Fracking “inconsistent” with climate change mitigation policies

08 Dec 2015

As ministers from around the world gather at COP21 in Paris in a bid to come to an agreement on a new global climate compact, an environmental scientist from Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has warned that the controversial method of fracking, which is being investigated by many countries as an alternative fuel source, is inconsistent with climate change mitigation policies.

Dr Philip Staddon, from the Department of Environmental Science at XJTLU, warns that fracking contributes both directly and indirectly to greenhouse gas emissions and, despite being “dubiously” portrayed as environmentally friendly, delays the transition to a low carbon future.

Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, or fracking, is the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. The desire for short-term (next 30 years) energy security has re-invigorated investment in fossil fuel technologies and led to a North American boom in fracking, as well as protests by environmental campiagners against the technique.

In an academic opinion piece for Environmental Science & Technology, co-authored with Professor Michael Depledge from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, Dr Staddon states that addressing climate change and meeting the world’s energy needs are two of the greatest challenges that societies face, and that the search for inexpensive and plentiful energy supplies appears to be at odds with climate change mitigation commitments.

Evidence suggests that recent climate change arises primarily from human activities that release greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, and methane, into the atmosphere.

“Lowering greenhouse emissions requires reduced dependence on fossil fuels, rendering…the search for new sources of oil and gas particularly perverse,” writes Dr Staddon (pictured below) in the piece.

“Expanding fossil fuel extraction capabilities sends the message that rapid climate change mitigation is neither urgent nor essential.”

The opinion piece highlights that the carbon footprint of shale gas carbon is very similar to that of coal when compared over 100 years and that evidence contradicts the view that shale gas is a “clean” or “environmentally friendly” energy source.

“The dangers posed by “greenwashing” shale gas as a route to climate change mitigation, are well documented. It is unimaginable that oil and coal reserves will be left in the ground, therefore shale gas represents an additional source of greenhouse gas emissions,” writes Dr Staddon.

The piece adds that another “detrimental” consequence of maintaining reliance on fossil fuels is that investment in renewable energy and low or zero-carbon alternative energy sources diminishes as they are seen as high return, low risk investments, further delaying the switch away from fossil fuels.

Dr Staddon, whose research looks at the response of ecosystems to environmental change, especially climate change, added: “Government ministers are meeting at COP21 to discuss worldwide limits to greenhouse emissions, yet fracking for shale gas will extend the fossil fuel age, increase the costs of mitigation and drive up the cost of adaptation required to support human societies in a less hospitable climate. The negative financial impacts on economies and to human health will be externalised and borne by those often poorer societies most affected by climate change.”

08 Dec 2015