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How Does Renewable Energy Reduce Climate Change?

There are many contributors to the dawning epidemic of climate change. But studies show that our use of non-renewable energy sources is the major culprit4. So how does renewable energy reduce climate change? First, we take a look at the climate impact of non-renewable energy.

Non-Renewable Energy and Climate Impacts

We derive non-renewable energy from what we know as fossil fuels9. Fossil fuels are natural energy sources that include coal, natural gas, petroleum, bitumen, and shale oil.

Drilling contractors retrieve these energy sources from below ground level. Following extraction, energy companies refine the raw materials into fuel. From the moment we extract fossil fuels to the final consumption stage, these energy sources pose many climate risks, including:

Oil spills and drilling accidents

The technology for oil drilling has improved, but spills and accidents are still frequent. Drilling contractors extract crude oil from the ground. Crude is only found in underground reservoirs (usually in water bodies). Energy companies then use this oil to make fuel and petroleum products.

The problem starts with exploration. To determine how much oil is in a place, surveyors use explosives. These explosives impact the animals in that area, both on land and water. The explosions can kill marine life. They can ruin their hearing and affect the migration pattern of fish.

Once the extraction begins through drilling, another set of problems comes to light. Experts consider drilling the most harmful stage—continuous drilling results in more accidents. And thus, we experience an increased likelihood of negative impacts when accidents or spills occur and pollution leaks into our environment.

The two major substances are hydrocarbons (which cause water toxicity) and drilling fluids (which contain metals). Even small leaks result in these materials collecting on the seafloor. They smother organisms and cause malformation in their structures. Pollution kills embryos and can even kill fully developed fish.

Spilled waste doesn't only impact aquatic animals. Fishing industries may lose their sources of income. In less developed countries where people live on the water, they may also lose their homes. Water in such regions may become too toxic for people to use safely for leisure activities.

High waste generation

Oil rigs generate toxic waste at an alarming speed2. Their drilling fluids (or muds) can contain arsenic, zinc, benzene, iron, mercury, barium, chromium, and other metal substances.

They also generate a lot of other waste, which they move to land. As a result, oil rigs also contribute to land pollution. These waste products include crushed rocks and discarded mechanical parts from machinery.

In cases of land mining, such as coal mining, a lot of similar problems are also present. First of all, coal mining destroys the surrounding habitat for animals, plants, and other organisms.

Similarly, it also produces a lot of waste, with disposal options being land or water bodies. This pollution interferes with animal lives and the quality of the environment11.

Greenhouse emissions and air pollution

We release greenhouse emissions whenever we use fossil fuel products. Greenhouse gases are good, in the right amount.

They are also responsible for keeping the earth habitable. They keep our atmosphere at the right level to regulate heat and protect us from UV radiation3. Some of these greenhouse gas emissions are CO2, methane, water vapor, nitrous oxide, and more.

However, refining and consuming fossil fuels also produce greenhouse gases. These gases trap more heat than necessary, warming the earth's surface beyond its stable temperatures. This effect is what we know as global warming. And too many greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is not a good thing.

Whenever we use non-renewable sources for our electricity and transportation, we contribute additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Albeit in a relatively small way, with each commute or spin of the tumble dryer, it all adds up. As such, greenhouse gas emissions are widely spread forms of non-renewable energy pollution.

Furthermore, researchers have found concentrated pollution levels in places close to mining or drilling sites.

The amount of human-generated gas in our atmosphere is increasing at an alarming rate. However, this isn't an issue that we can fix easily. Data shows that greenhouse emissions are steadily climbing1, with no hope of a reduction soon.

These gases will remain in our atmosphere for a long time. For example, 20% of our carbon dioxide emissions will stay for tens of thousands of years6. As such, the only solution is to reduce the amount of these greenhouse gases and move as fast as possible to emission-less energy production and energy efficiency.

Renewable Energy to Reduce Climate Change

Electric Car Renewable Energy Reducing Climate Change
Image Credit: Mike Bird from Pexels

All over the world, renewable sources are being explored for energy. Today, we currently see them as alternative options. However, the future goal is to shift completely to clean energy sources to realize the many advantages of renewable energy. Current progress and projections already show that by 2050, 50% of the world's energy will come from renewable energy.

But why is the shift to renewable energy so important? And how does renewable energy reduce climate change?

Renewable energy sources are important because they are clean. They avoid burning and polluting dirty fossil fuels. This is energy derived from natural resources which cannot be depleted over time and can be replenished within a short period8.

Some of the widely used renewable energy sources include solar power, wind energy, hydropower, biomass, geothermal, and waste conversion.

Switching away from fossil fuels

To reduce the progress of climate change, we should all work toward switching from non-renewable sources to different types of renewable power sources. This is because the harmful processes and emissions that come with the former have little to no presence with the latter.

Let's look at some renewable sources available and their potential impact on the climate.

  • Solar energy is derived from the sun. Solar energy is produced using processes that require no gas emissions. As long as the sun burns, we can never use its resources. Installing solar panels to harvest energy from the sun can occur on a small scale at home and large-scale power plants.
  • Wind power is driven by the temperature of the earth's surface. Although land space is required, wind turbines have less disruption to natural habitats, which helps balance the advantages and disadvantages of wind energy.
  • Hydropower relies on the water cycle and the force of flowing water for energy conversion. We've had a long history with hydroelectric energy, dating from early mills grinding grain for bread. Energy companies use hydropower to generate electricity; however, it can result in land degradation.
  • Geothermal is generated using the heat within the earth's crust. People use this source to heat buildings and bathwater and to generate electricity.
  • Biomass and bioenergy are produced from organic plant and animal materials. We convert biomass to liquid biofuels or biogas to use

These sources don't have the impact that non-renewable sources have on the environment. Gas emissions (such as CO2 and methane) are low or non-existent for solar, and wind energy in most cases once installed. The structure of the earth does not have to be compromised through drilling or blasting.

Generating energy from these renewable energy sources doesn't require constantly releasing metal and toxins into our water bodies.

How Renewable Energy Reduces Climate Change

Here are some of the potential climate impacts and benefits of renewable energy we expect as more communities switch to large-scale renewable energy production and consumption.

Wind Turbines Renewable Energy

Cleaner atmosphere

Burning fossil fuels is responsible for the increased greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. As explained earlier, these gases contribute (primarily) to what we know as global warming.

As energy production shifts to renewable sources, we expect that there will be a reduction in such gas emissions. Fewer emissions mean less pollution in our atmosphere.

Better air quality

Refineries expose plants, animals, people, and organisms living within close proximity to poor air quality. As a result, they receive a concentration of harmful gases, which could affect their health and development.

Air pollution affects urban dwellers significantly too. The daily commutes with thousands of cars on the same roads at the same time can be threatening. This is because most vehicles are burning non-renewable fuels, which release gases that pollute the air we inhale.

Many non-renewable sources also require the felling of trees. For example, miners will cut down all the trees within proximity to access the resources underground if coal is found in an area. Unfortunately, with the removal of each tree, we reduce the absorption of CO2 that they provide. Of course, trees also help provide oxygen that humans and animals n ed to live.

With renewable energy, we no longer have to cut trees down to access fossil resources. We can plant new trees in deforested areas. As a result, air quality in any area with more trees improves. Furthermore, once installed, renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar do not produce any carbon emissions.

Improved public health

Many communities where solid fuels (such as coal or crude oil) are found usually become at risk of poor public health7. This is because the harvesting and burning processes pose occupational hazards, waterbody contamination, and air pollution.

The production of non-renewable energy does not pose the same risks.

Some of these sources do, in fact, produce some amount of waste. However, having better controls in place limit the impacts. For example, the amount of CO2 released while burning a tree for biomass is around the same amount that the tree captured in its lifetime. This can make biomass carbon-neutral (zero impact).

Protection of natural habitats

Fuel extraction processes have an impact on natural habitats. Human activity drives out animals and can disturb the migration patterns of fish.

This contributes to the extinction rates of animals that can only survive in their natural habitats.

Renewable energy production is a lot more responsible. As a result, contractors pay better attention to their energy plant locations. They also consider the potential impact on the animals who live there5. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency carefully assesses land use for renewable energy development potential10.

In the U.K., with offshore wind, power companies must receive approval from the government. The government will verify that the intended area is not an exclusion zone: nature reserve, shipping lane, lighthouse cone, exploration area, or possible site for finding archaeological remains. Several such policies are active in various regions of the world.

Conclusion

Of course, switching to renewable energy is just one contributing element toward a solution for climate change. But it's a big one.

Further, the adverse impact of climate change is not linear. They affect plants, animals, humans, and other organisms alike. To make a change, we can start redirecting our energy needs to more sustainable sources and supporting renewable energy growth. Read Renewable Energy Tips to Help Transition to Cleaner Energy to get started.

1WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (GHG Bulletin) - No. 14: The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Based on Global Observations through 2017
2Seddiki, Safia. (2018). The Environmental impacts of offshore oil drilling : the case of BP oil spill 212.
3Darkwah, Williams Kweku & Odum, Bismark & Addae, Maxwell & Koomson, Desmond & Kwakye Danso, Benjamin & Oti-Mensah, Ewurabena & Asenso, Theophilus & Adormaa, Buanya. (2018). Greenhouse Effect: Greenhouse Gases and Their Impact on Global Warming. Journal of Scientific Research and Reports. 17. 1-9. 10.9734/JSRR/2017/39630.
4Sivaramanan, Sivakumaran. (2015). Global Warming and Climate change, causes, impacts and mitigation. 10.13140/RG.2.1.4889.7128.
5Defenders of Wildlife: Making renewable energy wildlife friendly
6Yale Climate Connections (2010): Common Climate Misconceptions: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
7Energy and Human Health. Annual Review of Public Health. Vol. 34:159-188 (Volume publication date March 2013) First published online as a Review in Advance on January 16, 2013 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031912-114404
8Gorjian, Shiva. (2017). An Introduction to the Renewable Energy Resources. 10.13140/RG.2.2.27055.53928.
9Chmielewski, A.G.. (2005). Environmental Effects of Fossil Fuel Consumption.
10Giebel, Gregor & Hasager, C. (2016). An Overview of Offshore Wind Farm Design. 10.1007/978-3-319-39095-6_19.
11Goswami, Sribas. (2015). Impact of Coal Mining on Environment. European Researcher. 92. 185-196. 10.13187/er.2015.92.185.
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