At U.N. climate meeting, a focus on fossil fuels

Machinery at a coal mine in Agujita, Coahuila State in Mexico on November 13, 2012.

This is the first U.N. climate change meeting in the Persian Gulf, and the oil-rich location is bound to spur discussion on fossil fuels. There have been big changes in energy, as the U.S. and Canada have developed the tar sands, shale oil, and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Just a few years ago, about half of America's power plants ran on coal. Now there's a massive switch to natural gas because there's so much of if. The fuel burns cleaner, emits about half as much greenhouse gas as coal. But the changeover isn't in the name of climate change.

"What's driving this new development of gas fired generation is the fact that natural gas prices are low," says Jill Feblowitz, an analyst at IDC Energy Insights.

If the fracking boom hadn't happened, I asked, would we see more solar and wind power?

"I don't think so," says Feblowitz, because natural gas' popularity is also about, "the cost avoidance, of not have to put sophisticated emissions controls on the coal plants."

It'd still be cheaper to install better filters and keep burning coal, she says, than to switch to solar, wind or other renewable energy sources.

But climate change experts, like Kevin Kennedy at the World Resources Institute, see the natural gas switch as one step, not a solution in and of itself.

"Natural gas can buy us a little bit of time," he says.

A little bit of time, while we're polluting less, to learn to use less energy, and build new energy systems that can power the economy without pollution.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...