How Energy Resources Affect Climate Change?

How energy resources affect climate change?

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns (UN, URL). Such shifts can be natural, due to changes in the sun’s activity or large volcanic eruptions, or may be driven by human activities that increase heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (NASA, URL). Climate change encompasses rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, and rising seas.

Energy production and use is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas for energy releases carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change (World Bank, URL). This overview will examine how different energy resources, from fossil fuels to renewables to nuclear, impact Earth’s climate system. It will provide an analysis of how energy production methods can mitigate or exacerbate climate change.

Fossil Fuels and Climate Change

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas is the leading cause of climate change, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions (United Nations). When we extract and burn fossil fuels, carbon that has been stored underground for millions of years is released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. These are heat-trapping greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

As we burn coal, oil, and natural gas for energy, we pump enormous amounts of CO2 into the air. In 2019 alone, the burning of fossil fuels released over 36 billion tons of CO2 globally (ClientEarth). The accumulation of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion is the leading cause of climate change. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for centuries, trapping more heat over time and raising global temperatures.

Methane is also a major greenhouse gas emitted from fossil fuel extraction and burning. Though shorter-lived than CO2, methane is over 80 times more potent at warming the planet in the short-term (ClientEarth). As we continue burning higher amounts of fossil fuels, we risk reaching climate tipping points that lead to catastrophic and irreversible impacts.

Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower produce little to no greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels. Transitioning to renewables can significantly help mitigate climate change. The UN states that renewable energy sources “emit little to no greenhouse gases” and are “cheaper than coal, oil or gas” (source). MIT explains that renewables play a key role in climate change mitigation because they release fewer emissions than fossil fuels during both energy production and utilization (source). The Natural History Museum notes renewables don’t pollute when generating electricity, helping tackle climate change (source).

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear energy produces electricity with zero direct carbon emissions and could significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions if deployed at scale. According to the World Nuclear Association, nuclear power currently avoids the emission of about 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year worldwide (“How can nuclear combat climate change?”, 2023). However, nuclear power also has risks such as the potential for accidents and problems with radioactive waste disposal.

Nuclear proponents argue that safety measures have greatly improved at power plants and the new generation of reactors will be even safer. Additionally, they contend that the volume of nuclear waste is relatively small and can be stored securely until there are permanent solutions for disposal (World Nuclear Association).

However, critics argue that even with improvements, the risks from accidents and waste remain unacceptably high. Nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima scared the public about radioactive contamination. There are also concerns that lack of permanent storage solutions means nuclear waste will continue accumulating and remain a hazard for thousands of years.

Overall, the debate continues whether nuclear power should play an expanded role in climate change mitigation despite its risks, or if safety and waste issues make it an unacceptable energy source.

Energy Efficiency

Improving energy efficiency in buildings, transportation, and industry can significantly reduce energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions (Emissions savings – Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency). Buildings account for about 40% of global energy consumption, while industry accounts for about 33% (Energy Efficiency: Buildings and Industry). Increasing building insulation, upgrading to energy efficient heating/cooling systems, lighting, and appliances can reduce energy use and emissions. Transportation emissions can be reduced through fuel economy improvements, mass transit, and electric vehicles. Industrial energy efficiency measures like waste heat recovery, efficient motors and drives, can improve efficiency and lower emissions. Overall, energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while providing additional benefits like lower energy costs and improved air quality.

Carbon Capture and Storage

As the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies are emerging as ways to reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate climate change. CCS involves capturing CO2 at the emission source before it enters the atmosphere, transporting it via pipelines, and securely storing it deep underground in geological formations (NationalGrid).

There are three main approaches to capturing carbon emissions: pre-combustion capture, post-combustion capture, and oxyfuel combustion. Pre-combustion capture separates CO2 from the fuel before combustion. Post-combustion capture separates CO2 from the flue gases after fuel combustion. Oxyfuel combustion uses pure oxygen instead of air for combustion, producing a more concentrated CO2 emission stream for easier capture (MIT Climate Portal).

Once captured, the CO2 is compressed and transported via pipeline to a suitable storage site. Potential storage options include depleted oil and gas reservoirs, deep saline aquifers, and unmineable coal seams. Injection wells are used to pump the CO2 deep underground for permanent storage. Monitoring systems track the CO2 to ensure secure containment (Center for Science Education).

The costs of CCS are significant, ranging from $50-100 per ton of CO2 captured. The technology also requires substantial amounts of energy, reducing the net efficiency of power plants by up to 30%. However, CCS may enable continued use of fossil fuels while reducing greenhouse gas emissions (MIT Climate Portal).

Some risks include CO2 leakage from storage sites and induced seismicity from injecting large volumes underground. Strict site selection, regulatory oversight, and long-term monitoring are critical to ensure safe, permanent storage (NationalGrid). Overall, CCS has the potential to capture billions of tons of CO2 annually, making it an important climate change mitigation option.


Geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale interventions in Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change. Two main categories of geoengineering have been proposed: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). SRM aims to reduce warming by reflecting sunlight back to space, often by injecting particles like sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. CDR aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere through approaches like direct air capture, enhanced weathering, or ocean fertilization. While geoengineering offers the potential to rapidly cool the planet, it also carries major risks and uncertainties (1). Some examples of concerns are listed below:

– Solar radiation management could disrupt regional weather patterns and rainfall. This could impact agriculture and ecosystems (2).

– Carbon removal is unproven at scale. It’s unclear if CO2 can be removed quickly enough to limit dangerous warming.

– Ocean fertilization could trigger algal blooms and ocean acidification.

– There are risks of rapid warming if solar engineering is started then suddenly stopped.

– Geoengineering does not address other impacts of high CO2 like ocean acidification.

– The impacts of geoengineering could disproportionally affect vulnerable regions and peoples.

– Governance and regulation of geoengineering is complex and politically challenging.

There are large uncertainties about how well geoengineering could counteract climate change, and whether it could produce potentially worse unintended consequences. More research is needed to weigh the risks versus potential benefits of different approaches. However, geoengineering is not a substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which remains critical for limiting climate change (1).

(1) Reversing Climate Change with Geoengineering


Policy Actions

Policy actions by governments are critical for addressing climate change and transitioning to clean energy. According to the White House National Climate Task Force, the Biden administration aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 through policy measures like clean electricity standards, clean energy investments, and incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy (National Climate Task Force). The OECD highlights key sectors like agriculture, land use change, and reforestation as critical policy focuses to reduce emissions and reverse biodiversity loss (OECD Climate Action). The EPA provides information on regulatory activities and initiatives addressing greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources like power plants and vehicles (Climate Change Regulatory Actions and Initiatives).

Some of the most impactful climate policy actions include carbon pricing programs like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems that put a price on carbon emissions. Clean energy mandates like renewable portfolio standards that require utilities to source a percentage of electricity from renewables can also accelerate the transition. Stricter emissions standards for vehicles, power plants, and industry can drive emissions reductions. Investing in clean energy research, development, and deployment is critical. Forestry initiatives, sustainable agriculture policies, and nature-based solutions like wetland restoration can enhance carbon sequestration. Just transition policies help workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels transition to new livelihoods.

Individual Actions

Individuals can take many actions in their daily lives to reduce their carbon footprint and help mitigate climate change. Here are some impactful steps individuals can take:

Transportation is one of the largest contributors to an individual’s carbon footprint. Using public transportation, carpooling, biking, or walking instead of driving can significantly reduce emissions from transportation. When driving is necessary, choosing fuel-efficient or electric vehicles can help (UN).

At home, setting thermostats a few degrees lower in winter and higher in summer, installing insulation, and switching to energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs can reduce energy usage and emissions (UN). Unplugging devices when not in use can further limit “phantom” energy draw.

Modifying diets to include less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods reduces the climate impact of food production. Reducing overall food waste also limits methane emissions from landfills (Imperial College London).

Purchasing carbon offsets for airplane travel and other activities can make a difference. While not as impactful as reducing the activity, offsets fund projects like reforestation that remove CO2 from the atmosphere (NRDC).

Contacting government representatives to advocate for climate policies and voting for leaders who prioritize climate action can magnify individual actions. Speaking up about climate change and leading by example inspires others to take action as well (NRDC).


The key takeaway is that the way we produce and consume energy has an enormous impact on Earth’s climate. Fossil fuels produce large amounts of greenhouse gases that trap heat and warm the Earth. The burning of coal, oil, and natural gas for electricity, transportation, and other human activities is the leading cause of climate change.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, like extreme weather, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels, it is crucial that we transition our energy systems away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources like solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass.

Nuclear power and energy efficiency measures also have important roles to play in reducing emissions. With the right policies, innovations and individual actions, we can shift to a clean energy economy and mitigate the threats from climate change.

The climate crisis demands urgent action across all sectors of society. By transforming how we produce and consume energy, we can protect the planet for future generations.

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