Environmental impact of the energy industry

Environmental impact of the energy industry
Rate of world energy usage in terawatts (TW), 1965-2005.[1]
Energy consumption per capita per country (2001). Red hues indicate increase, green hues decrease of consumption during the 1990s.[2]

The environmental impact of the energy industry is diverse. Energy has been harnessed by humans for millennia. Initially it was with the use of fire for light, heat, cooking and for safety, and its use can be traced back at least 1.9 million years.[3] In recent years there has been a trend towards the increased commercialization of various renewable energy sources.

In the real world of consumption of fossil fuel resources which lead to global warming and climate change however little change is being made in many parts of the world. Chinese oil demand for instance, is projected to grow nearly 20% in the next six years, and that country already imports over half of the 8 million barrels per day (1,300,000 m3/d) it uses.[4] If the peak oil theory proves out, more explorations of viable alternative energy sources, could be more friendly to the environment.

Rapidly advancing technologies can achieve a transition of energy generation, water and waste management, and food production towards better environmental and energy usage practices using methods of systems ecology and industrial ecology.[5][6]



Climate change

Global mean surface temperature anomaly relative to 1961–1990.

Global warming and climate change due to human activity is generally accepted as being caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of greenhouses gas emissions are due to burning fossil fuels with most of the rest due to deforestation.[citation needed]

There is a highly publicized denial of climate change but the vast majority of scientists working in climatology accept that it is due to human activity. The IPCC report Climate Change 2007: Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability predicts that climate change will cause shortages of food and water and increased risk of flooding that will affect billions of people, particularly those living in poverty.[7]

Biofuel use

Biofuel is defined as solid, liquid or gaseous fuel obtained from relatively recently lifeless or living biological material and is different from fossil fuels, which are derived from long dead biological material. Also, various plants and plant-derived materials are used for biofuel manufacturing.

Bio fuels are a renewable energy and can be sustainable (carbon neutral) in terms of greenhouse gas emissions since they are in the carbon cycle for the short term.


High use of bio-diesel leads to land use changes including deforestation.


Unsustainable firewood harvesting can lead to loss of biodiversity and erosion due to loss of forest cover. An example of this is a 40 year study done by the University of Leeds of African forests, which account for a third of the world's total tropical forest which demonstrates that Africa is a significant carbon sink. A climate change expert, Lee White states that "To get an idea of the value of the sink, the removal of nearly 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by intact tropical forests is at issue.

According to the U.N. the continent is losing forest twice as fast as the rest of the world. "Once upon a time, Africa boasted seven million square kilometers of forest but a third of that has been lost, most of it to charcoal."[8]

Fossil fuel use

Global fossil carbon emission by fuel type, 1800-2007 AD.

The three fossil fuel types are coal, petroleum and natural gas. It was estimated by the Energy Information Administration that in 2006 primary sources of energy consisted of petroleum 36.8%, coal 26.6%, natural gas 22.9%, amounting to an 86% share for fossil fuels in primary energy production in the world.[9]

The burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tonnes (21.3 gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide per year, but it is estimated that natural processes can only absorb about half of that amount, so there is a net increase of 10.65 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year (one tonne of atmospheric carbon is equivalent to 44/12 or 3.7 tonnes of carbon).[10] Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that enhances radiative forcing and contributes to global warming, causing the average surface temperature of the Earth to rise in response, which climate scientists agree will cause major adverse effects.


The environmental impact of coal mining and burning is diverse.[11] Legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990 required the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a plan to alleviate toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants. After delay and litigation, the EPA now has a court-imposed deadline of March 16, 2011, to issue its report.


A beach after an oil spill

The environmental impact of petroleum is often negative because it is toxic to almost all forms of life. The possibility of climate change exists. Petroleum, commonly referred to as oil, is closely linked to virtually all aspects of present society, especially for transportation and heating for both homes and for commercial activities.


Natural gas is often described as the cleanest fossil fuel, producing less carbon dioxide per joule delivered than either coal or oil.,[12] and far fewer pollutants than other fossil fuels. However, in absolute terms it does contribute substantially to global carbon emissions, and this contribution is projected to grow. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report,[13] in 2004 natural gas produced about 5,300 Mt/yr of CO2 emissions, while coal and oil produced 10,600 and 10,200 respectively (Figure 4.4); but by 2030, according to an updated version of the SRES B2 emissions scenario, natural gas would be the source of 11,000 Mt/yr, with coal and oil now 8,400 and 17,200 respectively. (Total global emissions for 2004 were estimated at over 27,200 Mt.)

In addition, natural gas itself is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere but is released in smaller amounts.

Electricity generation

The environmental impact of electricity generation is significant because modern society uses large amounts of electrical power. This power is normally generated at power plants that convert some other kind of energy into electrical power. Each such system has advantages and disadvantages, but many of them pose environmental concerns.


The environmental impact of reservoirs is coming under ever increasing scrutiny as the world demand for water and energy increases and the number and size of reservoirs increases. Dams and the reservoirs can be used to supply drinking water, generate hydroelectric power, increasing the water supply for irrigation, provide recreational opportunities and to improve certain aspects of the environment. However, adverse environmental and sociological impacts have also been identified during and after many reservoir constructions. Whether reservoir projects are ultimately beneficial or detrimental—to both the environment and surrounding human populations— has been debated since the 1960s and probably long before that. In 1960 the construction of Llyn Celyn and the flooding of Capel Celyn provoked political uproar which continues to this day. More recently, the construction of Three Gorges Dam and other similar projects throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America have generated considerable environmental and political debate.

Nuclear power

Nuclear power activities involving the environment; mining, enrichment, generation and geological disposal.

The environmental impact of nuclear power results from the nuclear fuel cycle, operation, and the effects of accidents such as the Chernobyl disaster (1986) and Fukushima I nuclear accidents (2011).

Wind power

Compared to the environmental effects of traditional energy sources, the environmental effects of wind power are relatively minor. Wind power consumes no fuel, and emits no air pollution, unlike fossil fuel power sources. The energy consumed to manufacture and transport the materials used to build a wind power plant is equal to the new energy produced by the plant within a few months. While a wind farm may cover a large area of land, many land uses such as agriculture are compatible, with only small areas of turbine foundations and infrastructure made unavailable for use.[14]


Energy conservation

Energy conservation refers to efforts made to reduce energy consumption. Energy conservation can be achieved through increased efficient energy use, in conjunction with decreased energy consumption and/or reduced consumption from conventional energy sources.

Energy conservation can result in increased financial capital, environmental quality, national security, personal security, and human comfort.[citation needed] Individuals and organizations that are direct consumers of energy choose to conserve energy to reduce energy costs and promote economic security. Industrial and commercial users can increase energy use efficiency to maximize profit.

Energy policy

Energy policy is the manner in which a given entity (often governmental) has decided to address issues of energy development including energy production, distribution and consumption. The attributes of energy policy may include legislation, international treaties, incentives to investment, guidelines for energy conservation, taxation and other public policy techniques.

Sustainable energy

Sustainable energy is the provision of energy that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Sustainable energy sources are most often regarded as including all renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectricity, solar energy, wind energy, wave power, geothermal energy, bioenergy, and tidal power. It usually also includes technologies that improve energy efficiency.

Economic instruments

Various economic instruments can be used to steer society toward sustainable energy. Some of these methods include ecotaxes and emissions trading.

Ecological economics aims to address some of the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space.[15] Environmental economics, is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, which views the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem, while ecological economics emphasis is upon preserving natural capital.[16] [17]

Biophysical economics sometimes referred to as thermoeconomics is discussed in the field of ecological economics and relates directly to energy conversion, which itself is related to the fields of sustainability and sustainable development especially in the area of carbon burning.[18]

See also


  1. ^ "World Consumption of Primary Energy by Energy Type and Selected Country Groups, 1980-2004" (XLS). Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. July 31, 2006. http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/international/iealf/table18.xls. Retrieved 2007-01-20. 
  2. ^ "Energy Consumption: Total energy consumption per capita". Earthtrends Database. World Resources Institute. http://earthtrends.wri.org/text/energy-resources/variable-351.html. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 
  3. ^ Bowman, D. M. J. S. (2009). "Fire in the Earth System". Science 324 (5926): 481–4. Bibcode 2009Sci...324..481B. doi:10.1126/science.1163886. PMID 19390038. 
  4. ^ Hargreaves, Steve (2009-08-17). "China: The new Big Oil". CNNMoney.com. http://money.cnn.com/2009/08/17/news/international/china_oil/index.htm?postversion=2009081707. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 
  5. ^ Kay, J. (2002). Kay, J.J. "On Complexity Theory, Exergy and Industrial Ecology: Some Implications for Construction Ecology." In: Kibert C., Sendzimir J., Guy, B. (eds.) Construction Ecology: Nature as the Basis for Green Buildings, pp. 72–107. London: Spon Press. Retrieved on: 2009-04-01.
  6. ^ Baksh, B. and Fiksel J. (June 2003) "The Quest for Sustainability: Challenges for Process Systems Engineering." American Institute Of Chemical Engineers Journal 49(6):1355. Retrieved on: 2009-04-04.
  7. ^ "Billions face climate change risk". BBC NEWS Science/Nature. 2007-04-06. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6532323.stm. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  8. ^ Rowan, Anthea (2009-09-25). "Africa's burning charcoal problem". BBC NEWS Africa. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8272603.stm. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  9. ^ "International Energy Annual 2006". http://www.eia.doe.gov/iea/overview.html. Retrieved 2009-02-08. 
  10. ^ "US Department of Energy on greenhouse gases". http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggccebro/chapter1.html. Retrieved 2007-09-09. 
  11. ^ "Environmental impacts of coal power: air pollution". Union of Concerned Scientists. 2009. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/coalvswind/c02c.html. Retrieved 2011-04-22. 
  12. ^ Natural Gas and the Environment
  13. ^ IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (Working Group III Report, Chapter 4)
  14. ^ Why Australia needs wind power
  15. ^ Xepapadeas, Anastasios (2008). Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. ed. Ecological economics. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition. Palgrave Macmillan. doi:10.1057/9780230226203.0423. http://pde-aux1.pde.pm.semcs.net/article?id=pde2008_E000221&q=bioeconomics&topicid=&result_number=4. 
  16. ^ Robert Nadeau (Lead Author);Cutler Cleveland (Topic Editor) (2008-08-26). "Environmental and ecological economics". In Cutler J. Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Environmental_and_ecological_economics?topic=58074. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 
  17. ^ Jeroen, C.J.M.; Bergh, van den (2000). Ecological Economics: Themes, Approaches, and Differences with Environmental Economics. Discussion Paper TI 2000-080/3. Tinbergen Institute. pp. 1–25.. http://www.tinbergen.nl/discussionpapers/00080.pdf. Retrieved 2009-07-02. 
  18. ^ Cutler Cleveland (Lead Author);Robert Costanza (Topic Editor) (2010-05-26). "Biophysical economics". In Cutler J. Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Biophysical_economics. Retrieved 2011-04-21. 

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