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By Global Public Square staff
We have been thinking about an idea in the opinion pages of the New York Times to tackle one of the great challenges of our times: cutting carbon emissions to slow down climate change. It would result in the single largest reduction of CO2 emissions globally of any feasible idea out there. But there are a couple of hitches. Let's explain.
Here's the idea: it's time to help China master fracking safely.
By now it's clear that fracking (the process of extracting shale gas) has dramatically lowered America's CO2 emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2006, a fifth of our electricity came from natural gas, while almost 50 percent came from coal. By 2012, natural gas had increased its share to 30 percent of our electricity. Coal's share dropped to 37 percent. The change was because of fracking: over that same period, shale gas production grew 800 percent.
The reason this shift is important is that coal is the world's dirtiest source of energy – both in its emissions of CO2 and particle pollutants. Thanks in large part to our reduced dependency on coal, U.S. CO2 emissions hit an 18-year low in 2012. U.S. emissions fell over the last five years by more than all of Europe's did. So – and this is the first hitch – environmentalists have to understand that, whatever the fantasies, natural gas is in reality producing a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions.
But now the second hitch. Why is it a good idea to help what some consider our greatest rival catch up with us? Why should we help China copy our winning formula?
The answer is simple: it's a win-win scenario.
In the past two decades, despite global investments in clean energy, the International Energy Agency says that net-net, the world's energy consumption has gotten cleaner by only 1 percent. We've essentially made no progress. Why? Well in large part, it is because of the means by which China is powering its super-fast growth. IEA data shows that if you exclude China, global consumption of coal has increased only slightly in the past decade. China, by comparison, has more than doubled its consumption. It now burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world, combined. And it won't stop there. Every week, it opens new coal plants, leading to increasingly polluted and hazardous air. This, of course, is not just China's problem…but the whole world's problem.
As it turns out, we're not the only ones sitting on top of a shale gold mine: China actually has shale gas reserves that are nearly 50 percent larger than ours.
Beijing is going to try and mine these reserves in every way it can. But many experts worry that China lacks the experience and technology to frack effectively. As important, it really has no understanding of how to frack safely. Here in the United States, we have environmentalists and a free press to push authorities to regulate and monitor this very new industry. China, on the other hand, may not have the same checks and balances.
This is why the United States needs to share its expertise, not keep it secret.
One of the perennial dilemmas at any climate summit is how to wean developing countries off of the dirtiest forms of energy. China can – understandably – argue that its overriding priority is growth. As the last few decades have shown, a fast-growing China translates to a fast-growing world. A cleaner China would have a similar impact.