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I’ve been known to spend a lot of my time arguing through the theory of how we ought to deal with climate change: I always end up arguing for a simple and straight carbon tax. However, while this does give us the “correct” answer, in that we will maximise human utility over time, there are those who really don’t like the idea. For a number of different reasons but the one to concentrate upon today is that it might not actually reduce emissions all that much.

So, what is it that we can do that really will reduce emissions? The answer to that is to drill: or rather, to frack baby, frack. For that is actually what has been happening in the US in recent years. And the US seems to be one of the few, possibly the only, major emitter which is actually reducing emissions:

“US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions. This development has arisen from lower oil use in the transport sector … and a substantial shift from coal to gas in the power sector.”

That’s not that far off the entire emissions per year of my native UK, just to give an idea of the magnitude there.

So how has this reduction come about? Not through taxing and not through regulation: it’s come about purely as a side effect of market forces. As the shale gas revolution has continued natural gas prices have fallen to very low levels. This has displaced coal as the electricity generating fuel of choice in many areas: there are stories of coal plants shuttering as they simply cannot compete wth the price of gas fired electricity generation.

This is also likely to have an effect on future emissions as well. Anyone thinking of building a power plant these days is going to consider likely future comparative costs of gas and coal and more likely to build a gas fired plant than a coal one.

The effect on emissions is of course that gas has fewer CO2 emissions (and much, much, less of all the other pollutants) per unit of electricity generated than coal does. So, replacing coal generation with gas generation reduces CO2 emissions.

There’s one further point for the medium term. The hope with coal is that someone, somewhere, is going to be able to make “clean coal” work. Some method of capturing the CO2 produced and then storing it away from the atmosphere. It’s not really certain that this will ever be possible at reasonable cost simply because of the amount of energy it will cost to run such equipment.

However, clean gas is much easier to do for you can reformulate the natural gas before combustion to extract the carbon rather than having to try to collect the CO2 after combustion as you have to with coal.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that the pure and final solution to climate change is just to drill for gas but it does seem that frack baby, frack, can be a contributor to the solution.