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Fracking can be part of the solution to global warming, say UN climate change experts
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says massive shift to green energy sources is crucial but that shale gas can help if it replaces dirtier coal
Emily Gosden By Emily Gosden, Energy Editor4:58PM BST 13 Apr 2014CommentsComments
UN climate chiefs have backed fracking as part of the solution to global warming – but warned that a massive expansion of green energy will be crucial to prevent devastating extremes of climate change.
In a report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found it was still just possible to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 3.6F (2C) by 2100, the level beyond which experts say the effects will be “dangerous”.
The IPCC warns that sticking within the limit will be a “huge challenge”, requiring urgent global action to transform energy, industry and transport systems to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which have been rising ever-faster despite policies supposed to tackle climate change.
The world must at least treble its use of green and low-carbon sources of power, such as solar farms, wind farms and nuclear reactors by 2050. However, the report finds there is also a role for gas to replace much dirtier coal plants.
Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the working group that drew up the report, said it was “quite clear” that shale gas – extracted through the controversial process of fracking – “can be very consistent with low carbon development and decarbonisation”.
The comments are likely to be seized upon by proponents of fracking in the UK, which is backed by Chancellor George Osborne but fiercely opposed by environmental groups who believe fossil fuels should be left in the ground in order to help combat climate change.
The IPCC report says: “Greenhouse gas emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants or combined heat and power plants, provided that natural gas is available and the fugitive emissions associated with extraction and supply are low or mitigated.”
Mr Edenhofer stressed that the shale gas revolution could be “very helpful” but only if the world committed to tackling climate change and did not simply burn more gas as well as coal.
Otherwise, “if you have an additional supply of fossil fuels this will not help in the end because if somebody then deploys gas, so other parts of the world might increase coal, and then… you are back in a business as usual scenario”, he said.
In scenarios where the 2C target is hit, more gas-fired power stations would be built globally in coming years, the report suggests. However their number would then decrease again, falling below current levels by 2050.
In the longer-term, burning gas for power will only be compatible with tackling climate change if power plants are fitted with ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) technology to trap the harmful emissions and bury them underground.
“What a 2C scenario means is the phase out of fossil fuel without CCS entirely, [at the] latest in the next few decades,” Mr Edenhofer said.
But the viability of CCS is not yet proven and critics fear that building a new wave of gas plants would see Britain “locked in” to higher emission for much longer.
The IPCC says that global greenhouse gas emissions must be lowered by 40 to 70 per cent compared with 2010 by the middle of the century, and near to zero by the end of this century. Carbon dioxide may also need to be sucked out of the atmosphere to achieve this, it suggests.
Rajendra K Pachuari, chairman of the IPCC, said the report showed that to meet the 2C target, “the high speed mitigation train would need to leave the station very soon and all of global society would need to get on board”.
Without mitigation, global temperatures might increase by as much as 4.8C.
Critics say green energy is too expensive, with wind, solar and nuclear power currently all dependent on huge subsidies paid for by consumers.
The report acknowledges that the costs of tackling climate change would hit economic growth, causing global consumption in 2050 to be about 3.4 per cent lower than without efforts to tackle climate change.
But Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen, one of the report’s authors, said this equated to the growth that might have been expected by 2050 being delayed to just 2051 or 2052.
Mr Edenhofer said: “It does not cost the world to save the planet.”
The report does not attempt to compare the costs of going green with the benefits of avoiding the disastrous impacts of climate change.
An earlier report by the IPCC warned of floods, food shortages and deadly heatwaves that were likely to result if emissions carried on rising.
Mr Pachuari said it was “very difficult to put a dollar-value on the severity of the impacts” of unmitigated climate change, because they entailed the loss of human lives and animal species. This was “something we cannot estimate”, he said.
“The affordability question has to be seen in the context of what would happen if we don’t take some of these steps.”
Delaying efforts to tackle climate change now would only make it more costly to do so later, the report found.
“Achieving this goal is a huge technological, institutional challenge. Climate policy is not a free lunch – but climate policy could be a lunch worthwhile to buy,” Mr Edenhofer said.