We’re trapped in a vicious cycle. We need energy to power the things we use every day but what we use to produce that energy has been killing the planet slowly for the last 250 years. Oil, coal, gas – the fossil fuels – are also running out. The reserves are dwindling, which means we need to look for other energy sources that are sustainable, ones that won’t continue to contribute to climate change.
The fuels we’ve relied on for so long have been continually filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been in a million years – 85% of our greenhouse gas emissions in this country are CO2, and in 2005 we emitted 567 tonnes of it. The good news is, that level is lower than it was, and continues to fall slightly, as we switch from using a lot of coal to generate energy to gas. We’ve also been adding dangerous new gases like CFCs and HFCs to the atmosphere, which are likely to linger for a long time.
Currently there are 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In 1750 that figure was just 278 ppm. Nitrous oxide has risen from 270 ppm to 314 in that period. Those are alarming rises, and have been contributing to the temperate increase on earth. The dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, especially oil, might prove to be a blessing in disguise. It’s forcing us to face the problem and discover alternative energy sources that can work without polluting the atmosphere.
Nuclear power has been used for decades, and you might be astonished to learn that it’s actually carbon neutral – it releases no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, as we all know from Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, nuclear power can be dangerous, and accidents can not only be deadly, but can affect the area around a plant for centuries. We can build and run plants, but it’s debatable whether we fully understand how to use nuclear power yet – and we’ve yet to figure out what to do with the radioactive waste they produce.
Coal and Gas
It might seem strange to consider coal and gas as ongoing energy sources when they’ve been responsible for a lot of pollution, but the simple fact is that right now we need them. Fully 35% of our electricity in the UK is generated from coal in power plants. Putting waste CO2 generated by coal underground is a solution that’s being investigated – in fact, we’re already putting 1 million tonnes of CO2 under the North Sea this way, although we don’t really know the long term effects.
We thought gas from the North Sea would be an energy saviour for us. But the reserves are now low, and we’ve come to need gas from elsewhere, which has meant volatile prices – the price rises of 2006 were the effect of that. But whilst gas releases less CO2 into the atmosphere than coal, it still pollutes. Gas produces 40% of our electricity, which means we have a heavy reliance on it.
Probably the most viable alternative to generating power on a large scale is wind power, and you’ve probably seen or heard of the wind farms around the country and offshore. They can’t supply all the energy we need, but we can in theory receive about 20% of our electricity from them. They create no carbon at all, but, of course, they’re dependent on the wind blowing to work – and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. However, more wind farms are being created, and every single one helps cut our emissions.
Work is also being done to harness wave power. Again, this is carbon neutral, and has the potential to create a lot of the power we need, but it’s still in the early stages of development.