In 2016, the UK successfully cut carbon emissions from electricity production by 25 percent with an unprecedented transition from coal to natural gas. This strategy ultimately had the same effect of taking one in three cars off the road.
“Switching from coal to gas is not a long-term solution, but it is an important step to start reducing emissions quickly and at minimal cost,” said study co-author Dr. Iain Staffell. “This will give us time to build up the required renewable energy capacity to permanently cut global carbon emissions.”
Government policy has made it cheaper to burn gas than coal in the UK, and burning natural gas produces less than half the carbon dioxide of coal.
The researchers found that carbon pricing, or charging those who emit carbon dioxide, was the main driver in the UK’s successful switch from coal to gas. Stronger policies have made it more profitable to burn natural gas in power plants.
The strategy used by the UK is easy to implement because it does not rely on building new infrastructure or increasing the capacity of existing facilities.
“Having a longer-term view, it is likely to prove vastly cheaper not to emit a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere over the near-term, rather than to have to take it back out of the atmosphere after 2050,” said co-author Dr. Grant Wilson.
“This is especially the case if the infrastructure has already been built but is underutilized. This report suggests that the option of fuel switching in the power sector deserves greater consideration to reduce emissions.”
The researchers analyzed the 30 largest coal-consuming countries to see if these savings could be replicated. Based on existing underused capacity, they estimated that annual carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 0.8-1.2 gigatons if natural gas was burned instead of coal.
“To avoid the worst impacts of climate change we cannot afford to build new fossil-fuel power stations. Building high-carbon infrastructure, such as new gas power plants, is at least a 30-year commitment, which will further lock countries into dependence on carbon,” said Dr. Staffell.
“The UK is leading by example. In the last year all new power stations were renewable; powered by the wind and sun. With the cost of these new technologies coming down rapidly, the economic case for eliminating carbon-based electricity is very strong, but there are still difficult political issues to tackle.”
The UK has committed to becoming the world’s first country to completely transition away from coal generation by 2025.
The study is published in the journal Nature Energy.