Worldwatch Institute

Natural gas could ease the path to a low-carbon future


Source: Worldwatch Institute

Growing estimates of natural gas resources suggest that supplies of this least carbon-intensive fossil fuel may be as abundant as coal, while containing only half as much carbon, according to a new paper released today by the Worldwatch Institute.

The new paper, The Role of Natural Gas in a Low-Carbon Energy Economy, finds that gas-fired power plants could reduce U.S. coal dependence and greenhouse gas emissions significantly in the next 10 years.  Already, gas's share of total U.S. electricity generation has risen to more than 23 percent in 2009, while coal's share fell below 45 percent for the first time in three decades. The drop in coal-fired generation between 2007 and 2009 was responsible for almost half of the nearly 10-percent decline in energy-related U.S. carbon dioxide emission between 2007 and 2009.

'As wind and solar power produce a growing share of the electricity in many regions, gas-fired generators-including micro-power plants located in buildings-can provide the flexible backup power that is needed when renewable resources are not available,' says author and Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin. 'The coal-fired power plants that still dominate today's power systems in many parts of the country can take hours to start, and are inefficient and polluting when forced to vary their power output.'

The new paper, authored by Flavin and his colleague Saya Kitasei, is the first in a series from the Worldwatch Institute's Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative, which will examine critical environmental and policy issues surrounding natural gas.  It will also explore the potential for gas to meet energy needs in China, India, and other countries.

Flavin and Kitasei note that the boom in unconventional gas production now under way has generated a host of local environmental problems that need to be addressed urgently.  If these challenges can be overcome, however, gas has the potential to contribute greatly to the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions-and to do so long before technologies such as carbon capture and storage will be available.

'Renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas hold the key to a low-carbon future,' says Flavin.  'That future is contingent, however, on the development of sound public policy to incentivize and guide the transition. With the right policies, natural gas could take us a big step closer to a carbon free energy system.'

The paper recommends that governments focus on four main policy measures: putting a price on carbon; advancing clean air standards, reforming electric utility dispatch rules; and strengthening environmental controls on the gas industry.

Download the Role of Natural Gas in a Low-Carbon Energy Economy by Christopher Flavin and Saya Kitasei.

This is the first in a series of briefing papers that the Worldwatch Institute Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative will produce on critical environmental and policy issues surrounding natural gas. For more information on this paper and the Worldwatch Initiative please visit

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