Why a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with the 2°C framing of dangerous climate change

Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre, discusses why fracking in the UK is incompatible with limiting warming to 2°C.

This piece is a response to Professor Robert Mair’s Royal Society science policy blog, “Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the UK – an opportunity to shape a constructive way forward” (In Verba, 26th Jan): 

Professor Mair’s Royal Society post suggests that the development of a UK shale gas industry is compatible with the UK’s climate change targets. I suggest this conclusion is premised on a partial and overly simplistic interpretation of the UK’s muddled climate change obligations.

Shale gas within domestic carbon budgets

The development of a UK shale gas industry may be compatible with the UK’s domestic carbon budgets – just.

These budgets are however premised on a high probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold between acceptable and dangerous climate change and on a highly inequitable allocation of the global carbon budget to the UK.

Even under such lax conditions (and hence a larger UK carbon budget) there is a significant risk that a new and large-scale UK shale gas infrastructure could become a stranded asset within a decade or so of major shale gas extraction.

Shale gas within 2°C carbon budgets

The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with UK’s equitable share of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) carbon budget for a “likely” chance of not exceeding the 2°C obligation.

This remains the case even if shale gas can be combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

The CO2 emissions from gas-CCS are anticipated to be five to fifteen times greater per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity generated than are the emissions from either renewables or nuclear. Add to this the timeframe for developing a mature UK shale gas industry and, even with CCS, shale gas can have no appreciable role in the UK’s energy mix. 

Production would increase emissions

The MacKay and Stone shale gas report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), referred to in the Royal Society post, includes the following important conclusion:

If a country brings any additional fossil fuel reserve into production, then in the absence of strong climate policies, we believe it is likely that this production would increase cumulative emissions in the long run. This increase would work against global efforts on climate change.

In relation to the carbon budgets for a “likely” chance of 2°C, it is abundantly clear that there is a complete “absence of strong climate policies”.

Consequently, over and above all the detailed discussion in the the Mackay and Stone report, their statement can only be interpreted as concluding that a signficant UK shale gas indutry is incompatible with the UK’s commitment to maintaining temperatures below 2°C (i.e. fitting within the IPCC’s budgets for a likley chance of 2°C).

This challenging statement is reinforeced in Andrew Alpin’s (Professor of Unconventional Petroleum) measured response to the Environmental Audit Committee's report on fracking.

The development of new fossil fuel resources such as shale gas is broadly incompatible with the UK’s stated commitment to major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  However, any moratorium on shale gas exploration must go hand-in-hand with an equally strong commitment to reducing imports of coal, oil and gas.  Given that fossil fuels dominate current energy consumption, this also implies a massive increase in nuclear and renewables, which will be both challenging and expensive.”

Positions on Mitigation

A pivotal point to consider before passing any judgment on whether or not UK shale gas is compatible with UK’s climate change obligations is to recognise that the UK holds two very different positions on its mitigation responsibilities – with very different carbon budgets.

The UK’s domestic position under the Climate Change Act, is for a 63% of exceeding 2°C; global emissions reaching a peak between 2016 and 2020, including for China, with the rest of the poorer nations reaching a peak collectively just a few years later.

Moreover, it assumes that the wealthier industrialised nations take no responsibility for international emissions from deforestation – despite most having already deforested their own nations.

Similarly the process emissions from producing cement for poorer nations to construct the infrastructure necessary for their industrialisation are also neglected – despite the UK (and other wealthier nations) already having established infrastructures.

Furthermore, the UK’s domestic targets are premised on highly optimistic assumptions about the cumulative emissions budget of non-greenhouse gas emissions from food. If all this is considered reasonable, then there is a small and probably short-lived opportunity for UK shale gas development.

However, even with such highly partisan assumptions, by the time significant shale gas reserves are developed (assuming they exist) there is a real risk that the accompanying infrastructure could rapidly become a stranded asset – even under the UK’s weak (i.e. not 2°C) domestic carbon budgets. 

A “likely” chance of staying below 2°C

By contrast, taking the previous and current Prime Ministers at their word, then the UK’s international climate change commitment is framed by the UK making its equitable contribution to staying below a 2°C rise (explicit in agreements from the Copenhagen Accord to the Camp David Declaration).

Consequently, the UK’s domestic targets, premised as they are on both a very inequitable distribution of emissions and a 63% of exceeding 2°C, are not only incompatible with, but are indeed far weaker than, our international obligations.

Borrowing from the IPCC’s taxonomy of ‘likelihoods’ the language of the agreements to which the UK is a signatory relate to, at most, a 10% chance of exceeding 2°C (with a carbon budget approximately half of that for a 63% chance of exceeding 2°C).

However, given where we are in 2015, both our earlier and ongoing analysis typically adopts a much laxer probability of between 66% and 50% chance of staying below 2°C (concluding that this is now the best that can be achieved). We assume a global peak in emissions soon after 2020, with poorer nations, on average, peaking by 2025 and with deforestation and cement emissions accounted for as a global overhead.

Our work argues that, though challenging, these assumptions are much more appropriate than the unsupportable starting point of the Government’s analysis.

Allying our assumptions with the PM’s express commitment on 2°C (i.e. a more equitable division of the IPCC’s budgets for 66%-50% of staying below 2°C) delivers an uncompromising and unambiguous conclusion.

There is no emissions space for shale gas in the UK’s national carbon budgets and emission pathways – and consequently, the only appropriate place for shale gas remains in the ground.

The arguments outlined in this response are similar to those developed in a previous letter to the Prime Minister on the appropriate EU 2030 level of emission reductions (for a 2°C framing of climate change); Letter to the PM on how the 2 degrees Celsius target demands an 80% cut in EU emissions by 2030

A version of this post originally appeared on Kevin Anderson's blog.

Photo: US EPA via wikimedia commons