Natural gas has been widely billed as a “bridge fuel” – a low-carbon alternative to coal that will help us make the transition to cleaner energy – but a new study pokes some big holes in that argument. According to the study, which was published last month in Environmental Review Letters, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is already so great that switching to natural gas would do very little to counter current warming trends. However, the study shows that switching to renewable energy could begin to cut the warming effect within two decades.

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The life-cycle analysis, which was co-authored by climatologist Ken Caldeira and Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, is one of the first of its kind to look at what would happen if all of the world’s coal-fired power plants switched to natural gas, solar, hydroelectric, wind, or nuclear. “Cutting emissions by a factor of two or three hardly makes a difference,” Myhrvold told National Geographic.

Power from natural gas generates roughly half as much greenhouse gases per watt-hour of electricity produced, so switching all of the coal-fired plants over to natural gas over a 40-year period would slow the warming trend, but we wouldn’t see a substantial decrease in global temperatures for 250 years, which is a long time to wait. “It’s like living on a credit card,” Myhrvold told Climate Central. “It’s easy to get into a situation where it will take years and years to pay back.”

The bottom line is that although it would take a carbon toll to make the switch to more renewable energy solutions (we’d be relying largely on coal power to construct new solar and wind power facilities, after all), it would make much more sense than wasting valuable time and energy on natural gas.

+ Environmental Review Letters

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