The chief contributor to climate change is carbon emissions from fossil fuels. However with those finite fuel sources running out considering new forms of energy won’t just be good for the environment, it will be absolutely vital in years to come. For now, a commitment to renewable energy is on the world political agenda, with Europe, for example, proposing a target of increasing total use of renewable energy from 7% to 20% by 2020.
Take a look into how each source of energy, renewable and non-renewable, compare.
Coal has the most widely distributed reserves in the world and is mined in over 100 countries. While scientists believe there are still adequate reserves of coal to serve the world’s energy needs for some years to come, the impact of burning coal is environmentally devastating.
Burning coal is a leading cause of smog, acid rain and toxin substances in the air, and one of the chief culprits of carbon dioxide emissions. In an average year, a typical coal power station generates 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and is the primary human cause of global warming – that’s as much carbon dioxide as cutting down 161 million trees.
Oil and petroleum products supply a third of the primary energy used in the UK. One of the chief problems with reliance on oil is the difficulty and cost involved in drilling for and gathering it – meaning the cost of wholesale oil is continuing to rise. Oil spillages during transportation also pose serious risks to the environment and wildlife. Additionally, burning oil also has a grave environmental impact.
Oil is the most commonly reported cause of water pollution, with over 5,000 incidents recorded annually by the Environment Agency. A single litre of oil spilled can contaminate a million litres of drinking water. And overall, 30% of CO2 emissions affecting the atmosphere come from cars and other petrol guzzling vehicles.
Natural gas burns cleaner that the other fossil fuels and produces less greenhouse gases when processed. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal.
Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it undergoes extensive processing to remove other materials contained in the gas, meaning that other gases escape into the air. Crucially, scientists suggest that reserves of gas will have been exhausted by 2085.
Nuclear energy is energy released from the atomic nucleus. Nuclear is a clean form of energy in that it releases almost none of the CO2 emissions associated with fossil fuels.
While the amount of energy that can be produced through nuclear power is significant, so too are the possible side effects. Disposing of radioactive nuclear waste is a serious issue to consider. Nuclear energy is a controversial source of energy, with the effects caused by nuclear spills such as the Chernobyl disaster having long term and detrimental effects on the environment and human health.
Wind farms are one of the fastest growing green sources of electricity generation. With the UK possessing 40% of Europe’s total wind resource, wind power offers a compelling alternative to fossil fuel power, and it’s also renewable and emission free.
In the future, if wind energy were to provide a significantly larger chunk of global energy, then the land needed for wind farms would have a big impact on more and more people’s living space. There are also concerns that wind farms offshore interrupt ecosystems and local wildlife. Another complaint is that wind farms are ugly and noisy.
Tidal and river water flow can be harnessed to create energy, and with the UK being surrounded by water, appears to be a viable energy option. River hydro stations aren’t considered to be a serious option due to the ecological impact on the local environment. However tidal hydro-power stations are growing in technological capabilities, with research and trials continuing. It’s not yet as developed as other renewable technologies but certainly one to watch.
Transforming naturally occurring light rays into energy is a logical and sustainable source of energy. In spite of the short summers and cloudy skies, the UK still receives 50% of the sunlight per square foot as countries on the equator. Solar energy is popular and working well in other European countries, and could serve the UK similarly.
However there are limitations to the technology that will need improvement so the process is optimised and more efficient – for example, the photovoltaic cells used in the process of solar harnessing only currently absorb around 15% of the sunlight’s energy.