Given that we rely on the energy sector for almost all facets of our daily lives, it’s no surprise that it comprises one of the most polluting industries in the world. From the electricity which lights our homes and powers our devices to the fuel we use in our cars, trains and aeroplanes, energy is in constant demand all over the planet.
What’s more, the ballooning global population, alongside greater industrialisation and rising levels of wealth, mean that our energy consumption is on the rise, too. For example, just 15 years ago, we used some 85 million barrels of oil on a daily basis. In 2019, that figure had surged up to more than 100 million barrels of oil per day. Such an increase is clearly unsustainable – so what are the main contributors of this pollution, what effects does it have on the planet and how can we address the situation?
For centuries, the human race has relied on fossil fuels for delivering the energy it needs to progress. Combusting oil, gas and coal is an easy way to generate huge amounts of power and has helped catapult our technological prowess and infrastructural development into the 21st century – but it does not come without a heavy environmental price tag in the shape of a number of different forms of air pollution.
Coal is infamous for being the biggest polluter of the three, responsible for over 14.5 billion tonnes of carbon emissions each year. It is for this reason that the UK has already pledged to phase it out entirely by 2024 and recently encouraged other nations of the world to do the same at the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Oil is not far behind, contributing 12.6 billion tonnes of carbon per annum, while gas is responsible for 7.2 billion tonnes of CO2.
As well as polluting the air around power stations, manufacturing sites and other industrial facilities, the energy industry is also a major driver of global warming and climate change. Coal in particular has been linked to extreme rainfall events, but all fossil fuel plants release greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere, raising global temperatures and potentially sea levels, too. This could spell disaster for lower-lying and coastal populations in the coming years.
What’s more, the energy industry’s damaging effects are not limited to air pollution alone, either. Oil spills are an all-too-regular occurrence, with over 10,000 tonnes of oil lost in accidents in 2021 alone. As well as polluting the waters themselves, they also poison the fish, birds and other aquatic animals which live in these ecosystems, as well as compromising the insulation of certain animals and diminishing the water-repellent capabilities of others.
The best way to alleviate emissions and pollution from the energy industry is transitioning to cleaner sources of power. This includes renewables such as wind, wave and solar power, while investigations into the energy found in our rivers and streams are still ongoing. Nuclear, geothermal and biomass power are other potential sources of green energy.
Of course, these types of transitions must come from the top down, but all of us can do our own bit to help the process along. Whether that entails installing solar panels on your home, buying an electric vehicle (EV), taking public transport more often or simply avoiding single-use plastics (which are created from oil) for other, more sustainably manufactured products, every little helps in the fight against energy industry-related pollution.
For those who wish to learn more about the energy industry in particular and pollution in general, the 2022 edition of the CEM Conference is scheduled to take place online in March and will cover all of those points and more in greater detail.