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Essay/Term paper: Fossil fuel consumption, co2 and its impact on global climate

Essay, term paper, research paper:  World History

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Fossil Fuel Consumption, CO2 and Its Impact on Global Climate


Background: At the beginning of human history, we had to satisfy our energy
needs (for food, heat and movement) by using our own muscle power and gathering
or hunting naturally available plants, animals and wood. Each stage in the
evolution of human society (the development of farming, domestication of animals,
harnessing of wind and water power) increased the average per capita energy use,
but it was the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of fossil fuels which
marked the transformation of societies into the energy-intensive economies of
today. Since the eighteenth century the industrialising countries have come to
rely on non-renewable energy resources, and at present about 80 per cent (Myers,
1994) of the world's commercial energy is derived from oil, coal and gas.
Although it has been observed that the growth of energy consumption is closely
correlated with the increases in gross national product thus our economic
development, the major sources of energy (that is fossil fuels) are 'stock
resources'. Fossil fuels are consumed by use and the current consumption
patterns are non-sustainable. It is recognised that energy conservation and the
development of renewable energy sources will be needed to sustain economic
growth. The quantity of ultimately recoverable fossil fuels is limited by
geology and remains a matter of suspicion, but the view of the 1970s that
scarcity was imminent is still popular. It is the 1973 Oil Crisis marked the
transition from abundant, low-cost energy to an era of increasing prices and
scarcity. Today concerns over scarcity have been overtaken by the question of
whether human beings can afford to meet the environmental costs of continued
fossil fuel consumption. One of the most widespread concern related to global
climatic changes.

Introduction: Climate represents normal weather condition of an area over a
period of many years. This is in contrast to weather which is the day to day
changes in the atmosphere. It is now realised that our global "climatic normals"
had fluctuated in the past millions of years which was nowhere related to human
activities. Nevertheless, with the increasing human population and our reliance
on fossil fuels since the last century, we have definitely 'participated' in the
climatic changes which are taking place to a certain extent. Since the Stockholm
Conference in 1972, more and more attentions have been drawn to the issue of
global warming, which is the increase in global temperature caused by the
atmospheric greenhouse effect. We have greenhouse effect because some trace
components of our atmosphere re-absorb and retain certain wavelengths of heat
radiated from the Earth's surface, and the burning of fossil fuels have
increased the tropospheric concentration of all of these compounds, especially
carbon dioxide # (CO2).

The Greenhouse Gas ¾ CO2: A Product of Fossil Fuel Consumption: 'Pollution' of
the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels has many effects. Perhaps
the best know are modifications that have led to changes in carbon dioxide. In
some ways carbon dioxide cannot be classified as an air pollutant as it is
reasonably abundant in the natural atmosphere (0.03%), and it is a basic product
of all fossil fuel consumption. Although the chemical reaction in combustion of
fossil fuels is not always simple, it can be summarised as the release of the
carbon combined with atmospheric oxygen atoms to form carbon dioxide. This
process is often referred as respiration, such that: C6H12O6 + 6O2 + heat ® 6CO2
+ 6H2O Here, we see that carbon dioxide is not an impurity, as a matter of fact,
life on the earth is somehow depending on this gas, either directly through
photosynthesis (plants) or indirectly via the food-chain (animals). Nevertheless,
this gas plays an important role in the heat balance of the earth, because of
its distinctive heat-storage properties. We often refer carbon dioxide as a
'greenhouse gas', as the name implies, it is a kind of material that would
absorb and retain heat. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is transparent to the
sun's short-wave radiation, which is primarily in the ultra-violent and visible
portions of the electromagnetic spectrum (l=0.1-1 mm). After the incident
radiation has penetrated the atmosphere and been absorbed by the earth's surface,
the earth re-radiates the thermal energy; however, because the earth's surface
temperature is relatively low, the wavelengths of the terrestrial radiation are
now in the infrared (l=4-20 mm). Carbon dioxide strongly absorbs radiation in
the 7 to 14-mm wavelength region, which overlaps with the peak of intensity of
the outgoing radiation. The net effect of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
is to prevent some of the thermal energy from escaping from the earth; hence, it
leads to a heating of the atmosphere. In general, the more carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere, the more heat that will be trapped, and a warmer atmosphere will
result.

Change in Atmospheric Chemistry and Global Warming: The burning of peat, coal,
petroleum or natural gas (all carbonaceous materials) virtually returns the
atmospheric carbon that had been removed hundreds of million years ago by trees
and plants in their process of photosynthesis. Thus in a sudden, relatively
brief span of time, less than two centuries, the contemporary atmosphere has
become burdened with vast additional quantities of a strong infrared absorber,
because of the utilisation of fossil fuels in this period. It is believed that
the level of carbon dioxide has been increasing. Measurements of the CO2
concentration have been carried out at an observatory on Mauna Loa, whose data
is most quoted and most complete. Observations show a steady rise in atmospheric
carbon dioxide of about 1 ppm per year over the past quarter of a century. At
the South Pole station, the upward CO2 trend closely parallels that at Mauna Loa
(Kraushaar, 1988). Forecasts based on the current rate of fossil fuel
consumption suggest that by the year 2065 the CO2 concentration will increase
from its present value of 350 ppm to a value of 600 ppm. It has been estimated
that the pre-industrial level of carbon dioxide have been as low as 260-70 ppm
by volume (Goudie, 1994). Thus, it appears that the industrial world is
increasing the atmospheric CO2 contents by an appreciable amount. It is arguable
that the increase in CO2 concentration may not be induced by fossil fuel
consumption since the carbon cycle is always operating, it could be due largely
to a reduction of the biomass. However, Kraushaar and Ristinen suggested that
the net biotic pool of CO2 has not been modified sufficiently to account for the
carbon dioxide increase. They said that, "Although there has been cutting of
forests, there has also been intensive agriculture established by irrigation of
land that was previously not very productive." and the combustion of fossil
fuels is that major source of the increase in atmospheric CO2. Moreover, as the
amount of fossil fuels consumed each year is approximately known, the CO2
released can therefore be estimated. Together with the level of CO2
concentration obtained in various stations in the earth, it is calculated that
52% of the 14 billion tones of carbon dioxide is being retained in the
atmosphere per year; and 37% sinks into the oceans, whereas the depositional
locations of the remaining 11% remain mysterious at present (Kraushaar, 1988).
The next question comes with the effect of these carbon dioxide increases on
global climate and here is where the controversy lies. Vostok ice-core data
suggest a close correlation between CO2 levels and mean surface temperature over
the past 160,000 years (Benarde, 1992), but scientist still cannot figure out
whether carbon dioxide leads temperature shifts or temperature changes leads CO2
shifts. There may even be a third factor provoke both CO2 and temperature
changes. Moreover, the upward trend of the contemporary global warming only
lasts for 15 years (Tolba, 1992). There have been much fluctuation on
temperature before 1900. For example, in Europe, particularly low temperature
normals have been experienced during the period 1430 to 1850 A.D. Therefore,
'global warming' could just be another natural fluctuation in temperature. At
present time, using our current understanding on the atmosphere that based on
hypothesises and models, we cannot yet make accurate predictions on the future
climate.

Conclusion: Although there are still many problems regarding the relationship of
carbon dioxide and global climatic changes and even global warming itself, there
is little question that climate (temperature) and CO2 are inextricablely linked
(from the ice-core studies) and the temperature of the earth has been increasing
over the last decade. More on that, it is a fact that the burning of fossil
fuels do release infrared-absorbing carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. Therefore,
it is just a logical conclusion that the greenhouse is here, as it always does.
It appears that there is excessive heating within the greenhouse which is
induced by our increasing rate of fossil fuel consumption, and the problems that
lies behind global climatic change are far reaching . Perhaps, the real limit to
our fossil fuel consumption will be the CO2 problem but not the size of the
resource. A Chinese proverb says that "prevention is better than cure."
Approaches to energy conservation could be the key.

Bibliography:

Benarde, M. A., 1992, Global Warning… Global Warming, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
52-65.

Goudie, A., 1994, The Human Impact on the Natural Environment, Cambridge: The
MIT Press, 301-7.

Kraushaar, J. J. & Ristinen, R. A., Energy and Problems of a Technical Society,
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 394-400.

Myers, N., 1994, The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management, London: Gaia Books Limited,
96-113.

Tolba, M. K., 1992, The World Environment 1972-1992, London: Chapman & Hall, 61-
-71.



 

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