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What are the environmental impacts of energy?

What are the environmental impacts of energy?

Future360 is pleased to present this energy series in conjunction with the Switch Energy Project -- a campaign to educate global citizens about the science of energy. Today we examine the environmental impact of energy.

All energy has environmental impacts -- from air to water to solid waste to land use and beyond. The key is managing these effectively and affordably into the future. The most discussed environmental impact is CO2 emissions. When burned, all fossil fuels produce them. Nearly half our CO2 emissions come from coal, more than a third come from oil.

Some countries are talking about reducing CO2 emissions. How much, and what effect that will have on the atmosphere, warming, and energy production are yet to be seen. There are other emissions we agree on more completely. Sulphur dioxide causes acid rain, nitrous oxide erodes the ozone layer. Both of these, mostly from coal and oil, we can control to some degree.

But as a global society, we don't do a very good job of managing gaseous wastes -- a big area for improvement. We're better with solid and liquid wastes. Most of coal ash is captured. Oil spills are fairly rare. Barring accidents like Fukushima, we've done reasonably done a good job with nuclear waste out of our environment. But we can improve here too.

Water use is becoming an increasingly big issue. Oil, gas and even concentrating solar power plants use a lot of water. While energy uses a small fraction compared with agriculture and industry, we'll likely see greater tension over water int the future. Good reason to figure out how to minimize use and recycle.

Finally there is land use. Renewable energies like wind, solar, hydro and biofuels cover much larger areas than more concentrated energies like nuclear and fossil fuels. How much land we're willing to use for energy in the future will likely depend on where the land is and what energy it's used for.

The key is minimizing environmental impacts while keeping energy affordable and using the prosperity that affordable energy brings to continue to invest in the environment.

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