Targets to cut carbon emissions and investment in renewable energy could be put at risk by exploiting shale gas reserves
The controversial shale gas has been discovered in large quantities in Lancashire, but environmental campaigners are concerned that its use could lead to significant emissions from the fossil fuel.
The "fracking" process used to extract shale gas has also raised concerns, in which liquid is pumped into the rock at high pressure to fracture it and release the gas, which can cause tremors and may pollute water supplies in the local area.
The report by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, for the Co-operative, suggests that if only a fifth of the total gas resource discovered near Blackpool was recovered it would lead to emissions totalling two billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
This would see the gas accounting for almost 15 per cent of the total emissions allowed from the UK up to 2050 under legally binding targets to slash greenhouse gases by mid-century.
The report warned that exploiting shale gas would have limited benefits in terms of replacing coal as the UK shifts to low-carbon electricity, and could draw money away from investment in renewables, preventing the delivery of thousands of onshore or offshore wind turbines.
If money is ploughed into the infrastructure for extracting the fossil fuel, it could lock the UK into years of shale gas use and require the development of as yet unproved carbon capture and storage technology to cut emissions from gas.
"As the Government's Committee on Climate Change make clear, for the UK to meet its binding carbon budgets, electricity needs to be decarbonised by 2030 with domestic heating having moved from high-carbon gas to low-carbon electricity," said Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester.
"With so little time to meet these commitments, there is no meaningful emissions allowance available for shale gas.
"Moreover, pursuing shale gas electricity risks displacing urgently required investments in genuinely low-carbon energy supply.
"Consequently the government faces a difficult choice: to lead a new and low-carbon energy revolution or stick with high carbon fossil fuels, forgo its emissions targets and relinquish its hard-won international reputation on climate change."
Paul Monaghan, head of social goals at the Co-operative, said that "a new dash for gas is incompatible with the UK's carbon reduction targets and that a complete re-appraisal of approach is needed".
The study also said fracking had caused quakes in Lancashire, with damage to one of the wells drilled into the shale seam reported as a result.
Meanwhile an analysis by the Environment Agency of the water used for fracking in the Blackpool area, published earlier this month, shows high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron as well as higher than normal levels of arsenic, lead, bromide and, in one test, mercury in the water returned to the surface.
The samples of the used fracking liquid, which picks up salt and minerals from the rock it is pumped into and which will be processed at a water treatment plant subject to an environmental permit, also showed low levels of radioactivity, the Environment Agency said.
The Energy and Climate Change Committee earlier this year said it had found no evidence that extracting the gas posed a risk to underground aquifers which supply drinking water.
But in the United States, where shale gas is being exploited on a large scale, concerns have been raised that the drilling process involves chemicals, including cancer-causing compounds, which can pollute water supplies.
And there are claims that the gas itself can pollute drinking water, with footage of people able to set fire to the water coming out of their taps.
The report from the Tyndall Centre said concerns remained about the adequacy of current UK regulation of ground and surface water contamination and the assessment of potential environmental impacts, and called for shale gas extraction to be delayed until clear evidence of its safety can be presented.
Campaigners have previously called for a moratorium on shale gas fracking, until environmental concerns have been addressed, but such a move has been ruled out by the Government.
"The full extent of shale gas in the UK and its economic and environmental viability is yet to be established," said a Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman.
"At best, it is years away, and as the recent report on the Lancashire earthquakes showed, there remain issues to be addressed about hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking'.
"However, we would expect shale gas to have a carbon footprint of the same order as natural gas from conventional onshore fields.
"Any development must sit with our plans for a strong portfolio of energy sources as we move to a low carbon economy, including renewables, nuclear and clean coal and gas."