Issues With Energy Conservation And Sustainability Environmental Sciences Essay

Traditional sources of energy (coal, natural gas, and nuclear power) consumption present a plethora of issues related to conservation and sustainability. From a conservation standpoint, a reliable access to reasonably priced energy has long been the lifeblood of developed societies. Growing populations in impoverished nations strive for this reliable access at equally low or even more reasonably priced levels. These levels must factor in use, generation, future demand, cultural issues, growth, and a variety of other concerns.

Beyond conservation, sustainability issues are also complex. The generation and use of these reliable energy sources bring about sustainability concerns for climate change, acid rain, air pollution, oil spills, strip mining, hazardous waste generation, occupational diseases, radioactivity, and a variety of other adverse environmental consequences. This section will explore the current prevalent uses of energy and the conservation and sustainability issues related to them.

In terms of energy consumption, each American consumes (demands) 6.5 gallons of oil per day to heat homes and run our electrical equipment. One means by which Americans can consume less is to make the existing consumption more efficient. Recent estimates indicate that approximately 1/3 of the energy consumed per day is wasted. Turning to the supply side of the equation, coal provides 52%, nuclear energy 20%, and natural gas 16% of the conventional energy usage in the United States. There is a lot of room for energy conservation that would not necessarily require compromising lifestyles.

Demand-side management involves promoting techniques that increase energy efficiency. For example, driving 55 miles an hour, turning down the thermostat from 68 to 65, and implementing equipment that is more efficient would certainly enhance energy conservation measures while generating a comparable quality of service by using less energy, thereby freeing up supply. Supply-side management involves seeking new methodologies to provide reliable low priced energy sources to consumers.

Problems are involved with both sides of the equation. Social and cultural norms must be modified, a difficult proposition indeed, to manage the demand side of the equation. The supply side of the equation is equally demanding. Most notably, coal used for electric power generation provides a reliable, readily accessible, and low priced fuel source. Yet, hand-in-hand with this economic advantage is the often-unrecognized social problems of air pollution, ecosystem disturbance, and contribution to climate change.

Nuclear power, initially thought to be a more environmentally palatable alternative to coal and natural gas, does provide a comparable source from the supply side of the equation. Further, if pervasively implemented, it was believed to also satisfy most of the demand side of the equation. However, there are only about 110 plants operating in the United States and no new plants have been constructed since the mid-20th century. With such promise from both the supply and demand side of the equation, why has nuclear power failed to live up to its lofty expectations?

The answer lies in the potentially adverse health, safety, and environmental problems and perceptions associated with nuclear power generation and use. Three primary problems accompany the use of nuclear power generation. These three concerns must be addressed before nuclear power can achieve its real potential. These problems include meltdowns, waste management, and terrorism. Further, the heavy governmental subsidies that were initially invested in nuclear power are no longer available. Moreover, heavy governmental subsidies have been replaced with even heavier governmental controls and regulation.

The use of nuclear power represents a social gamble. Estimates of cancer-induced fatalities from meltdowns have ranged from zero (Three Mile Island) to 500,000 for Chernobyl. However, people die from coal generation and pollution. On a lives-lost-per-kilowatt hour basis, nuclear power stacks up equally well to coal production. Yet it is the perception of a potential loss that stacks the deck against nuclear power. In addition, disposal of high-level waste and low-level waste from these facilities, in tandem with the NIMBY philosophy toward waste disposal siting exacerbate an already difficult problem. Finally, the public perception that nuclear reactors could somehow become terrorist weapons, in conjunction with public distrust of scientific risk assessments, has facilitated the widespread perception that nuclear energy sources are unsafe.

Natural gas is also thought to be a replacement for coal. It is undeniably safer to produce electricity for both than coal and nuclear power. Moreover, it is the cleanest of the fossil fuels. It yields about 70% more energy for each unit then than coal. As you can expect, it’s share of the electric power generation market is likely to increase.

Natural gas usage though does have its drawbacks. From a supply-side perspective, the available amount of natural gas is relatively small. Further, complicating this issue is the uneven geographic distribution. Further, if natural gas were to replace coal as the primary source of electrical production, the most recent estimates indicate that all sources would be depleted within 40 years. This would likely increase dependence on foreign suppliers. The implication here and is that the price of natural gas would become volatile and increase at a rate far exceeding that of coal or nuclear power.

Not to be forgotten in this discussion of natural gas are the environmental factors related to its availability and consumption. The price of harnessing the natural gas is not inexpensive. Further, the cost of locating, capturing, storing, and distributing natural gas is also expensive. However, it stacks up favorably against both coal and is much less expensive than nuclear power. Let us also not forget that natural gas, composed primarily of methane, is a greenhouse gas. To avoid global warming, controls must be present to minimize the release of methane into the atmosphere. This too raises the price of natural gas.

Governments have become increasingly involved in these most prevalent of energy options. Moreover, governments have become involved specifically in relation to the environmental aspects of energy production. In this, the government has taken a three-pronged approach.

First, efficiency and environmental safety have risen to the fore as primary considerations for the future of energy policy. Governments have promoted and implemented policies to foster the use of cleaner burning, more efficient, and more environmentally safe energy sources. Often however these goals are in sharp contrast to the market forces of providing inexpensive and available energy sources.

Second, policymakers have sought to equalize both the cost and demand side of the equation. This is most evident in the nuclear power supply and demand equation. The initial foray into nuclear power required governmental subsidies to assist in the construction of nuclear power plants. Further, governmental intervention demanded that societies use the sources. The current rate of federal energy subsidies is 59.8% for fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) and 28.7% for nuclear energy. The remaining paltry 11.5% is dispersed amongst the various other sources. This means government is still not inciting energy companies to research or implement new sources of energy.

Finally, policymakers have begun to provide incentives for using alternative energy sources at the end-user (demand) point. This includes allowing the installation of small-scale energy efficient home heating units, hot water heaters, and hybrid and electric automobiles. Other options are available for large-scale technologies such as wind farms and solar panel arrays, but to a lesser extent. The practice of providing incentives presents particular problems. The most pressing problem is that the government or utility ratepayers still need to absorb some of the costs of capital. To counterbalance these problems, the promotion of more energy-efficient technologies and alternative energy sources must be specifically targeted and offer specific incentives to the end-user and producer alike.



U2L1 – Issues with Natural Resources Conservation – Part 1

Human populations can be strained when subject to environmental stresses such as the inadequate availability of water, land, and agriculture, as natural resources. The availability of these resources is essential for the maintenance of human existence. Problems with these natural resources should be anticipated and prevented as much as possible. This section examines how economic institutions have allocated these resources in the past and how they might improve their allocation in the future.

Water resources

As we have discussed in previous course work, water is essential for human life to replace the continual loss of bodily fluids and to maintain the food sources upon which we depend. The problem with the existing sources of potable water is the allocation of supplies to sustain a variety of competing users. An efficient allocation of water must strike a balance between the competing users and sustaining the year-to-year availability. The concept of supply and demand is integral to this discussion.

There are two problems to be address, maintaining an adequate supply of water and managing the demand for that water. This is especially relevant to groundwater resources where, when withdrawals exceed recharge from a particular aquifer, the resource will be mined over time until water supplies are exhausted. The problem is further complicated where groundwater and surface water supplies are not physically separated. For example, groundwater withdrawals from a specific region, in many areas of the United States, immediately affect the surface water flows. This is an especially tricky issue when cross-state, or cross national, boundaries are put into play. Therefore, the hydrologic nature of the water source must be taken to consideration when designing a water allocation scheme.

From our previous coursework, we have discussed the concept of riparian rights. This is where the right to use water is allocated to the owner of the land adjacent to that water. Yet with population growth and the consequent rise in demand for water resources, this allocation system becomes less appropriate. This situation creates demand for a change in the property rights structure from riparian rights to one that was more transferable. A new structure developed by the government was known as usufructory rights. In this, users are accorded a right to use a common source of water. The current situation for allocating the use of water resources is embedded in the state and federal government’s role in the problem.

Many problems are associated with this point. The first is the restriction of free market availability of this natural resource. Diminished transferability of the use of this water resource puts market pressures on different parts of the market and in different portions of the United States. Likewise, these regulations strongly discourage conservation. Moreover, the government established “preferential use” which brought about bureaucratic preferences for the use of the water. Further, damage caused by overuse is not addressed in this doctrine. Possible solutions to the allocation of water are as follows.

Reduce the number of restrictions on water transfers between agriculture and other uses. The current “use it or lose it” component that a company’s most preferential use discourages conservation.

Implement the use of water markets and water banks. In this, water is allowed to move to its higher valued use and buyers and sellers are brought together to negotiate its value thereby encouraging conservation.

Revising the value of water is a necessity for conservation. This recognizes the efficiency associated with subsidizing the consumption of a scarce resource. Further, revenues collected can be placed into a fund to mitigate environmental damages and to allow for construction of dams for storing water.

Revising the value of water seasonally. This would allow for changes in severe drought conditions and to manage water usage during times of scarcity. This would require consumers to act differently during times of drought.

Encouraging the use of desalinated water in areas where appropriate. Technological advances have reduced the price of desalinized water but growth in this market has not outpaced demand.

There are a number of possible means of remedying the current water situation. These reforms would promote a more efficient use of water while affording more protection to the natural resource. It is clear that charging everyone the same rate irrespective of their consumption is a strategy that deserves more attention.


Land is another natural resource that deserves specific attention. Land conservation has specific issues related to typography, location, and characteristics. Land is typically allocated based on its highest valued use. The problem is clear. Wilderness areas are subservient to agriculture, residential development, commercial use, etc.

There are particular problems with our current use and allocation of land. Urban sprawl is when land use in a particular area is inefficiently dispersed. Another issue is “leapfrogging” where new development continues not on the very edge of current development but further out. Both bring particular problems with development. These include longer trips to work, home, or leisure activities. This brings about increased energy demand and increased opportunities for pollution.

Incompatible land usage is another particular problem with our current use and allocation of land. As an example, the particular costs associated with land use may not accrue exclusively to the landowner. An example of this occurs to neighborhoods near landfills, toxic waste facilities, CAFO’s, or large industrial complexes.

Undervaluing environmental preservation is just another particular problem with our current use and allocation of land. As an example, if the owner of a large farm near a scenic preservation area, sells to a residential developer, the benefits of their large open space to wildlife, travelers, and leisure activities is not typically a basis for different decisions affecting its land use. A final issue is the confluence of taxes on land use relative to conservation. Typically, property taxes in the United States are imposed on land for its current market value. Environmental factors are not typically included in that valuation model.

One way to deal with the many particular problems associated with the current use and allocation of land is to implement innovative market-based remedies. The first innovative remedy is the separation of property rights. A property rights system can mitigate or avoid the problems of overexploitation that can occur when land is merely allocated on a first-come, first-served basis or sold to the highest bidder. By establishing secure enforceable claims, the efficient transfer and maintenance of the valuable use of the property can be directly allocated. Another way is to establish transferable development rights (TDR). TDR’s establish areas where development is prohibited and areas where development is encouraged. If done in the local level, communities will determine the best allocation and use of lands.

Another way is the establishment of land banks. For example, wetlands’ banking is a means of promoting economic benefits of wetland preservation. These “mitigation banks” allow for the use of lands around wetlands, streams, or other aquatic resources to preserve, enhance, or replace sensitive wetland areas. A similar program is present for “conservation banking.” Safe harbor agreements are a new means of conserving endangered and threatened species on privately owned land. These provide for new restrictions of land based upon the threat to the endangered species.

Grazing rights has also been away to deal with the problems associated for overgrazing on public lands. This too is a means of dealing with the particular problems associated with the use of grazing on federal lands, which has been allowed since 1934. Finally, conservation easements and land trusts are means by which legal agreements limit the use of land in order to protect its intrinsic value. This intrinsic value might be to preserve a surface water resource, scenic vistas, or to promote eco-tourism.


The efficient use of agricultural land is a requirement for sustenance around the globe. The problems associated with a lack of efficiency includes starvation, hunger, hunger related diseases, malnutrition, and a variety of ancillary adverse effects. As an example, cereal grain is the world’s cheapest supply of food and is a renewable resource if managed effectively. Further, this could be sustained as long as we receive energy from the sun. Yet the current agricultural practices are neither sustainable nor efficient. Further, the recent trend has been to increase the scale (size) of the average farm and a reduction in the overall number of farms thus raising questions of future sustainability.

The problems intrinsic to this argument are as follows. While technological progress provides the main source of support for optimism, concerns are present regarding the ability of industrial nations to achieve productivity gains. This includes a declining share of land allocated to agricultural use, the rising cost of energy, and increased environmental costs (i.e.: overuse of fertilizer, deforestation, soil completion, soil erosion, etc.). An interesting twist in this argument is imbedded in the example of corn. While this is a relatively stable and useful food source, the expansion and the use of ethanol has decreased the amount of corn available for food. There are sources for optimism in this discussion. Technological advancements in genetics have produced food crops that are more resistant to diseases and pests, hardier crops capable of surviving in marginal soils, and increasing crop yields. In addition, the growth in organic food sources has minimized human disease after uptake.

The economic gains in past several decades have created depletion to our agricultural resources. The past role of government has been complicit in this debacle. Historically, governments have subsidized the use of fertilizers and pesticides, guaranteed prices for outputs, given marketing loans based on crop prices, and implemented trade barriers.

Recently however, the role of government in implementing effective agricultural policies has been on the rise. Governments have begun to encourage sustainable agriculture. Further, they have required that farmers consider energy and environmental costs. Subsidies for some agriculture have been removed and replaced with subsidizing possible technological advancements.


As we have seen from the above, human populations can be strained when subject to environmental stresses such as the inadequate availability of water, land, and agriculture, as natural resources. The availability of these resources is essential for the maintenance of human existence. Problems with these natural resources must be managed. As regulators cope with the myriad of issues related to conservation, they must consider the advancement in technology and the maintenance of a sustainable supply of natural resources.

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