Between convenience and destruction
Double-edged fossil fuels
According to the International Energy Agency, Korea's per capita energy consumption is 157,000 calories a day, which is 80 times more than the amount used by our ancestors who lived in the hunting and gathering era. Most of the energy we obtain is fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
- Article: Kwon Ho-jang (College of Medicine, Dankook University)
The transition history of energy with human development
One of the most important events in human evolution is advent of fire control, which led to dramatic increase in energy use. The first fuel used by human was wood. Although it was readily accessible and widely used, environmental degradation caused by deforestation was a major contributor to the decline of civilization, as shown in the example of Easter Island in the South Pacific. It is the discovery of fossil fuels such as coal and oil that lifted the restrictions on energy sources. Fossil fuels, as the name suggests, are ancient plants that solar energy stored through photosynthesis, and remains of ancient plants and animals that consumed such energy.
Coal is an excellent fuel source that can generate three times as much heat as trees of the same mass, but it causes serious air pollution with sulfur components it contain and fumes from incomplete combustion in coal. In Britain, coal-borne air pollution had already become a social problem in the 13th century, and thousands of people lost their lives due to Great Smog in London in 1952, the worst air pollution disaster in human history.
Oil and natural gas are energy sources that can be more widely used without issues related to coal. When petroleum is vaporized and cooled, it can be divided into gasoline, diesel and heavy oil for production, depending on the molecular weight, while sulfur component is completely eliminated. Residual substances can be used as asphalt. In this process, polymer compounds, the most important materials in modern civilization, can be obtained. Hundreds of polymer compounds, including plastics, synthetic fibers such as nylon and rayon, paints and adhesives, are produced from crude oil. Natural gas can be easily transported and utilized anywhere in the world after being processed in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). There existed concerns that oil and natural gas will soon be exhausted, but they were eased with the discovery of shale gas. And the human will be able to use fossil fuels for a considerable period of time.
Oil and natural gas are cleaner than coal, but they cause environmental pollution throughout all phases from oil exploration, transportation and burning as fuel for vehicles. In Korea, sinking of an oil tanker in 2007 contaminated the West Sea. Air pollution caused by nitrogen oxides and fine dust from the combustion process is also still an issue. However, the more serious problem is carbon dioxide emission, also called as greenhouse gas emission.
Carbon dioxide, the cause of extreme weather, doubled in 100 years
Sunlight, which is mainly composed of visible light, is emitted as infrared radiation after reaching the ground. The temperature rises when greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide absorb infrared light. Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has been emitting a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the air in the process of building a fossil fuel-based civilization. The carbon dioxide concentration in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution was 280 ppm (0.028%), but reached 420 ppm in 2021, indicating that the carbon dioxide concentration has increased by nearly 50% over the past 100 years. As a result, the average temperature of the Earth rose by 1.1℃ compared to the pre-industrialization era.
The temperature change of 1°C in our daily lives is a mild one that can be rarely felt. But the change in the average temperature of the Earth, which has occurred in merely 100 years, is a remarkable change and unprecedented in human history. The average Earth temperature during the ice age was only 6°C lower than that of now, and the average Earth temperature in the dinosaur era was only 4°C higher than now. Rise in temperature normally accompanies wide-ranged fluctuations of the temperature, making people accustomed to unusual weather.
Looking back our latest experiences, we had sleepless nights with unprecedented tropical nights in June this year, experiencing the longest rainy season in 2020, and the worst heat wave in 2018. Globally, there were record heat waves in India and Pakistan this year, reaching nearly 50°C in spring. Europe also suffered damage from unprecedented forest fire with an unprecedented heat wave. Tuvalu, an island located in the South Pacific, is in danger that the country could disappear due to rising sea levels. The Earth is becoming an increasingly difficult planet to live on.
Countermeasures desperately needed for global warming
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the risk of climate change will increase significantly if the global temperature rise is not prevented below 1.5°C compared to pre-industrialization. In the process of achieving rapid economic growth in a short period of time, Korea has become one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters. Moreover, international civic groups criticize Korea as a ‘climate villain,’ as more than 30% of its electricity production depends on coal-based thermal power generation and consistent investment is being made.
The Korean government has committed to the international community that it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to 2018 and will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Nevertheless, the Korean society rarely shows efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. When the Earth is suffocated by greenhouse gases, it will become a difficult place for humans to live on. We are running out of time.