How Energy Consumption Affects The Environment

There is an ever-growing need for energy requirements per person, that is steadily rising in the world, and is threatening the wellbeing of the planet.

Energy consumption has increased steadily throughout the years, alongside the advance of technology. The required energy increased 2.5 times once agricultural evolution started taking place 12,000 years ago and then doubled again as more devices came forth in the following years, allowing people to take control of wind and solar power.

Once the industrial revolution came, the consumption levels had risen up 3 fold by the coming of electricity and their required use of fossil fuels. Annual meat production quadrupled in the span of the last 50 years, with the world producing more than 320 million tonnes each year and our diets evolved to seek huge amounts of meat and its byproducts which burden the environment even further, with their heavy production cost.

All the while, any movements on plant-based diets are pushed on the side in view of the fast-food culture. Lavish lifestyles and luxury commodities may be more than simple choices of an individual that exist in the realm of his life alone. It’s time that we have a look at how earth resources are consumed and what is the impact of our decisions on it in general.

Energy And The First Law of Thermodynamics

Energy exists in many forms, such as heat, light, chemical, and kinetic energy, that is, later on, transformed into forms that are more useful to people. We can see examples of these processes in our lives, and how one source is transforming to another, giving different shape to what eventually amounts to equivalent potentials. In the hydrologic cycle, for example, the sun is evaporating water which later on falls as rain and runs downhill toward sea-level in a perpetual cycle. Chemicals contain potential energy in them and were you to run an experiment of burning some of them, like for example sugar, you would release energy as heat, which could fuse into kinetic energy later on. And the cells inside our body are power machines as well, that take in organic compounds in the form of Adenosine triphosphate(ATP) and use it to accomplish a number of different activities like cell division, growth, and biosynthesis.

Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. — First Law of Thermodynamics

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels include all energy sources that are created by natural processes after the accumulation of organic matter on earth and its interaction with geological factors like photosynthesis. It includes all carbon-filled materials like coal, petroleum, natural gas, oils, etc, and there is a limited amount of them in nature that decreases as we consume them.

“Although new deposits continue to be discovered, the reserves of the principal fossil fuels remaining on Earth are limited.” — Brittannica

Basically, fossil fuels are the total reserves of dead matter on earth consisted of decomposed organisms as they are transformed after millions of years. As of now, they provide around 80% of the energetic needs of the world, and apart from their limited amounts, they come along with huge risks for the environment, through the emissions of carbon dioxide in the air.

“Using fossil fuels for energy has exacted an enormous toll on humanity and the environment — from air and water pollution to global warming. That’s beyond all the negative impacts from petroleum-based products such as plastics and chemicals.” — Melissa Denchak

Entropy And The effects Of Fossil Fuels In The Environment

Although energy remains equal in its various forms as described in the first law of thermodynamics, there is a tendency for many sources to follow an irreversible path to forms that are highly unusable by humans. Oils dissipate once they are consumed as is coal and natural gas and the inexplicable path towards more uncertain states is measured by the term entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

“Entropy is the natural process of a system as it progresses in the direction of increased disorder. Starting from one equilibrium state, external forces transform it to new forms, that cause the entropy to rise for all its irreversible processes”.

As these fuels are burned they release carbon dioxide together with other gases and chemicals that trap heat in the atmosphere and create a human endorsed global warming shield.

“Carbon dioxide behaves as a greenhouse gas — that is, it absorbs infrared radiation (net heat energy) emitted from Earth’s surface and reradiates it back to the surface.” — Brittanica

Where Is Electricity Coming From

Most of the time the energy sources that reach our lives, like electricity, originate from other sources that were transformed through heat and other processes into that form. For example, fossil fuels are still the main primary source of electricity, with more than 60% being produced from them. In contrast, it is only a mere 15–20% that uses renewable sources while the rest of it is coming from nuclear energy or other natural sources like solar panels and Windmills.

The actual process inside the fossil fuel power plants is that they burn coal or oil to create heat which is then turned into steam that drives enough power to the turbines to generate electricity. Besides the carbon that is released to the environment, contributing to climate change there are many pollutants and toxic chemicals that are released to the environment and damage the natural equilibrium.

Food Production

25% of Greenhouse gas emissions come from food production. It may be tempting to believe that the world ought to have a solution in place for us but our food choices affect the environment in a very direct way. Animal farms and seafood production, contribute more than 30% of food emissions alone and they require double resources than crops to be sustained.

At the same time, food production is the main reason for deforestation that shrinks the areas covered with trees, to give way to crops and livestock production farms. Deforestation is a contributing factor in climate change and biodiversity loss as it eradicates all the animal species that live in nature which lose their home and later on become extinct. According to The World Bank, 1.3 million square miles of forest have been cut out in the last years alone losing more trees than ever before.

“Forests cover a third of the world’s land. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth’s forest area was about 50 million square kilometers which have now shrunk to less than 40 million square kilometers. Most of this decline was caused by the growing demand for forest and paper products, as well as for agricultural land use.” — World Bank

Renewable Sources Of Energy

The average man today consumes 115 times more energy than the amount the primitive man was, reaching more than 200,000 Kcal of energy per day with 1/4 of that being electrical energy. From all this consumption there is a percentage of approximately 16% that is wasted by inefficiencies in electrical generation and transmission. It becomes apparent why humanity needs to turn in more natural and less harmful ways to cover its needs. In recent years there is an attempt to bring renewable sources or even nuclear energy into the mix trying to minimize the impact. Below are some of these more efficient sources we have in our environment which we can use with almost no detrimental effects.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power plants work similarly with the current power plants with the only difference that they are more environmentally friendly and have almost no green gas emission. Through the split of the atom, the generated heat is transformed into steams that drive the turbines. Throughout this cycle of transformations, electricity is produced reliably in a way that can run for months without interruption. The risk of an accident is minimal and assuming a controlled environment that manages the process, any consequences can be compared to the risk of any other endeavor of similar size. As of now, nuclear power accounts for 20% of electricity production.

Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power uses the natural force that comes from sea streams to fill underwater reservoirs and propel turbines from which electricity is produced. These plants are most of the time located in dams inside rivers, that raise their level as high as possible to produce more kinetic power.

“The potential power that can be derived from a volume of water is directly proportional to the working head so that a high-head installation requires a smaller volume of water than a low-head installation to produce an equal amount of power.” — Brittanica

Renewable Sources

All renewable sources that produce electricity are the natural components we find in the environment like solar and wind, which combined together provided for more than 5% of the world’s energy requirements. Due to the uncontrolled circumstances, they can’t produce power in a predictable way as they are dependent on weather and temperature, and this is the major factor that makes these sources less popular. Usually, they need to be backed up by other energy providers to make sure they cover for any unexpected loss and they require long distances of land to generate enough power to make a difference. But as the demand for energy is increasing, new ways come forth that can assure much better sustainability and reliability.

“Clean energy has far more to recommend it than just being “green.” The growing sector creates jobs, makes electric grids more resilient, expands energy access in developing countries, and helps lower energy bills. All of those factors have contributed to a renewable energy renaissance in recent years, with wind and solar setting new records for electricity generation.” — National Geographic

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