There is no way of protecting the climate without drastically mitigating fossil fuel combustion. Nearly half of CO2 pollution comes from power plants burning fossil fuels. But there’s a way to turn things around. Renewable energy cuts down carbon pollution and has a much lower impact on the environment.
All energy sources have some impact on the environment. However, fossil fuels do substantially more damage than renewable sources. Water and air pollution, wildlife and habitat use, damage to public health, land use, water use, and global warming emissions – these are all just some of the side effects of using fossil fuels as a primary energy source.
In this article, we discuss the many positive impacts of clean energy and whether switching on renewable energy sources can mitigate global warming.
What do the numbers say?
Coal accounted for 38.1% of the world’s power generation in 2017, according to SafeAtLast. In producing that electricity, coal dumped millions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is the main reason for global warming, into the atmosphere.
Renewable sources currently account for 24% of global electricity demand. In producing that electricity, renewables had minimal effects on the environment, minuscule effects on air quality, and negligible effects on global warming. What’s more, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, and hydropower require no fuel costs, unlike fossil and nuclear energy. We don’t have to pay for the heat of the Earth or the sun, the wind or the flow of water.
In 2017, global CO2 emissions increased by 2%, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion for electricity generation being the leading factor in the overall emission. China, which is the world’s highest emitting country was responsible for 30% of total carbon dioxide emissions in 2012, but the consumption of renewable energy increased by 31% in 2017 in this country.
This has to stop.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the Earth’s temperature has increased by 0.9 degrees Celsius. Even if we could somehow magically stop all emissions entirely, we couldn’t stop global warming. Scientists believe that since the oceans haven’t warmed as much as the land, our planet is likely to heat up even more – up to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-Industrial Revolution times. This will cause regional food security risks, particularly in Africa.
Renewables are the key
Most renewable energy sources have little to none effect on global warming. Even if we include the emissions from each stage of technology involved in clean energy production – manufacturing, installation, operation, decommissioning, global warming emissions are minimal.
It all becomes apparent when you look at the numbers. Burning coal for electricity releases 1.4-3.6 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per hour; natural gas emits 0.6-2 pounds of CO2E/kWh. Solar energy, on the other hand, is responsible for only 0.07-02 CO2E/kWh on a life-cycle basis; the wind is 0.02-0.04; hydroelectric 0.1-0.5, and geothermal 0.1-0.2.
Harvesting energy from biomass can emit global warming pollutants, depending on whether or not it is sustainably harvested and sourced and the resource used for energy generation.
Switching to renewables would allow us to replace energy sources that emit high amounts of CO2 and significantly reduce global warming emissions.
Improved public health
The water and air pollution emitted by natural gas and coal plants are linked with neurological damage, breathing problems, cancer, heart attacks, and a host of other serious issues. Most of these health impacts come from water and air pollution that clean energy technologies don’t produce. Solar, hydro, and wind systems generate electricity with no associated air pollution emissions.
Biomass and geothermal systems emit some air pollutants, but that’s insignificant when compared to those of natural gas and coal-fired power plants. Also, solar and wind energy require no water to operate; therefore, don’t pollute water strain resources. On the other hand, fossil fuels can have a significant impact on water resources. Both natural gas drilling and coal mining are water pollutants. In addition, all thermal power plants, including those powered by gas, oil, and coal, consume and withdraw water for cooling.
An inexhaustible supply of energy
The heat from the earth, sunny skies, strong winds, fast-moving water, and abundant plant matter can each provide a replenished supply of energy. A relatively small fraction of US electricity comes from these sources. But there are some exceptions. For example, Washington State gets 72% of its electricity from hydroelectric power, while 36% of Kansas’s electricity generation came from wind power. If all other parts of the US and the world keep up with this trend, we just might stand a chance against climate change.
Replacing fossil fuel-based electricity generation with renewables is a critical step in slowing down global warming.