21 Mar. 2018
Why Conserve Energy?
Its important to understand the environmental effects of energy consumption and how places like your home and office use energy every day.
What are the impacts of using energy?
The production and consumption of energy greatly affect our environment. Consider that:
- The damming of large rivers for hydro-electric power results in flooding and loss of habitat.
- Waste from nuclear energy production has long-term disposal issues that have yet to be resolved.
- Coal mining contaminates soils and destroys water aquifers.
- Burning fossil fuels is the main source of three major air pollution problems: climate change, urban smog and acid deposition.
Greenhouse gases and climate change
Greenhouse gases have always played an important role in regulating the Earth’s climate. These gases—principally carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour—help regulate the Earth's climate by trapping solar energy re-radiated from the planetary surface in the form of heat. These gases act as an insulating blanket, keeping the Earth's surface 33°C warmer than it would otherwise be. This is known as the natural greenhouse effect.
The greenhouse effect can become a threat when atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses change dramatically. As concentrations go up, scientists generally agree that the global climate (temperatures, rain and snowfall, and seasonal patterns) will be altered. Since the 1800s, increased emissions from human activity have raised the concentrations of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) in the atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide has risen almost 40% since pre-industrial times. What’s more, almost half of that increase has occurred in just the last 30 years.
Every year the burning of fossil fuels adds more than 29 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the world’s atmosphere, making fossil fuels the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. In Canada alone, producing, transforming and consuming fossil fuels creates over 85% of greenhouse gas emissions. Individually, Canadian citizens are responsible for just under one quarter of Canada’s overall emissions through their daily activities such as driving a car, turning on an air conditioner, heating and using electricity at home or in the office.
The impact of these raised levels of greenhouse gasses is already evident. Over the past century, the global air temperature has risen about 0.8°C. The ten warmest years since worldwide temperature records began nearly 140 years ago have all occurred since 1998. Widely accepted estimates project that the Earth’s average temperature could increase by an additional 1.4 to 5.8° C over the next 100 years. This means that the average rate of warming would be greater than any warming known to have occurred in the last 650,000 years. This could lead to more frequent extreme precipitation events, longer droughts in between, and a rise in sea level of up to one metre or more.
As a country in the higher northern latitudes, Canada is likely to experience greater temperature changes than most regions of the world. A recent review of potential impacts on Canada shows that such changes would have wide-ranging implications for the country’s economic sectors, social well-being and health, as well as ecological systems.
Did you know?
The greenhouse effect is further compounded by global deforestation. Forests are major reservoirs of carbon. They remove vast volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every day through photosynthesis and store it as organic material. When the wood from felled trees burns or decomposes, it releases its stored carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
Smog is the dirty, orange haze that develops over urban areas, often in the summer. Smog is also known to cause significant negative health effects. Originally the term came from combining the words smoke and fog. However, smog is actually a mixture of air pollutants, the two most important being ground-level ozone and particulate matter. The contaminants that produce smog originate mostly from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial processes. Warm temperatures and sunlight make smog worse, which is why smog advisories are more likely in the summer months.
Smog has significant negative impacts on human health, from itchy eyes and sore throats to respiratory and cardiac illnesses. The Ontario Medical Association estimates that smog in Ontario alone causes 9,500 premature deaths every year.
When hydrocarbons are burned harmful gasses such as carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, are released as by-products. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are another harmful by-product of hydrocarbon combustion. However, the nitrogen atoms in NOx come from the air (which is 80% nitrogen) and not from the fossil fuel itself. It’s the high-temperature processes found in power plants and car engines that tend to convert the inert nitrogen in the air into highly reactive nitrous oxides. Other by-products of hydrocarbon combustion are contaminants from fuels. The most notable is sulphur, which combines with oxygen to form sulphur oxides (SOx). Sulphur is the most environmentally damaging contaminant in coal.
When SOx and NOx combine with water vapour in the air, sulphuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3) can be created. These acids come down to the ground in fog and rain, often many kilometres away from the original source of pollution. This acid rain (and acid fog) can be tens to hundreds of times more acidic than normal. The effect on forests and lakes over the long term can be severe, including weakened trees, dead fish, and altered soil. Airborne pollutants also have a negative effect on human health. NOx can cause smog, and SO2 can induce respiratory illness when combined with particulates.
The damaging effects of acid rain
Killarney Provincial Park, located in Northern Ontario, is dominated by the La Cloche Mountains. Composed primarily of glass-like orthoquartzite, these white mountains are highly resistant to erosion and provide little buffering capacity against acid rain. In addition, Killarney Provincial Park is located only 50 km southwest of the large metal smelters in Sudbury and lies within a zone of high acid deposition. Not surprisingly, the Killarney lakes were among the first lakes in North America to be acidified by atmospheric pollutants.
Some lakes began to acidify as early as the 1920s; by the late 1970s, dozens of the 300 lakes in the Park were severely impacted. Lake pH levels plummeted and thousands of individual populations of fish, crayfish, algae, aquatic insects and microscopic plankton were lost. Many bird species were also affected.
Between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, a combination of government regulations and modernization initiatives by industry reduced emissions from Sudbury’s smelters by over 80%. The emission reductions, combined with the construction of much smaller smokestacks to carry industrial pollution farther away, have led to lower acid deposits on lakes in Killarney Park, but many of the lakes remain quite acidic.
What are the benefits of saving energy?
Whenever you save energy, you not only save money, but you also reduce the demand for fossil fuels. Less burning of fossil fuels also means lower emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary contributor to global warming, and of other pollutants.
You don’t have to make major sacrifices to achieve these savings. There is now an energy efficient alternative for almost every kind of appliance or light fixture. That means that consumers have a real choice and they have the power to change their energy use on a revolutionary scale.
The average Canadian produces almost 22,000 kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Together, we use nearly a hundred thousand dollars worth of energy every minute of every day throughout the year. With just a few changes in your daily habits, you can cut your annual emissions by thousands of kilos and your energy bills by a significant amount!
Did you know?
Every degree Celsius you drop your thermostat's setting in winter can save you 2-3% of your heating bill.