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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 6 - Biological fuel generation

Summary

Global warming and the significance of fossil fuels

Energy for industrial, commercial and residential purposes, electricity generation and transportation is primarily supplied by fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil) and nuclear power. It is now widely believed that climate change is strongly linked to the increased level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and that human activity especially through the combustion of fossil fuels is a major contributing factor.

One of the main greenhouse gases, accounting for 65% of global warming, is carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels are the stored energy or ‘ancient sunlight’ of aeons and millennia ago that mankind has been burning extensively over a few centuries and more prolifically in recent decades. When such fossil fuels are burned for energy, carbon dioxide that has been locked away for all those years is released into the atmosphere greatly adding to global greenhouse gases. In contrast, when present-day plant material is burned the carbon locked into the biomass for a relatively short period of time is released back into the atmosphere thus recycling the carbon dioxide. Consequently, the system is relatively carbon neutral unlike the burning of fossil fuels.

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels over the first five years of this third millennium were four times greater than for the preceding ten years, despite the decisions of the Kyoto Agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.