The evolution of environmental awareness

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Man has always changed his surroundings. Some of those changes we no longer even recognise; the clearing of forests to create the agricultural farmlands of Europe for example. No one now sees these fields as forests that once were.

Similar changes elsewhere are more obviously detrimental to local or global conditions. Tropical rain forests grow in the poorest of soils. Clear them and the ground is of very little use. Not only that, but the removal of forest cover can lead to erosion, and flooding as well as the loss of ground-water. Most of these effects are negative.

Part of the problem is the ever-increasing size of the human population. Where native tribes could survive in the rain forests in Brazil, the encroachment of outsiders has led to their erosion.

A similar effect is at work in power generation. When the demand for electricity was limited, the effect of the few power stations needed to supply that demand was small. But as demand has risen, so has the cumulative effect. Today that effect is of such a magnitude that it can no longer be ignored.

Consumption of fossil fuel is the prime example. Consumption of coal has grown steadily since the industrial revolution. The first sign of trouble resulting from this practice was the ever-worsening pollution in some major cities. In London the word smog was invented at the beginning of the twentieth century to describe the terrible clouds of fog and smoke that could remain for days. Yet it was only in the 1950s that legislation was finally introduced to control the burning of coal in the UK capital.

Consumption of coal still increased but with the use of smokeless fuel in cities and tall stacks outside, problems associated with its combustion appeared to have been solved. Until, that is, it was discovered that forests in parts of northern Europe and North America were dying and lakes were becoming lifeless. During the 1980s the cause was identified; acid rain resulting from coal combustion. More legislation, aimed at controlling the emission of acidic gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, was introduced.

Acid rain was dangerous but worse was to come. By the end of the 1980s scientists began to fear that the temperature on the surface of the earth was gradually rising. This has the potential to change conditions everywhere. Was this a natural change or man-made? Scientists did not know.

As studies continued, evidence suggested that the effect was, in part at least, man-made. The rise in temperature followed a rise in the concentration of some gases in the atmosphere. Chief among these was carbon dioxide. One of the main sources of extra carbon dioxide was the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal.

If this is indeed the culprit, and it would appear prudent to assume that it is, then consumption of fossil fuel must fall, or measures must be introduced to remove and secure the carbon dioxide produced. Both are expensive. It has now become one of the main challenges for governments all over the world to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere without crippling their economies.

The way in which fossil fuel is used in power generation is gradually changing as a result of these discoveries and the legislation that has accompanied them. Other technologies also face challenges. Nuclear power is considered by some to be as threatening as fossil fuel combustion, though it still has its advocates too. Hydropower has attracted bad publicity in recent years but should still have an important part to play in future power generation. Meanwhile there are individuals and groups prepared to go to almost any lengths to prevent the construction of wind farms which they consider unsightly.

Electricity is vital to modern living. One can fairly argue that the modern world is a result of the discovery and exploitation of electricity. Therefore unless the world is going to regress technically the supply of electricity must continue and grow. On that basis, compromises must be sought and technical solutions must be found such that growth does not result in irrevocable damage. These are the challenges that the power industry faces, and with it the world.

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