Climate change is here and the effects are being felt all over the world. In the U.S., the summer of 2012 is shaping up to be the warmest and driest on record and many are finally connecting the dots between a changing climate and their daily life. Add to this U.S. carbon emissions are at a 20 year low and one could begin to think an environmental revolution was about to take place. Note that while this is indeed good news, the reason why is not the greenest.
According to a rather quiet report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the displacement of coal for natural gas is a big reason for this drop in domestic carbon emissions, as natural gas burns “cleaner” than coal with respect to CO2. The report states that “while conservation efforts, the lagging economy and greater use of renewable energy are factors in the CO2 decline, the drop-off is due mainly to low-priced natural gas.”
Reducing CO2 is important, but it’s important to realize that natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Lest we forget, the process of extracting natural gas is under fire for potentially poisoning groundwater and using hundreds of undisclosed chemicals to release the buried gas, a number of which are known carcinogens. Natural gas also releases methane, which is another potent greenhouse gas.
If this is the case, even if the U.S. sees its carbon emissions lower, the aggregate level of greenhouse gases will continue to increase. Furthermore, natural gas should not be the knee-jerk reaction to weaning off coal and should not act as a substitute for clean, renewable energy sources. In fact, there is growing concern that cheap natural gas is distracting from greener energy R&D. According to two experts from Colorado’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute: ”Installation of new renewable energy facilities has now all but dried up, unable to compete on a grid now flooded with a low-cost, high-energy fuel [natural gas].”
So, while U.S. carbon emissions may be at a 20 year low, the reason why isn’t very comforting. Sure, the end goal is important and we all want to bring carbon levels back to a balanced, sustainable level, but we really should be investing in long-term, clean and renewable energy sources, not continued reliance on fossil fuels, no matter what form they take.
Photo Credit: PO3 Patrick Kelle
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