Confronting Nonrenewable Resources
Planet Earth has useful but finite resources. Green living means using Earth’s nonrenewable resources as sparingly as possible. Fossil fuels, the energy-rich organic substances traced back to the remains of organisms that lived 300 to 400 million years ago, took a long time to create, and humans are using them up far faster than the earth can produce them.
Many scientists agree that there may be only 40 to 50 years’ worth of oil left at current usage rates. Extracting, refining, and burning this fossil fuel accounts for most greenhouse gas emissions.
Although coal reserves in the United States likely can handle the nation’s energy needs for the next 200 to 300 years, burning coal to generate electricity produces carbon dioxide as well as sulfur and nitrogen byproducts. Coal mining also has devastating environmental and health costs.
More than half of U.S. homes use natural gas as their main heating fuel. Burning natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gases than burning coal or oil, though it still produces carbon dioxide. Natural gas releases the greenhouse gas methane during production, storage, and transportation, and has the potential to explode when high concentrations come into contact with a spark.
Nuclear energy works by harnessing the energy released when uranium atoms split. Producing the energy itself doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but the necessary uranium enrichment releases carbon dioxide. And disposing of spent uranium, which is radioactive and highly carcinogenic, remains a hot button for politicians and citizens.
In an ultimate act of recycling, the Megatons to Megawatts program processes weapons-grade uranium from Soviet warheads into uranium used by nuclear plants in the United States.
Nuclear waste and the small but real risk of some kind of accident or even sabotage at a nuclear reactor means that nuclear energy isn’t a green solution.