Energy Consumption


Learning Objective

  • Discuss energy consumption and its relationship with global warming

Key Points

    • Fossil fuel-based energy use leads to the release of greenhouse gases.
    • Since the Industrial Revolution, release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has risen exponentially.
    • Impact of fossil fuel use is measured not just in terms of greenhouse gases produced, but also in terms of the environmental cost of extracting fossil fuels for use.


  • greenhouse gasAny gas, such as carbon dioxide or CFCs, that contributes to the greenhouse effect when released into the atmosphere.

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

Fossil Fuels and Climate Change

Consumption of fossil fuel resources has led to global warming and climate change. In most parts of the world, little effort is being made to slow these changes. If we reach (or have already reached) a maximum rate of petroleum extraction, then fossil fuels will no longer be a viable source of energy. However, if we explore viable alternative energy resources, we could reduce our impact on the environment.

Wind turbines in ColumbiaA wind turbine is a device that converts the natural kinetic energy from the wind into electrical power. Wind turbines provide a green source of alternative energy, as opposed to the burning of fossil fuels which contributes to climate change.

Newly emerging technologies could lead to more efficient energy generation, which could temper environmental damage. The use of these new methods incorporate practices that are informed by new paradigms such as systems ecology and industrial ecology.

Global warming and climate change are generally accepted as being caused by anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas emissions. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions are due to burning fossil fuels, while some is due to deforestation.

Global carbon emissions by energy sourceTotal carbon emissions has risen exponentially since the industrial revolution, from approximately 1 billion metric tons pre-1900 to 10 billion metric tons now.

The Future Costs of Fossil Fuels

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, as well as increase flooding that will affect billions of people. Those living in poverty will be most affected.

Another measurement of greenhouse gas-related issues and other externality comparisons between energy sources can be found in the ExternE project by the Paul Scherrer Institute and the University of Stuttgart. According to this study, hydroelectricity produces the lowest CO2 emissions, wind produces the second lowest CO2 emissions, nuclear energy produces the third lowest, and solar photovoltaic produces the fourth lowest.

Similarly, the same research study, known as ExternE, or “Externalities of Energy,” which was undertaken over the period from 1995 to 2005, found that the cost of producing electricity from coal or oil would double over its present value. The cost of electricity production from gas would increase by 30% if external costs such as damage to the environment and to human health, from the airborne particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, chromium VI, and arsenic emissions produced by these sources, were taken into account. It was estimated in the study that these external downstream fossil fuel costs amount up to 1%-2% of the EU’s entire gross domestic product (GDP); this was before the external cost of global warming from these sources was even included. The study also found that the environmental and health costs of nuclear power, per unit of energy delivered, was €0.0019/kWh, which was found to be lower than that of many renewable sources including biomass and photovoltaic solar panels. It was 30 times lower than coal at €0.06/kWh, or 6 cents/kWh. The energy source with the lowest associated external environmental and health costs was wind power at €0.0009/kWh.