Site loading image

Part 2

Environmental Impacts of Transitioning to Renewables

The transition to renewable energy sources will have notable environmental impacts as well as economic impacts. To understand the possible implications, you'll need some background knowledge of the ways fossil fuels affect the environment.

Hydrocarbons, when used as fossil fuels, contribute to various forms of pollution and environmental degradation. The combustion of these fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to atmospheric pollution and climate change. Transitioning to renewable energy sources can help mitigate these negative environmental effects.

What Are the Types of Hydrocarbons?

Hydrocarbons vary from one another based on their chemistry. A hydrocarbon is any chemical compound containing only the atoms hydrogen and carbon. Each designated hydrocarbon features a unique combination of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Many hydrocarbons pose health and safety risks to humans upon exposure.

It’s helpful to understand what differentiates one hydrocarbon from another, where they come from and their possible effects on human health and the environment. All hydrocarbons fit into one of two basic categories — aliphatic or aromatic. The distinction depends on their molecular structure, which determines how stable or reactive they are. Here is the difference between aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons:

What Are the Sources of Hydrocarbons?

Where do hydrocarbons come from? They have various sources depending on their nature and chemical makeup. What differentiates them is their configuration — the number of hydrogen and carbon atoms and the type of bonds between them.

Hydrocarbons are the main component of many of the fuels we use. They’re also raw materials for plastics, fibers, rubbers, solvents, lubricants and explosives. You’ll find them in plants in the form of pigment-causing carotenes. They often come from fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas.
The reason for the name “fossil fuels” is that such hydrocarbons are the remains of long-dead plants and animals, transformed by millions of years of the heat and pressure within the Earth. Some hydrocarbons are replicable in laboratory settings.

How Do Hydrocarbons Affect the Environment?

Using hydrocarbons for electricity generation, fuel and manufacturing has had unintended environmental effects. Some of these effects present grave, long-term consequences. Unearthing and processing hydrocarbons lead to various forms of pollution and environmental degradation.

What Are the Harmful Effects of Hydrocarbons?

The harmful effects of hydrocarbons are complex. To see the bigger picture, you need to understand the details of environmental harm resulting from hydrocarbon uses. Here are some of the ways hydrocarbon use has damaged the environment:

How Do Burned Hydrocarbons Affect the Environment?

Simply unearthing fossil fuels results in habitat loss and pollution. The story changes when people burn the fossil fuels they’ve harvested. Once burned, fossil fuels release dangerous chemical compounds into the air. If oxygen is present, as it is in Earth’s atmosphere, burning fossil fuels results in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Without oxygen present, burned hydrocarbons create carbon monoxide, which is poisonous to humans. Massive carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere and drive climate change.
Coal burning is especially hazardous because it results in mercury and sulfur dioxide emissions, both of which are deadly to humans and other animals. While society relies more on other hydrocarbon sources, like natural gas, coal is still widely used around the world.

How Do Unburned Hydrocarbons Affect the Environment?

Some hydrocarbons escape into the environment unburned. Burned or unburned, fossil fuel molecules are pollutants. An example of a hydrocarbon that often enters the atmosphere unburned is methane, a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide. It also contributes to climate change by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Upstream and Downstream Emissions

Hydrocarbons result in both “upstream” and “downstream” emissions. Whether an emission is up or downstream depends on the stage at which it takes place — during extraction, processing, use or end-of-life treatment. Measuring emissions requires understanding whether they’re upstream or downstream.

  • Upstream emissions: Upstream emissions are those that take place before raw materials are refined or processed. These emissions occur during upstream activities like resource extraction or transportation.
  • Downstream emissions: Downstream emissions happen later. A downstream emission is any that occurs after a hydrocarbon’s initial extraction and transportation. Downstream activities include processing, use and end-of-life treatment.

Both upstream and downstream emissions threaten the environment and affect ecosystems. Although they have similar consequences, it’s important to distinguish when and how emissions occur to best address the issue.

How Will the Transition to Renewables Help the Environment?

Hydrocarbons — their extraction, processing, use and disposal — have significant environmental impacts in the form of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction. One of the most influential ways to support environmental restoration is through a transition to renewable energy sources. Researchers and technologists have been developing ways to produce energy without fossil fuels so society can continue to function while cutting back on environmental damage.

Benefits of Renewable Energy Sources

Increasing renewable energy reliance has many positive environmental impacts. Some of the ways renewables benefit the environment include the following. Renewables can:

  • Slow climate change: Renewable energy helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the need to unearth and burn hydrocarbons. In that way, renewables can slow and mitigate climate change. Since rapid climate change leads to unpredictable weather patterns and more severe natural disasters, renewable energy sources are fundamental to human health and survival.
  • Decrease pollution: Using renewable energy sources can also decrease air and water pollution, as well as the acidification of the ocean. Slowing pollution will help protect wildlife and preserve ecosystem balance. In addition, decreased pollution improves public health. Although renewable energy sources produce less pollution than fossil fuel sources, they can have their own negative environmental impacts that are still important to consider.

Renewable Energy’s Environmental Impact

Humans have always relied on energy sources, whether renewable or nonrenewable. Since the industrial age, humans have relied most heavily on nonrenewable hydrocarbons in the form of fossil fuels. However, fossil fuels damage the environment in colossal, long-term ways, threatening ecosystems as well as human health and safety.

Relying more on renewable energy sources and less on fossil fuels will help to decrease pollution and slow climate change. The environmental impacts of renewable energy sources are a complex and ever-changing topic. If you’d like to learn more, contact industry experts at TRC.

Is the Transition to Hydrocarbons Worth It?

Despite the environmental concerns of renewable energy sources, unearthing and burning fossil fuels have much graver impacts. Advancements such as improved efficiency continue to decrease the environmental concerns of renewable energy sources. Life cycle emissions of greenhouse gases are low relative to using fossil fuels. Wind and hydropower produce almost no greenhouse gases, for example. Transitioning to renewable energy sources will benefit the environment, despite possible negative effects. In short — yes, it’s worth it.

Go to Part 3: Transitioning From Hydrocarbons

Solutions for phasing out hydrocarbons are complicated and advance every year. Several different sources of renewable energy and alternative fuel could replace hydrocarbons.

Read More →

Learn More from TRC

Reach out to our experts today.

By clicking "Accept", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. Read our Privacy Policy.