Substitution of natural gas for coal: Climatic effects of utility sector emissions

Katharine Hayhoe, Haroon S. Kheshgi, Atul K. Jain, Donald J. Wuebbles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Substitution of natural gas for coal is one means of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. However, natural gas and coal use also results in emissions of other radiatively active substances including methane (CH4), sulfur dioxide (SO2), a sulfate aerosol precursor, and black carbon (BC) particles. Will switching from coal to gas reduce the net impact of fossil fuel use on global climate? Using the electric utility sector as an example, changes in emissions of CO2, CH4, SO2 and BC resulting from the replacement of coal by natural gas are evaluated, and their modeled net effect on global mean-annual temperature calculated. Coal-to-gas substitution initially produces higher temperatures relative to continued coal use. This warming is due to reduced SO2 emissions and possible increases in CH4 emissions, and can last from 1 to 30 years, depending on the sulfur controls assumed. This is followed by a net decrease in temperature relative to continued coal use, resulting from lower emissions of CO2 and BC. The length of this period and the extent of the warming or cooling expected from coal-to-gas substitution is found to depend on key uncertainties and characteristics of the substitutions, especially those related to: (1) SO2 emissions and consequent sulphate aerosol forcing; and (2) the relative efficiencies of the power plants involved in the switch.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)107-139
Number of pages33
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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