Shale gas could be lower carbon than imported fuel, say climate advisers
But in a report published on Wednesday, the Committee on Climate Change also sounded caution on the prospects for widespread development of shale in the UK. It said that relying heavily on gas would scupper the UK's chances of meeting emissions targets in the longer term, and prevent needed investments in low-carbon technologies.
David Kennedy, chief executive of the committee, the statutory body set up to advise ministers on meeting the UK's climate targets, warned that the prospect of a "dash for gas" for the UK's future energy supply was destroying the confidence of investors in renewable energy. "It is economically sensible to invest in low-carbon technologies. The government has committed to low-carbon support mechanisms to 2020, but they have said after that we might have a dash for gas – and this is destroying the confidence of investors, particularly in the renewables sector."
Echoing the views of big energy companies including BP, he said shale gas was unlikely to be a "game-changer" in the UK, in contrast to the US where large deposits and the ease of exploiting them has led to a gas boom. "Shale gas cannot be regarded as a low-carbon fuel source [but] it can have lower emissions than imported liquefied natural gas," the committee's report found. "UK shale gas may therefore play a useful role substituting for imported gas in meeting demand for heat, and for gas-fired generation to balance the system or in conjunction with carbon capture and storage."
But for this to be the case, measures must be taken to control methane leaks while extracting shale gas – methods known as "green completion" in the US – and wider environmental issues, such as the potential for pollution and impact on water supplies and local amenities, must also be addressed.
The committee's findings will re-ignite the bitter row over gas and renewable energy. Some sections of the government are keen to pursue a dash for gas, believing it will help to "keep the lights on" and avoid subsidies to renewables. But last year, Lord Deben – chair of the committee and former Tory environment minister – wrote to David Cameron to warn such a move would put the UK's emissions targets out of reach from the 2020s. Renewable energy companies are also known to be jittery over anti-wind comments from sections of the Tory party, and concerned that the government is opposing an EU-wide renewable energy target for 2030, which other big nations such as Germany and France support.
Green campaigners also focused on research from the CCC that found the UK's carbon footprint was increasing, instead of shrinking, if imports were taken into account. The UK is a major importer of manufactured goods, especially from China, and the CCC examined the impact on the climate of emissions from the production of these goods. It found that the best way to ensure emissions fall globally, instead of just in the UK, was to put in place an international agreement on emissions, such as the United Nations is hoping to forge in 2015.
Joss Garman, political director at Greenpeace UK, said: "Of course to prevent dangerous climate change the transition to a cleaner economy based on new industries and technologies can't only happen in the UK. That's why it's essential we and the rest of Europe work to deepen partnerships with other countries – both in the developed and developing world – who are also committed to cutting carbon emissions."
The CCC report also found that energy-intensive companies in the UK had been largely unharmed by measures aimed at bringing down greenhouse gas emissions – because of the generous terms of the regulations, their energy and operating costs had not been rendered uncompetitive, despite complaints from sections of heavy industry. The committee estimated that these measures could increase energy bills by around £5 for the typical household in 2020.