Climate Consequences of Natural Gas as a Bridge Fuel

Climatic Change (in press; DOI 10.1007/s10584-012-0658-3) / by Michael Levi

[Abstract] Many have recently speculated that natural gas might become a “bridge fuel”, smoothing a transition of the global energy system from fossil fuels to zero carbon energy by temporarily offsetting the decline in coal use. Others have contended that such a bridge is incompatible with oft-discussed climate objectives and that methane leakage from natural gas system may eliminate any advantage that natural gas has over coal. Yet global climate stabilization scenarios where natural gas provides a substantial bridge are generally absent from the literature, making study of gas as a bridge fuel difficult. Here we construct a family of such scenarios and study some of their properties. In the context of the most ambitious stabilization objectives (450 ppm CO2), and absent carbon capture and sequestration, a natural gas bridge is of limited direct emissions-reducing value, since that bridge must be short. Natural gas can, however, play a more important role in the context of more modest but still stringent objectives (550 ppm CO2), which are compatible with longer natural gas bridges. Further, contrary to recent claims, methane leakage from natural gas operations is unlikely to strongly undermine the climate benefits of substituting gas for coal in the context of bridge fuel scenarios.

[Paper also discussed on Michael Levi's Energy, Security and Climate blog at Council on Foreign Relations site]

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