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Emissions from fossil fuels are rising at alarming rates worldwide, increasing smog, ozone depletion, and global warming. How can we reduce our use of coal, oil, and less-harmful natural gas? What safer renewable alternatives can we use to power the planet?
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Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
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World Resource Institute: “Fossil Fuels: The Non-Renewable Resources”

International Energy Agency: “Carbon Emissions Set to Rise Steadily with Fossil Fuel Use; But, IEA Indicates, Ways to Halt Climate Change Do Exist”

Energy Information Admistration, U.S. Department of Energy: “U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in Perspective”

Energy Information Adminstration, U.S. Department of Energy: “Annual Energy Outlook 2001 With Projections to 2020”

Article by Lisa Moore, Art and graphs by Slim Films, Data: U.S. Energy Information Administration, BP Amoco Statistical Review of World Energy 2000
  The world is aglow with dire headlines about energy consumption and its ill effects. Consider the following:  
  In January the lights went out in Northern California as homes and businesses endured rolling blackouts—drastic consequence of an energy crisis that has cost the state billions of dollars. An international panel of scientists recently released a definitive report concluding that human activity is in fact responsible for increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are warming Earth’s atmosphere. The panel predicts that temperatures could rise by as much as ten degrees over the next century, leading to a further decline in polar ice, rising sea levels, and greater frequency of catastrophic weather events such as typhoons. Last November at The Hague, talks to implement the Kyoto Protocol—an ambitious and highly controversial plan to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases—collapsed in rancor as representatives from more than 170 nations failed to agree on how to achieve and account for reductions.

Whassup? Quite simply, the burning of fossil fuels—oil, coal, and natural gas—creates greenhouse gases. People burn fossil fuels to drive their cars, light their homes, and run their industries. According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels will account for 90 percent of world energy by 2020, up from about 75 to 80 percent today. If fossil fuel use continues to rise, so will global temperatures, with severe consequences for the planet.

The solution, then, seems simple: Humans have to kick the fossil-fuel habit. Put more scientifically, they must “de-carbonize the energy economy,” says Seth Dunn of Worldwatch Institute. To some extent this has been happening for quite some time as carbon-intensive firewood yielded to coal and then to oil as the world’s primary energy source. Today natural gas, by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels, is gaining ground and is projected to account for 26 percent of world supply by 2020.

But the brightest hope for the future lies in a commitment to increase energy efficiency, reduce demand, and move toward use of renewables—power drawn from wind, sun, water, geothermal heat, and even so-called biomass such as forest and farm waste. The world has seen some heartening progress already. In China, an aggressive energy-efficiency program has helped cut the use of coal by some 400 million tons per year, “an extraordinary success story,” says Michael Totten of Conservation International. And wind is on the rise. Clean and endlessly renewable, wind is the fastest growing energy source in the world.

As populations swell, nations will continue to feud over energy use and abuse. But individuals can make an enormous difference—today—in the health of the planet by reducing energy demand and switching to more efficient sources of power. By replacing incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescent lamps, using low-energy appliances, and driving fuel-efficient cars, individuals can slice demand, reduce harmful emissions, and save billion of dollars a year in energy costs. “The future is full of exciting and lucrative possibilities because of better techniques for converting and using energy,” says Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute. Higher efficiency through smarter technology, he says, “would be by far the cheapest way to get hot showers and cold beer.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


World Energy Outlook 2000 International Energy Agency, France, 2000.

Brown, W. Alternative Sources of Energy. Chelsea House Publishers, 1994.


DeWitt, Lynda. “Going Without Gasoline: Kids Rally in Their Sun-Powered Car,” National Geographic World (Apr. 2000), 12-13.

Miller, Peter. “A Comeback for Nuclear Power? Our Electric Future,” National Geographic (Aug. 1991), 60-89.

White, Peter T. “The Fascinating World of Trash,” National Geographic (Apr. 1983), 424-457.

Matthews, Samuel W. “New World of the Ocean,” National Geographic (Dec. 1981), 792-832.

National Geographic, Special Energy edition. (Feb. 1981), 24-31.

Weaver, Kenneth. “Geothermal Energy: The Power of Letting Off Steam,” National Geographic (Oct. 1977), 566-579.

White, Peter T. “This Land of Ours? How Are We Using It?,” National Geographic (July 1976), 20-67.


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