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Study Indicates Switch to Natural Gas May Not Slow Climate Change

As federal policies make burning coal more expensive, many utilities—including Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities—are transitioning their older coal plants to natural gas. But a new study cautions that natural gas may not be a panacea to stop the effects of climate change.

Natural gas is cleaner than coal. When you burn it, it releases fewer pollutants into the environment. But a new study by National Center for Atmospheric Research climate scientist Tom Wigley says switching from coal to natural gas won’t halt climate change, at least in the short-term. He calls the transition a “double-edged sword.”

“On one hand, it would make the world a little warmer but on the other hand, it would reduce the effects of pollution,” Wigley said.

Phasing out coal would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but natural gas drilling and transporting results in a small amount of leaked methane.

“The leakage rate now might only be 2-5 percent,” Wigley said. “But that’s still significant because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas.”

Also, sulfate aerosols released by coal burning reflect solar radiation back into space and actually have a slightly cooling effect on the atmosphere.

Wigley says his findings don’t mean that coal is better than gas, just that there are many factors other than carbon dioxide that should be considered when deciding climate policy.

Wigley’s paper is scheduled to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters next month.

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What’s On Your Plate vs. What’s In Your Car

The head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, speaks this evening in England to supporters of an anti-factory farming group called Compassion in World Farming. In advance of the lecture, Pachauri told a BBC reporter that:

“The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions,” …as opposed to 13% from transportation.

He suggested that eating less meat could have a more dramatic impact than any other personal action against climate change. The FAO figure, by the way, includes not only the methane farm animals produce, but also the impacts of clearing forests for farm land, transporting fertilizer and other material, and the emissions from farm vehicles.

Would you be willing to eat less meat if it could make a difference in global warming?

By the way, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IPCC has just turned 20 years old. It re-elected Dr. Pachauri as its leader for another term. He’ll have his work cut out for him, with the latest climate change talks wrapped up in Accra, Ghana and the next round set for this December in Poznan, Poland.