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4.6: Fossil Fuels and Greenhouse Gases

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  • Fossil fuels are made up mainly of hydrogen and carbon. When burned, the carbon combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide (CO2). The amount of CO2 produced depends on the carbon content of the fuel. For example, for the same amount of energy produced, natural gas produces about half and petroleum produces about three-fourths of the amount of CO2 produced by coal. Energy-related CO2 emissions, resulting from the combustion of coal, petroleum, and natural gas, account for about 80% of total U.S. human-caused (anthropogenic) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. There are many sources of non-energy CO2 emissions, but those emissions account for a relatively small share of total GHG emissions. See chapter 7 for a discussion of the results of GHG emissions.

    Energy use is largely driven by economic growth and by weather patterns that affect heating and cooling needs. The fuels used in electricity generation also have an impact on the amount of GHG emissions. In the United States, most of the electricity generated comes from coal power plants and consequently, the majority of the carbon dioxide emission resulting from electricity generation is from coal combustion (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Although the industrial sector is the largest consumer of energy (including direct fuel use and purchased electricity), the transportation sector emits more carbon dioxide because of its near complete dependence on petroleum fuels. The residential and commercial sectors have lower emission levels (most of which comes from fossil energy combustion to produce electricity) than the transportation and industry sectors.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A) Major fuel/energy sources for U.S. electricity generation, 2013. B) Resulting carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation by fuel type, 2013. Based on data from U.S. Energy Information Administration