UK Greens' tragedy: a partial solution to warming

The world is on the cusp of dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases if China replaces coal power with shale gas. But Greens are fighting the technology to do that.

Stringer/Reuters/File
A natural gas appraisal well of Sinopec is seen behind a treatment pond of drilling waste in Langzhong county, Sichuan province, in this 2011 file photo. China, which has by far the world's largest shale deposits, has just started to exploit them, which would be a huge gain for cutting carbon emissions.

Oscar Wilde said In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.  

The sudden emergence, global prevalence and future permanence of natural gas resources, sets the stage for a tragedy being played out by the green movement in the United Kingdom today.

Measured by a reduction in CO2 emissions, the green movement finds itself on the edge of a success so complete that it not only meets, but exceeds their wildest dreams. But the Green movement also finds itself torn: This is a great success, a huge win for the planet. But the problem lies in it not being their success.

We don't have a climate problem as such, but we do have a Chinese Coal problem. China emitted 9000 megatons of CO2 in 2011. It will increase as China becomes the largest economy on earth anywhere from 2016 onwards. 80% of that is from coal generation.The US emitted 7000 megatons. The UK emitted 510.

Both the US, UK and OECD have moderating to declining emissions as efficiency gains take hold and economies flatline.

This chart is based on US Energy Administation figures for CO2 emissions from coal in 2010, the most recent available broken down by source.  It shows two things:

The World has a huge climate change problem caused by China burning coal

Anything the UK, or EU, does to cut their overall emissions, is only gesture politics. Meaningless gesture.

The majority of EU emissions comes from Germany and Poland, both with significant shale gas potential.  

The UK has coal emissions of only 114 megatons out of 14,231 megatons. China has 6,946.  What is the point of converting 114 megatons to renewables, when even a 10% replacement of China's coal with gas would save, at a conservative 50%, 350 megatons 

What this means is that instead of concentrating on an 80% decarbonisation target, the UK can via a replacement of coal in generation, increased efficiency and increased natural gas vehicle use easily cut 200 megatons for almost no cost.  So the cost of renewables, which may be several hundred billion pounds, is to reduce an extra 200 megatons over the gas heavy route. Again: hundreds of billions to save 200 megatons.

But if we replace all China coal with natural gas, the planet saves, conservatively, 2500 megatonnes via a conversion from China coal to natural gas. Much, but not all of that will come from shale. China has multiple import sources, domestic conventional, coal bed methane and LNG, but also has shale gas reserves even larger than the US. Next week's IEA Energy Outlook will predict that by 2035 China's unconventional production will be greater than North America's. That may not happen. But who would feel safe betting that China won't?

UK greens will be as quick to deny China shale gas as they are to dismiss UK shale gas. In turn, UK antis still hope that even US shale is a chimera that will disappear as quickly as it appeared  - despite all evidence to the contrary.

Green movements, although possessing their heart's desire, are suffering through what psychologists would describe as "cognitive dissonance".  

Within the syndrome are the usual cycles of ignorance, denial, anger and acceptance that anyone passes through when confronted by new information.

The problem with the green movement is that they have very strongly held attachments to their solutions to problems. A key solution surrounds renewables: they were perceived not only as low carbon but as energy secure by definition of local provenance. Confronted with new realities, with changing facts, they continue to deny reality is actually changing. We'll hear this in the UK over the next month. We'll get told that UK shale resources, despite what geologists say, aren't actually there. We'll get any number of people obsessing about how UK shale will be too difficult, physically, socially or financially.

Natural gas is not perfect, but it is not perfectly evil either. We are on the cusp of an energy transformation similar to that of oil over coal a hundred years ago and coal over wood before that. But we have UK energy actors in the new troika of Nuclear, Renewables and CCS proving the Upton Sinclair Theorem.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

Some UK greens have gotten so deeply invested in discussing problems that they become blind to solutions. They also become emotionally attached to solutions in an almost quasi religous standpoint. When alternate paths appear, as they do in science, but far more slowly in value systems, we get anger and denial. No matter. The facts have changed, as we will see in just over a month. Until then, and after then too, UK greens will obsess not about the solution gas provides the planet, but about the damage it does to themselves. Shale gas has true believers too. But they at least, are grounded in science and reality.

Greens are now forming an alliance with what used to be the original enemy of nuclear and also CCS, which Greenpeace was mounting chimneys to oppose only three years ago: The leaders of Britain's nuclear, wind and tidal industries today put aside years of mutual suspicion and antipathy with an unprecedented joint appeal to ministers not to abandon their commitment to combat climate change.

With the Government badly split over green energy, the heads of organisations representing more than 1,000 nuclear and renewables companies have written to David Cameron, George Osborne and Ed Davey calling on them to agree a legally binding decarbonisation target for electricity generation.

And the FOE and Co-op accuse the gas industry of being only in it for the money!

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.