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Saving energy is crucial to help mitigate climate change, but what is it and why is it so important?

Where does our energy come from?

Energy fuels everything in our lives; our homes, our business, our car, holidays, food, even the water that comes out of our taps uses energy.  It is vital to our lives and everything around us, yet it’s invisible.

The energy that we use in Scotland to heat our homes, power our appliances and run our cars comes mainly from fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and nuclear energy though the amount of renewable energy we use, which is currently about 21% of all energy consumed, is rising.

We don’t use that much energy though, do we?

The production of energy from fossil fuels produces carbon (CO2) which is one of the main greenhouse gasses causing climate change. The graph below shows how our CO2 emissions have rocketed over the past two decades.

The main cause of this massive increase in carbon emissions started with the industrial revolution, but more recently is due to our love of cars, technology  and comfort, all of which still rely mainly on fossil fuel energy.

We have however reduced our household CO2 emissions significantly since 1990, which is the baseline date from which carbon emissions are measured, though our heating, transport, and diet have still got a long way to go. We also have the small problem of our love of flying (aviation) which has increase significantly over the past 30 years.

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The Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 sets targets to reduce Scotland’s emissions of all greenhouse gases to net-zero by 2045 at the latest in order to help stop runaway climate change. We can all help achieve this by reducing heating, transport and electricity emissions.

But what’s wrong with fossil fuel energy?

Fossil fuel energy was a fundamental driver of the Industrial Revolution, and the technological, social, economic and development progress which has followed, but fossil fuels are a finite source and we are devouring them extremely quickly. Fossil fuels take millennia to form but despite being only first used in the 1800’s (coal) we will have run out of them in about 50 to 100 years time, depending on the fuel type.

Global fossil fuel consumtion

Fossil fuels are also extremely dirty and emit high levels of CO2. They formed from ancient plants and organisms that lived approximately 360 to 286 million years ago. Their decaying matter was compressed over the years by further matter, and the pressure and heat eventually turned them into coal, oil and gas.

Fossil fuels contain a high percentage of carbon (CO2) that the plants and animals that formed them absorbed during their lifetimes. When we burn them now to release energy, that CO2 is release back into the atmosphere.

Is renewable energy any better?

Renewable energy is a green alternative to fossil fuel energy, and whilst it is not without its greenhouse gas emissions, they are substantially lower that fossil fuel emissions.

GHG emissions
Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation.

There are many types of renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, wave, and tidal but most of the renewable energy generated in Scotland comes from wind and hydro power. In 2019 Scotland produced enough renewable electricity to supply 90% our electricity consumption.

The Scottish Government has a target to generate the equivalent of 100% of our electricity demand from renewable sources this year (2020), and whilst this does not mean that all our energy will come from renewables, it will form a higher percentage of the energy mix

So what about nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy comes from splitting atoms in a reactor to release heat energy to turn water into steam which turns a turbine and generates electricity. Nuclear energy is not carbon free, but like renewable energy, has significantly lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels so is considered a ‘clean’ energy source. 

diagram-nuclear-power-plant-reactor

However, nuclear fission has a wide variety of environmental and health issues associated with it. The generation of nuclear power creates very dangerous waste in the form of uranium mill tailings, spent (used) reactor fuel, and other radioactive products, and some of these waste materials can remain radioactive and hazardous to both human health and the environment for thousands of years.

There have been several large nuclear meltdowns in history which have release radioactive waste that has had a lasting impact on the environment and surrounding communities. The most recent one was in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. This was the second worst nuclear accident in the history of nuclear power generation, the first being at Chernobyl in 1986.

The waste generate from nuclear power, along with the dangers associated with them, have made nuclear fission technologies controversial.

Final thoughts

The use of energy is necessary part of life, but we can still make conscious decisions about how much and what type of energy we use. We can choose to buy renewable energy; we can reduce the amount of energy we use in our homes by turning the heating down, switching appliances off at the wall, installing insulation, washing our clothes at 30 degrees and drying them outside, and a whole host of other things; we can choose to drive our cars less (or not at all); we can choose where we take our holidays and how we get there…

We have options. We can choose. It’s our decision whether we make those changes to reduce our impact on the planet… or not.