is something that could grow to be disruptive in the future. We believe it makes sense to slow and stop it.
But to do this, we must avoid feel-good measures, actions that give us bragging rights, but will have little practical, long-term effect. The challenge is huge, and there is hope for success only if we focus on real solutions with broad impacts.
Unfortunately for our own mitigation efforts, the predominant source of future warming is not British Columbia. Nor is it Canada, the United States, or the western world. All projections of the warming agree: the future sources of greenhouse emissions will be dominated by China, India, and the developing world.
We wish it weren’t so. If the gases were coming from economically developed nations, we could use our wealth to do whatever is necessary to curb them. That could mean subsidizing expensive technology, or simply lowering our high standard of living a bit. But such options are not realistic for the developing world.
China is currently producing twice the greenhouse gases of the United States. And its emissions are growing rapidly. Its emissions surpassed those of the U.S. in 2006, reached double the U.S. in 2014, and are expected to rise by seven per cent per year for the foreseeable future. China obtains 70 per cent of its electricity from burning coal, by far the worst polluter. China has plans for doubling its use of coal in the next 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile, the emissions from the U.S. have stabilized, partly from a slowing economy, but the biggest effect came from a switch from coal to natural gas. If you replace an old coal power plant with a modern natural gas one, you can cut carbon dioxide emissions by a factor of three.
Natural gas doesn’t cut emissions to zero; it is still a fossil fuel. But it obtains much of its energy from hydrogen, an atom that out numbers the carbon atoms in methane (the key component of natural gas) by 4:1. Natural gas can be burned with much higher efficiency than coal, by use of a combined cycle turbine that harnesses both gas and steam power generation.
China wants to move away from coal, to natural gas, nuclear, and solar. Their chief concern is not global warming, but the horrific air pollution that is killing an estimated 4,000 people per day in China, 1.6 million per year.
What can British Columbia do? Perhaps set an example — go carbon neutral. But despite the good feeling and bragging rights that our wealthy lifestyle allows, this is not an example that China can afford to follow. Better is to help them get off their addiction to coal. Supply them with natural gas. Operated cleanly and efficiently, facilities like the one proposed by Woodfibre LNG in Squamish, to be built on a remediated site where an old pulp mill once operated, could be part of the solution.
The key is to think globally, and then act locally. Think developing world, and then act locally in a way that will impact that global view. Developing and exporting natural gas may not be possible if the aim is zero-emissions, but in terms of addressing the real issue — slowing global warming — it is the right thing to do.
Elizabeth and Richard Muller are a daughter/father team that founded the non-profit Berkeley Earth to study global warming and climate change. See BerkeleyEarth.org.
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