for epic action movies, but more recently he has been attracting attention as a very vocal supporter in favour of action against climate change or what he calls his “crusade for a clean energy future”. In a recent post on Facebook, he challenged individuals who are questioning the science underpinning climate change such as temperature or weather changes. He argued that clean and low carbon energy is the only logical choice for our future. He openly asked whether it is acceptable that “7 million people die every year from pollution” or that “every day, 19,000 people die from pollution from fossil fuels”. This is a powerful argument which coupled with the fact that non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels are finite should leave no doubts about the need to transition to a fully renewable energy mix.
The continued use of non-renewable resources has clear implications for our health and wellbeing, both of which are intimately connected with the impacts non-renewable resources on our environment. These are very much worth exploring and this article aims to do exactly that with a focus on the harmful effects of non-renewable energy resources on our environment.
Unsurprisingly, the use of non-renewable sources of energy has a variety of harmful impacts on our environment either due to the way they are extracted and processed or also in terms of how they are used and thereafter disposed of. The effects also vary depending also on the type of non-renewable energy used, for example whether it is fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal or nuclear energy. Broadly speaking, however, there are five ways in which non-renewable energy sources impact our environment:
Greenhouse gas emissions
Perhaps the most well-known impact of using non-renewable energy sources is the emission of greenhouse gases, in particular CO2 and methane, which contribute to climate change¹. Different types of non-renewable energy though emit different levels of greenhouse gases. For example, coal is considered the to emit the highest percentage of CO2. In the US, CO2 emissions from the electric power sector calculated in 2015 indicate that 71% were attributable to coal versus 28% attributed to natural gas². Indeed, natural gas emits a lot less CO2, specifically 50-60% less compared to coal and it also emits 15-20% fewer heat-trapping gases compared to gasoline when used to power a vehicle³. However, that does not mean that natural gas can help mitigate climate change as drilling and extracting natural gas from wells results in the leakage of methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas – it is 34 times stronger than CO2 in terms of its potential for trapping heat³.
The concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are cross-cutting. It is not just about the direct impact of rising temperatures and changing weather patterns which impact human livelihoods as floods or dry seasons proliferate. Climate change is impacting ecosystems, diminishing their capacity to adapt to changing climates and as a result threatening biodiversity and the important ecosystem services our lives rely on.
Non-renewable energy sources are not just altering our Earth’s atmosphere by increasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. They also emit a variety of pollutants that are impact people’s health and the environment. For example, coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of mercury emissions in the US. When mercury is emitted into the air, it goes on to settle on the ground or blends with water. From that point it accumulates on organisms such as fish, passing through the food chain. This has profound effects on our biodiversity but creates real risks for people as studies have found that exposure to mercury can lead to neurological and neuro-behavioural effects in embryos and young children⁴.
Other air pollutants emitted due to fossil fuel combustion include sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
Acid rain and water pollution
But it is not just the air that we breathe that gets polluted. Dangerous pollutants that are emitted into the air can often follow the water cycle. This is the case of acid rain which is created due to the emission of sulphur and other chemicals into the atmosphere. It is corrosive to machinery and can disrupt local ecosystems. Because of this cocktail of chemicals, the rain becomes mildly acidic. In terms of the environment, acid rain changes the acidity of lakes and streams which can be very harmful to fish and other aquatic organisms; it would also be damaging to trees thereby weakening forest ecosystems[s:4]. As an example, in 1991 the US Acid Precipitation Assessment Program found that 5% of the lakes in New England were acidic and 2% could no longer support trout¹.
Another aspect of water pollution due to the use of fossil fuels such as coal, or nuclear energy is what is known as “thermal pollution”. Both fossil fuel plants and nuclear power plants require water to run and help cool the power plant. The water they use is also needed for other purposes, such as maintaining local ecosystem functions or agriculture. When the plants release that water back into the environment, its temperature is changed and as a result its quality has been degraded. Heated water that is reintroduced to the environment contains lower levels of dissolved oxygen which can stress native wildlife by for example increasing the heart rate of fish or decreasing fertility⁴.
Land pollution and waste generation
It is also important not to forget environmental impacts that come about as a result of the extraction of non-renewable resources or the disposal of the waste they generate. There is very clear evidence illustrating the impact of surface mining both in the short and long-term. For instance, huge volumes of excess rock or soil are dumped in other locations such as nearby valleys affecting those ecosystems. When it comes to the land that is being mined, in the long term these sites are left with poor quality soil and sometimes due to the chemicals used the lands ends up being polluted as well as any nearby water reserves⁴.
The case of nuclear energy is of particular relevant here as both the extraction of uranium and waste disposal create some very critical issues for which no long-term solution has been found due to the radioactive nature of the ore being mined.
Oil spills and other accidents
Lastly, there is something to be said about unintended consequences or rather unforeseen and accidental effects. Oil spills are extremely damaging to nearby shores and ecosystems. To quantify this, analysts estimated British Petroleum’s oil spill of 2010 would cost $2.5 billion in losses to the Louisiana fishing market alone while Florida was estimated to lose $3 billion in tourism income¹. Biologists were worried that a species of algae, vital to hundreds of species of animals, would be wiped off due to the oil released in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly devastating effects on both nature and humans were seen as a result of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. These were accidents which came about due to negligence, technology failure, lack of preparedness or a combination of all those. But the point to make is that by continuing to use non-renewable energy we acknowledge that such disasters are acceptable and even preferable to switching to low carbon and renewable energy sources.
So maybe Arnie has a point, after all!