Has Reliance on Fossil Fuels Irreversibly Damaged the Planet?

Top Energy and Environmental Experts Weigh in on a Future Fueled by Alternative Energy

Experts believe that our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels could spiral into a global energy crisis. Fortunately, great progress in alternative energy production is being made every day that could mean a new age of clean, safe energy.

This Sunday, on Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge, Academy Award-winning writer and director Akiva Goldsman dives deep into all things alternative energy — from using mirrors and salt to generate electric power, to harnessing the power of tornadoes and using brewery waste to create biofuel.

Each week we’re inviting thought leaders and experts from various fields explored in the Breakthrough series to scrutinize some of the controversial issues raised throughout the season. This week, we looked to some of our favorite energy and environmental connoisseurs to share their perspective on the following question:

Do you think that by tapping into the new alternative energy sources we can reverse most of the damage we have done to our environment?

Here’s what they had to say: Robert Rapier, managing editor and director of analysis at Energy Trends Insider writes about the challenge of lowering global emissions and explains, “In order to halt the growth in global emissions, the emissions from developing countries must be reined in. But developing countries argue that developed countries built their economies on a foundation of cheap fossil fuels, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to do the same?” Rapier offers a potential solution by explaining that, “To reverse the direction of emissions without crippling development in the developing countries (a non-starter for these countries as India emphasized), we will have to develop solutions that are not only technically viable, but that are cost-competitive with fossil fuels.” He concludes, “Further, alternatives must be cumulatively capable of scaling up to displace large amounts of fossil fuels, and they must be convenient if consumers are going to willingly opt for alternatives over fossil fuels.”

Chemical engineer, blogger and journalist Lindsay Leveen of Green Explored states bluntly that, “If we believe the planet is not affected by the passage of time let alone human activity, we are simply dreaming.” According to Leveen, “Entropy happens and we cannot ever reverse that. What we can do is move forward in a manner that brings progress with minimal impact. This includes a major modification in behavior to reverse population growth.” He further elaborates, “It requires a social change in our mindset to live very differently. We cannot blame the fuel, we must blame the lifestyle. Getting rid of the Brady Bunch lifestyle is needed to slow down the rate of damage to the planet. Some damage will occur no matter what simply because entropy increases.”

Lisa Cohn, editor of EnergyEfficientMarkets.com, brings to light the unique challenge alternative energy proponents face in finding a way to provide consistent alternative energy storage. She goes on to explain, “Clean energy systems run intermittently; solar only during the day, for example. Fossil-fuel-fired plants, on the other hand, have historically been more reliable because they have the ability to operate 24 hours a day.” Cohn continues, “With the adoption of energy storage, all that has changed. By storing energy produced by solar during the day — so it can be used at night — energy storage systems allow for the use of solar energy and other renewable energy sources 24 hours a day. Similarly, they allow for storage of wind when the wind isn’t blowing.” She also highlights the vital role of software systems in energy efficiency. “In Hawaii, for example — where electricity prices are among the highest in the nation — energy storage and solar are integrated into microgrids that can operate independently of the main grid — and provide power that’s competitive in price to electricity from the main grid,” says Cohn.

Donna Barnett of Chasing Clean Air remarks on current events, noting, “Just yesterday, Beijing had its worst smog alert ever, as leaders throughout the free world meet in Paris to discuss ideas on curbing greenhouse gases.” Barnett recommends, “Personally, I advocate for clean energy, tougher regulations and I walk and take public transportation often.” Often finding herself riding alone on the bus in Los Angeles, Donna asks, “Why does everyone talk about climate change, and not get on the bus?” She concludes by asking a favor of her readers: “Join me walking the walk. Take public transportation.”

Founder and CEO of Elemental Impact Holly Elmore writes in the Zero Waste in ACTION blog about her organization’s “strong concerns on the life cycle of these new technologies, especially with disposal of by-products and worn-out equipment.” Elmore highlights some of the drawbacks of alternative energy sources, such as a solar energy plant. “The plant produces roughly 20 percent of the electricity generated by a typical coal plant. How many of the solar plants are required to play a significant role in replacing current power plants? At a cost of approximately $1 billion, are the plants cost-effective?” Ultimately, Elmore concludes, “It is imperative that alternative energy scientists/companies break out of the ‘energy tunnel’ and focus on the broader humanitarian, environmental and economic impact of their emerging technologies. There is no one answer to the pending energy crisis. Lifestyle choices and human population play a vital role in crafting a solution mosaic.”

The perspective on this topic is counterpointed by another Elemental Impact blog, The IMPACT, which considers our history of reliance on fossil fuels, noting, “Fossil fuels are the remnants from past civilizations, whether in the plant, animal or human kingdoms. Could it be that we are merely cleansing the Earth of its past so we may move in another life dimension?” The IMPACT post continues, “Is it time to break patterns and understand life as we know it must change for humanity to survive on the Earth? Soon the creative spirit will embrace those shifting their focus to harnessing energy, versus generating electricity. By its pure nature, harnessed energy is clean energy, without the by-products of electricity generation.”

The experts at Nature World Report highlight the rising of carbon dioxide levels past critical thresholds, noting, “Further, while renewable energy sources would reduce carbon emissions, energy production itself is far from the only source of greenhouse gas emissions. The use of fertilizers in agriculture, forest fires – many of them man-made – decomposing landfills, and various other human activities are also producing greenhouse gases.” The NWR post concludes, “Beyond energy production, humanity must learn to live sustainably and in harmony with the planet. Land development, waste generation and recycling, water use, and various other areas of human activity that can impact the Earth, must all be brought into harmony with the planet’s fragile ecosystems. If not, the actions and activities carried out today will almost certainly become a burden for future generations.”

A big thanks to all of our experts for sharing their enlightening views on this equally fascinating and important topic. Don’t forget to tune in to Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge this Sunday, Dec. 6, at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.


  1. […] To learn more about cutting-edge energy solutions, tune in to “Breakthrough:  Energy on the Edge,” which premieres Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm EST on National Geographic Channel. Check out National Geographic’s  online roundtable discussion here: Has Reliance on Fossil Fuels Irreversibly Damaged the Planet? […]

  2. Kimberly King
    United States
    December 4, 2015, 9:36 am

    Lindsay has it right. “We cannot blame the fuel, we must blame the lifestyle.” (Wo)man are arrogant on this lifestyle note, expecting Mother Nature to acquiesce to humans’ quality of life expectations.

    It boggles the mind how conservation/behavior change has been decoupled from technology/energy efficiency. The ‘indifference of Mother Nature will have her way with (wo)man, probably sooner rather than later…