Energy and the Environment

This is a preliminary abstract from the study. It will be updated as the study progresses and the full study will be published on-line when it is complete. Comments are solicited.


The objective of this study is to gain a better understanding of the global energy consumption process and associated growth rates, the sources of energy, the uses of energy and the social, economic and environmental impacts of energy consumption. Also, I would like to develop a better understanding of the relationship between the consumption of energy from fossil fuels and global warming.


This study is primarily concerned with energy consumption in the US and the related social, economic and environmental impacts. However, the environment includes air and water so that in some cases the impact is global or more to the point, global activity impacts the U.S. The same is true regarding socio/economic conditions because energy is such an important part of the production/distribution/consumption cycle. The environmental impact will probably predominate simply because the limited capacity of environmental sinks is emerging as the most critical aspect of the current energy production/consumption cycle. Energy is such a significant input to that cycle that any change in energy consumption or in the fuels that are used to produce that energy will significantly impact the entire socio/economic sphere. If such changes are determined to be necessary, their possible impacts should at least be identified.


Energy has long been a technical concern of mine, particularly energy efficiency, energy sources, their availability and their cost. I have only recently come to regard it as an existential threat due to the relationship between global warming and fossil fuel consumption. This preliminary abstract concentrates on global warming. (See ) and on how it is likely to cause changes in the types of fuel that we use to produce energy, how it might affect our total energy consumption and how that in turn might affect our economy.

For a good general description of global energy consumption broken down by the largest consuming nations, See . A quick scan of this article shows a large current level of consumption which is increasing at a high rate. It shows the sources or types of fuel that are used to produce that energy and how that mix varies over time. Most of the fuel is fossil fuel in the form of oil, gas, coal and biofuels. It describes the emissions and types of pollutants that enter the atmosphere as a result of burning all this fossil fuel. This air pollution has a negative impact upon the global environment to the point where some consider it an existential threat, most often referred to as “Global Warming”. In addition, there are other impacts of air pollution such as acid rain ( ), ocean acidification ( ) and human health problems ( ).

Since we entered the industrial revolution during the 19th century, global consumption of fossil fuels has been increasing. During the period 1960 to 2013, it has been increasing relatively rapidly as shown on this chart.


The following chart provides a breakdown of consumption by type of fossil fuel and the resultant CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.


That’s the basic problem. For an analysis of how this translates to global warming and some of the problems associated with global warming, see for an overview by NOAA. See for a detailed analysis by IPCC

From the latter website, I list the Conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): (As best I can determine, their conclusions are valid. In a few places I have deleted extraneous comment and replaced it with … You can easily access the full statements by accessing the website.)

“OBSERVED CHANGES IN THE CLIMATE SYSTEM – Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.

ATMOSPHERE – Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850 … . In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years.

OCEANS – Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010 …, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971.

CRYOSPHERE – Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence) … .

SEA LEVELS – The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m … .

CARBON AND OTHER BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLES – The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification … .

DRIVERS OF CLIMATE CHANGE – Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750 … . “

This is where the reading gets a bit difficult. Radiative Forcing is a new term to me. I find an understandable definition at  or


As indicated above, I have concentrated primarily on digging out the data on the global warming aspects of our energy consumption. I have for now ignored acidification and human health problems as well as issues such as “energy independence”.

At this point based upon the data as presented by the researchers involved, I accept the premise that global temperatures are rising. I accept the premise that they are rising due in large part to atmospheric pollution. I accept the premise that CO2 is the largest single contributor to the warming caused by this pollution. Finally, I accept the fact that most of that CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuels by humans to supply the energy necessary to produce, distribute and enjoy the goods and services that constitute our standard of living. I understand that over the past 150 years we have managed to exceed the ability of the environmental sink that we call our atmosphere to purify itself.

Therefore, I feel that the first thing we should do is stop increasing the amount of CO2 that we pump into the atmosphere each year.  In addition, we should invest in researching the possibility of increasing the reflectivity of CO2 or otherwise reducing its radiative forcing capability.

The next question is; “How do we eventually reduce our emission of CO2?”. – We can’t just stop using fossil fuels but as a first step, we can convert from fossil fuels that are highly polluting to those that are less polluting (i.e. Coal to Natural Gas). Even that small step has negative impacts on current investments not only in commodities and physical plant but in life skills and social capital so there has to be some counterbalancing effort to minimize these negative impacts. We must find equitable ways to share the burden of clean up and the cost of prevention. In particular, we must find ways to ease the transition of the people employed in the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels as they are forced to learn new skills and perhaps relocate.

We have already started to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar. We need to accelerate these moves. We need to invest more in research on the productive use of nuclear waste so that we can safely utilize nuclear power.  We need to re-think our position in regard to hydro.

Our current problem stems from the fact that the fossil fuels that have been our primary source of energy for a couple of centuries are not as cheap as we thought. The costs associated with their pollution of the environment have not been included in their market price. Centuries ago, we recognized the dangers of polluting our water supply and took steps to control the pollution of our rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. We have become used to paying the cost of water purification, sewage treatment, clean stream programs etc. Now we must recognize the dangers of polluting our atmosphere and become used to paying the cost of controlling the pollution of the air and air purification. It’s going to be expensive. At the present time, we are deeply addicted to the use of fossil fuels. We are consuming the equivalent of 220 million barrels of oil per day. Considering that, it will not be easy to move from coal to gas or oil to gas. Moving from fossil fuels in general to renewable energy sources will be even more difficult. It is necessary that we accelerate our current efforts.

Bear in mind that the converters of energy from one form to another and the distributors of energy benefit disproportionately from its consumption and in general, have a relatively short term perspective regarding the tradeoffs between their profits and the negative environmental effects of their activities. Therefore, they, through their lobbyists and their influence in the election process will continue to try to delay or defeat any plans to reduce the predicted negative effects of their products. We should not ignore what they have to say but it should be deeply discounted.

The CO2 pollution will eventually stop increasing either because we have changed our behavior or there aren’t enough people left to generate all that much CO2. Even then the atmosphere will remain polluted for centuries.

Still to be answered are the questions:

What dislocations in employment, income, wealth distribution, educational needs, will result?

Can we produce enough energy to maintain our economy after limiting our use of fossil fuels?

What rate of economic growth can we reasonably expect with limits on our use of energy?

Will our socio/economic system be viable if economic growth rate is less than our population growth rate? (This is the big one!)



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