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The past and potential of replacing coal-fired power, heating with gas

Data: International Energy Agency; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

The International Energy Agency on Tuesday issued a report making the climate case for natural gas — with important caveats — and unveiled a tool for tracking methane emissions from oil-and-gas development.

What they did: The report explores the past (see chart above) and potential of replacing coal-fired power and heating with gas.

Here are a couple of big takeaways:

  • It has already helped. IEA estimates that since 2010, coal-to-gas switching has avoided CO2 emissions that are equivalent to putting another 200 million electric vehicles on the road drawing on zero-carbon power during the same period. And there's cost-effective potential for even greater switching.
  • It beats coal despite methane. While emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane from natural gas production and transport erode its CO2 benefits to a hotly debated degree, IEA says it's still a winner.
  • By the numbers: "On average, coal-to-gas switching reduces emissions by 50% when producing electricity and by 33% when providing heat," IEA said.
  • Known unknowns: One important caveat is the information gap. “We don’t know the full extent of [methane] emissions globally because we have yet to see the kind of field studies of actual emissions" as done in the U.S., Mark Brownstein, a top official with the Environmental Defense Fund, tells me.
  • Better tracking is needed. IEA, in unveiling its methane emissions tracking tool, noted "wide divergence" in estimates and called for more data.
  • Industry can do more. IEA said the oil industry can do a lot more with available tech to detect and stem methane emissions at no net cost.

What they're saying: “The issue isn’t gas vs. coal. It’s whether the oil and gas industry is doing everything possible to make emissions of methane as low as possible,” Brownstein tells me. The answer, he said, is no, even as some major companies are clamping down.

But, but, but: Coal-to-gas switching does not come anywhere close to putting the world on an emissions path that avoids blowing past the temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement.

The bottom line: "It is clear that switching between unabated consumption of fossil fuels, on its own, does not provide a long-term answer to climate change, but there can nonetheless be significant CO2 and air quality benefits, in specific countries, sectors and timeframes, from using less emissions-intensive fuels," IEA said.

Go deeper: Natural gas is helping combat climate change — but not enough