Global warming is a term commonly used to describe the consequences of man- made pollutants overloading the naturally-occurring greenhouse gases causing an increase of the average global temperature, the subject of great debate and concern worldwide. According to all peer-reviewed scientific studies, if the amount of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the air by factories, power plants and automobiles is not severely curtailed and soon, the earth and its inhabitants will suffer cataclysmic consequences in the near future. Switching to alternative forms of electric power and fuel may greatly help avert disaster.
Essentially, the greenhouse effect functions in the following manner. When sunlight pierces the atmosphere and hits the earth’s surface, not all of the sun’s solar energy is absorbed. Approximately a third of it is reflected back into space. Specific atmospheric gases serve in much the same way as does the glass of a greenhouse, thus the terminology. These gases allow sunlight to penetrate then trap some of the solar energy which heats the earth (Breuer, 1980). It is a delicate balance and because these greenhouse gases have been artificially augmented by man-made sources, more build up in the atmosphere has occurred thus trapping more of the sun’s energy and reflecting less back in to space. This occurrence is causing the earth to warm.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases. Trees absorb CO2 and when they die, CO2 is restored to the atmosphere. The clearing of forests by mass burning, which is happening at a phenomenal rate in the tropical rain forests, is decreasing the amount of CO2 that is absorbed and increasing the amount that is added to the atmosphere. CO2 supplies about half of the total gases that create the greenhouse effect (Breuer, 1980). Although deforestation is contributing heavily to the excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, a larger portion is caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Fossil fuels are burned by factories, vehicles and electricity-producing power plants to name a few sources. The vast majority of this excessive fuel consumption and its poisonous, pollutant and greenhouse-enhancing byproducts are located in the U.S., Europe and Russia (Breuer, 1980). Other greenhouse gases include methane, which is released when vegetation is burned during land clearing, during oil exploration activities and the coal-mining process; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which is the substance that cools refrigerators and provides the propulsion in aerosol cans and nitrous oxide (N2O) which is the lesser cause of CO2 (Breuer, 1980). It is generated from both man-made and natural processes. It is estimated that man-made influences represents about half of the CO2 output.
The rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere are becoming increasingly disconcerting. “The concentrations of CO2 in the air around 1860 before the effects of industrialization were felt, is assumed to have been about 290 parts per million (ppm). In the hundred years and more since then, the concentration has increased by about 10 percent.” (Breuer, 1980, p. 67). Eighty percent of the world’s population accounts for just 35 percent of CO2 emissions while the United States and Soviet Union combined are responsible for generating half. Worldwide, “carbon dioxide emissions are increasing by four percent a year.” (Miller, 1990, p. 450). Motor vehicles are a major cause of air pollution as is fuel burned for the heating of homes and powering industry along with the toxins emitted from stacks at coal-burning power plants.
“Vehicles produce high levels of carbon monoxides (CO) and a major source of hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), whereas, fuel combustion in stationary sources is the dominant source of sulfur dioxide (SO2)” (Breuer, 1980, p. 70). Pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides cause immediate and irreparable damage to the leaf pores of plants and trees. Persistent exposure of leaves to air pollutants breaks down the waxy coating which normally acts to prevent too much water loss and helps protects the leaves from diseases, pests, drought and frost. “In the Midwestern United States, crop losses of wheat, corn, soybeans, and peanuts from damage by ozone and acid deposition amount to about $5 billion a year” (Miller, 1990, p. 498).
The effects of air pollution are far-reaching and cannot be escaped by staying inside the home as indoor air pollution can be harmful, caused by such things as poor ventilation, mold and microbe-harboring air conditioning systems and ducts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that “toxic chemicals found in the air of almost every American home are three times more likely to cause some type of cancer than outdoor air pollutants” (Miller, 1990, p. 488).
The scientific community agrees that global temperatures are rising due to the burning of fossil fuels which are damaging the protective atmospheric Ozone layer by changing its composition. Human pollution is changing the climate of our earth and has increased global warming in the past half century. The effects are being felt worldwide, not just in the U.S. where most of the CO2 emissions are generated. In the UK., for example, four of the five warmest years for more than three centuries have occurred in the last 10 years. Scientists predict that in 50 years, annual temperatures in the south east of England could be at least three degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer, on average, than they are now (Climate Crisis 2000). Global warming is further evidenced by the well-documented melting of glaciers along with thermal expansion of the oceans, which have contributed to an increase in sea level over the past century of about six inches in that country. (Trenberth 1997).
Studies have been conducted by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) have demonstrated that the past decade has been the warmest on record. At first thought, especially during the cold winter months, a little warming wouldn’t seem to be such a bad thing. Several varieties of fruits and vegetables could be produced in northern climates that today only grow in warmer climates. Warmer seas are likely to be attractive to more species of fish to the colder habitats as well. This is not to mention additional tourist currency to what would be the warm, sandy beaches of Canada or England (Climate Crisis 2000). However, as in everything, there is a downside and in this case, one of horrific proportions. Studies in the UK have found that warming could increase rainfall by more than 20 percent during the winter by the 2080’s and decrease it by the same amount during summer months in the southern half of that country. This would cause severe droughts in some regions but areas such as East Anglia, a very low-lying region on the east coast of England, could very well be under water altogether.
Addressing the Problem
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases. The major contributor (70 percent) of man-generated CO2 release is the emission from those motor vehicles that are powered by fossil fuels. The solution to automobile emissions may lie in alternative fuels. The conversion of beets or corn into ethanol is touted by scientists today as an economically and environmentally sound solution to global warming concerns. However, this is not a new revelation. Rudolf Fiesel, fifteen years after the invention named after him, was quoted in 1897 as saying “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal products of the present time” (Boles, 2005). Promising future alternatives to crude oil, vegetable oil can be substituted for diesel fuel while ethanol is an effective petrol additive. Ethanol is a type of alcohol that can be made using crops such as sugar beets, wheat or corn. As a fuel additive, ethanol boosts octane and substantially reduces toxic carbon monoxide emissions.
Bio-fuels are derived from an easily replenished source and emit no pollutants into the air. The most common type, Ethanol, has the ability to be mixed with petrol and bio-diesel, a vegetable oil, can be burned in diesel engines without engine modification. This type of ‘green’ fuel can at least be a bridge to the future of energy production and consumption as it can, unlike hydrogen, be used in existing engines. Another benefit of bio-fuels is the peripheral advancement of the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, it takes considerably more energy (from high-grade petrol) to create ethanol than it produces. It takes about 70 percent more energy to make a liter of ethanol than is contained in a liter of ethanol. In addition, fossil fuel is used in the production of corn or any crop used for ethanol and by “increasing ethanol production will increase degradation of vital agricultural and water resources and will seriously contribute to the pollution of the environment” (Pimentel, 1998, p. 5).
A new generation of alcohol-powered cars entered production in Brazil in 2003, after the government decided that cars capable of burning ethanol should be taxed at 14 percent, instead of 16 percent for their exclusively petrol-powered counterparts. These “flex-fuel” cars are equally efficient with pure alcohol, pure petrol, or any blend of the two. According to Anfavia, the Brazilian motor manufacturer’s association, 866,267 flex-fuel cars were sold in Brazil in 2005 taking 53.6 percent of the Brazilian market that year as compared to just 328,379 the year before. Jean-Martin Folz, Chief Executive Officer of Peugeot-Citroën, sees a growing role for bio-fuels, which help run most of Brazil’s 20 million cars (Gow, 2005). The Brazilian Alcohol Fuel Programme produces alcohol to power the four million Brazilian cars on pure bio-ethanol in addition to the remaining 9 million cars on gasoline blended with ethanol (Batley, 1996). The cars that use a mixture are powered by 25 percent ethanol and 75 percent petrol. “Bio-fuels are 20 percent cheaper for consumers,” according to Johannes Lackmann, president of the German Renewable Trade Association (Gow, 2005). “Ethanol accounts for 20 percent of the country’s liquid fuel needs and has accounted for a significant savings in fossil fuel imports and Brazil’s foreign debt” (Batley 1996). In countries such as Brazil and Sweden, many cars run on 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petrol.
Energy from hydrogen, an environmentally friendly gas is a much discussed energy source. Iceland is already well on its way to becoming the first nation to generate its power needs by means of hydrogen fuel-cells. A fuel cell is a silently running battery that is continually refilling while generating an electrical current by introducing hydrogen to oxygen, a combination that produces energy. Though hydrogen powered means of transport are not accessible to the public as yet, they are past the initial research and development phase and are presently being demonstrated for both heavy and light-duty load applications. Hydrogen, the ‘H’ in H2O, is, not surprisingly, found in water. The resource is boundless and instead of emitting CO2, hydrogen emits only water vapor. Extracting hydrogen, however, is a costly undertaking at present and is flammable giving concern to safety during transport. “The more widely used method is to split the hydrocarbons in fossil fuels into hydrogen and carbon. This is much cheaper but it defeats the point somewhat as it still uses fossil fuels and creates carbon dioxide as a by-product” (“Alternatives to Oil”, 2002).
Geothermal energy comes directly from the earth as steam and used to power electric producing plants as well as other less complex applications. This energy source is plentiful, sustainable and affordable way to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.
In California, geothermal energy supplies approximately five percent of total electric usage, 25 percent in the Central American country of El Salvador. Iceland uses its vast resources of geothermal heat to warm many of its buildings and other power applications. The State of Idaho is also a large consumer of this naturally occurring power source from the earth. The benefits are being utilized all across the nation. “In thousands of homes and buildings across the United States, geothermal heat pumps use the steady temperatures just underground to heat and cool buildings, cleanly and inexpensively. Geothermal energy has the potential to play a significant role in moving the United States (and other regions of the world) toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy system” (“Geothermal Energy”, 2006).
In 1997 the Kyoto Treaty, which has now been signed by more than 160 countries, is, to date, the most comprehensive global effort to decrease CO2 emissions. Though the agreement was signed by the U.S. and then President Clinton consented to decrease greenhouse emissions in the U.S. by 40 percent, it has been dismissed by the Bush administration and has yet to be ratified by the U.S. CO2 greenhouse gases have since increased in the country that produces well more than any other. World leaders and environmentalists alike have proclaimed the treaty as a vital step on the road to abating the potentially cataclysmic global warming problem. Bush rejected the treaty because of economic concerns and his reservations regarding the scientific uncertainties of the greenhouse effect. (Malinin, 2005)
To expedite the process of weaning the world from oil, a novel idea has been put forward. The industrialized nations, those who have profited the most by fossil fuel use, should take the lead in the conversion by enacting worldwide pacts and treaties. Less developed regions would be completely exempt from environmental regulation. As the developed nations are responsible for more than 90 percent of CO2 emissions, this method would serve to balance the earth on an environmental and economical level. The emerging nations would make the change as production and global usage of alternative fuels increased. “If the more efficient and cleaner alternative technologies become available at a low enough price, it may prove far easier for developing nations to switch quickly to other fuels” (Rockwell, 1998).
Misconceptions regarding the long-range effects of fossil fuel emissions have been perpetrated by large corporations such as oil and auto companies who believe they will be the losers if limits to greenhouse emissions are legislated in the U.S. Auto companies in particular lobby against regulating automobile emissions claiming that it is not economically feasible for them. This is simply untrue because countries such as Japan, Korea and China have much stricter emission standards than the U.S. yet these country’s car sales are up while U.S. automakers are down. The economic consequence of doing nothing is far greater than solving the problem through legislation. If ‘we’ choose not to do anything or to insist a problem does not exist, there will cease to be a ‘we’ as weather patterns become overtly hostile and air, water and food supplies will either become non-existent or too poisonous to sustain life. If the earth cannot sustain human life, the automakers will not make any money. Maybe that is an argument they can understand.
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