Beyond Global Warming Potential: A Comparative Application of Climate Impact Metrics for the Life Cycle Assessment of Coal and Natural Gas Based Electricity
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In the ongoing debate about the climate benefits of fuel switching from coal to natural gas for power generation, the metrics used to model climate impacts may be important. In this article, we evaluate the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of coal and natural gas used in new, advanced power plants using a broad set of available climate metrics in order to test for the robustness of results. Climate metrics included in the article are global warming potential, global temperature change potential, technology warming potential, and cumulative radiative forcing. We also used the Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-gas Induced Climate Change (MAGICC) climate-change model to validate the results. We find that all climate metrics suggest a natural gas combined cycle plant offers life cycle climate benefits over 100 years compared to a pulverized coal plant, even if the life cycle methane leakage rate for natural gas reaches 5%. Over shorter time frames (i.e., 20 years), plants using natural gas with a 4% leakage rate have similar climate impacts as those using coal, but are no worse than coal. If carbon capture and sequestration becomes available for both types of power plants, natural gas still offers climate benefits over coal as long as the life cycle methane leakage rate remains below 2%. These results are consistent across climate metrics and the MAGICC model over a 100-year time frame. Although it is not clear whether any of these metrics are better than the others, the choice of metric can inform decisions based on different societal values. For example, whereas annual temperature change reported may be a more relevant metric to evaluate the human health effects of increased heat, the cumulative temperature change may be more relevant to evaluate climate impacts, such as sea-level rise, that will result from the cumulative warming.