The study by Tom Wigley, a senior research associate at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the United States, reveals the ‘complex and sometimes conflicting ways’ fossil fuel burning affects climate.

According to the work while coal use causes warming through emission of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, it also releases comparatively large amounts of sulfates and other particles that, although detrimental to the environment, cool the planet by blocking incoming sunlight.

The situation is further complicated by what the work describes as ‘uncertainty’ over the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas operations.

Mr Wigley’s, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia, computer simulations indicate a worldwide, partial shift from coal to natural gas ‘would slightly accelerate’ climate change through at least 2050.

By running a series of computer simulations Mr Wigley found a 50% reduction in coal and a corresponding increase in natural gas use would lead to a slight increase in worldwide warming for the next 40 years of about 0.1 degree fahrenheit, less than 0.1 degree celsius.

After that, the greater reliance on natural gas would begin to slow down the increase in global average temperature, but only by a few tenths of a degree.

Mr Wigley in said: “Relying more on natural gas would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, but it would do little to help solve the climate problem.

“It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.”

The full study is due to appear in October’s issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change Letters.

Luke Walsh

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