Most of the world’s energy used to run cars, homes, offices, and industry comes from finite sources (Environmental Literary Council 2007). These sources include fossil fuels formed from decomposed remains of prehistoric organisms and nuclear power from radioactive materials. Alternative sources like hydro, solar, and wind power do exist, but in limited use due to costs and technological obstacles (Environmental Literacy Council 2007). The energy resources necessary to sustain human activities must increase as population and consumption also rise.
The use of fossil fuels may be associated with three stages of environmental impacts: extraction, transportation, and consumption. In terms of extraction, coal mining and mountaintop removal practices contaminate watersheds and contribute to air pollution (Center for Biological Diversity 2003). The infrastructure required for these extraction processes can have significant detrimental impacts on the balance of local ecosystem processes (Massachusetts Technology Collaborative 2007). Fossil fuels can be unintentionally released into the environment as they are transported from point of extraction to point of consumption. For example, an oil spill in San Francisco in 2007 released 58 thousand gallons of crude oil into a bay, affecting miles of coastline and causing great harm to the area’s wildlife (Chea 2007). The combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the air and contributes to global warming. Particulate air pollution occurs when fossil fuels are burned, releasing chemicals and particulate matter into the atmosphere. These types of air pollution contain carcinogens such as formaldehyde and benzene and are the known causes of serious illness in humans including chronic respiratory problems and cancer (EPA 2007).
Some governments and businesses have attempted to address the issues that coincide with fossil fuel use through the application of alternative energy methods. However, these methods do not result in perfect solutions. For example, hydropower is a cleaner source of energy than coal in that it does not produce harmful emissions associated with combustion. However the construction of large dams and the subsequent creation of reservoirs harms local ecosystems by displacing native species as well as humans residing on the land (United States Department of Energy 2007). Nuclear energy poses the problem of radioactive nuclear waste, the leftover material created through the process of nuclear fission. A reluctance by many to store nuclear waste in their vicinity complicates the applicability of nuclear energy (Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2007). Solar thermal and photovoltaic sources of energy translate sunlight directly into heat and electricity (Energy Information Administration). Solar power comes in many different forms, and it is applicable in a variety of situations. However, many mechanisms of creating solar power are currently too expensive to be used on a large scale (Young 2001). Wind energy, on the other hand, has become increasingly affordable as technological reliability has increased. However, public acceptance of wind turbines have been mixed due to their negative aesthetic value. Currently wind energy only contributes 0.064 percent to the global energy supply (International Energy Agency 2007).
A Global Outlook
Currently, the regions with the richest reserves of oil are the sites with some of the greatest political and economic instability. Two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are found in five Persian countries (Podobnik 143). The World Energy Council projects that total primary energy consumption will rise in by 71 percent from 2003 to 2030, despite an increase in world oil prices (World Energy Council 2006). Much of this increase in demand will come from countries such as India and China which are currently experience great rates of economic growth. However, issues arise when considering how this countries will produce energy and if these methods will be sustainable. Advancements in renewable energy made by developed nations may be nulled by India and China’s increased reliance on fossil fuels.
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