Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Export and Import: CO2 emissions and shale gas

When we talk about climate changing greenhouse gas emissions, we often tend to look at the emissions on a country-by-country basis. This is a list on a country-by-country basis.

These figures are calculated based on the amount of fossil fuels burned within a country's borders - how many coal fired power plants and diesel trucks they have pumping out CO2. But is this really the most appropriate way of considering these figures? Surely what matters is who the fossil fuel is burned for!

China, at 7 billions tonnes of CO2 per year, now tops the world CO2 emission rates. However, a significant proportion of what China produces is in fact consumed by us, here in the west. As a family growing up we used to joke that Santa must live in China, because that's where it says all the toys were made. So do some of these emissions really belong to us? To whom do we apportion the emissions? To the Chinese who are making the products, or to us, who are consuming them? It's not an easy question really. But lets face it: the fossil fuels are being burned for our benefit, just in a different country.

This brings us on to the potential importance of shale gas. Early estimates show that China could have significant shale gas resources. Energy companies are already beginning to invest. Production of Chinese shale gas would displace coal energy production, slashing CO2 emissions as we have already seen in the US. Encouragement of shale gas technologies will therefore play a vital role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

And let's face it, it's the global emissions that count for global warming. We could cut UK emissions down to 0, but that wouldn't stop climate change unless China, the US, India et al. cut their emissions as well.  And no matter how many wind turbines we build on Donald Trump's golf course, that won't help us reduce the CO2 that is attributable to us but being emitted in China.

What we can do is what the UK has always done: use it's world leading engineers and scientists to develop and improve new technologies - in this case safe extraction of shale gas - enabling us to sell our expertise to the rest of the world. This would help our economy, and it's the only way we can reduce the CO2 emissions that are being produced for our benefit inside countries like China.

Postscript: Thanks to Owain S for drawing my attention to this issue

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