Which Energy Sources Have the Highest Carbon Footprint? A Life-Cycle Assessment

Which Energy Sources Have the Highest Carbon Footprint? A Life-Cycle Assessment

By
Grace Smoot

Read Time:17 Minutes

Follow
this site

follow follow

Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more Learn more .

Affiliate Disclosure

Hey fellow impactful ninja 👋

You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.

  • Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.

  • But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.

Why do we add these product links?

First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.

And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.

What do these affiliate links mean for you?
  1. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.

  3. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.

What do these affiliate links mean for us?
  1. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).

  3. And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.

What does this mean for me personally?

You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.

Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.

Stay impactful,

The term “carbon footprint” is important when discussing human-induced climate change because it refers to greenhouse gas emissions. Different energy types have different carbon footprints, with some of these values being higher than others. So we had to ask: Which energy sources have the highest carbon footprint?

Fossil fuels and biomass have the four highest carbon footprints. Per kWh produced, oil emits 970, coal 820, natural gas 490, and biomass 230 or 740 grams of carbon dioxide on a life-cycle basis. They directly contribute to climate change and have various negative environmental effects.

Fossil fuels and biomass make up a significant portion of our total energy consumption and have various environmental implications. Keep reading to learn about the overall carbon footprints of these energies, their carbon footprints throughout their life cycles, and their environmental benefits and drawbacks. 

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of All Energy Types

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as CH4, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.

Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by an activity or an organization. This includes GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly (e.g., heating a home, driving a car) and GHG emissions from manufacturing the products that we use (e.g., power plants, factories, and landfills). 

To understand the carbon footprint of all energy types, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s carbon footprint. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, we had a look at the LCA for all of the energy types! (No worries, we’ll link back to each throughout this article.)

These 4 Energy Sources Have the Highest Carbon Footprint

When discussing the carbon footprint of certain energy types, we must take into account carbon emissions across the energy’s building, operating, and building back phases.

Type of EnergyCarbon Footprint
Oil970 gCO2/KWh
Coal820 gCO2/KWh
Natural Gas (NG)490 gCO2/KWh
BiomassRegular: 230 gCO2/KWh
Co-Firing: 740 gCO2/KWh

Have a look at the illustration below to see the average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions of the four energy sources with the highest carbon footprint and how they compare to the other energy types.

Illustration of CO2 equivalent per energy source
World Nuclear Association: Average life-cycle CO2 equivalent emissions

Fossil fuel (coal, oil, NG) consumption began with the Industrial Revolution, and consumption has increased exponentially over the past 70 years. The type of fuel we consume has shifted from solely coal, to coal and oil, and lastly to coal, oil, and NG. 

Illustration of global fossil fuel consumption
Our World in Data: Global Fossil Fuel Consumption

Biomass continues to be a major fuel in developing countries, especially for heating and cooking. This is known as traditional biomass. Countries that rely heavily on traditional biomass include Niger, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Haiti.

In developed countries, it has been used increasingly as a transportation fuel and to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels like coal and oil. These countries include the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, and China. 

Oil Energy Has the Highest Carbon Footprint at 970 grams of CO2/kWh on a Life-Cycle Basis

Oil energy comes from the combustion of petroleum, a fossil field also known as crude oil. Oil was formed millions of years ago when plant and animal remains gradually built up on the earth’s surface and the ocean floor, mixing with sand, silt, and calcium carbonate. Under immense heat and pressure, some of these remains were converted into oil depending on the combination of organic matter present, how long it was buried, and pressure conditions. 

Oil: petroleum (= the black oil obtained from under the earth’s surface from which gasoline comes)”

Cambridge Dictionary

On a life-cycle basis, oil emits 970 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per kWh of electricity produced. Which is the highest carbon footprint of all energy types – and higher than all the other ones.

The top 10 largest oil producers in the world account for 72% (67 million barrels per day (mb/d)) of global oil global production, which is approximately 94 mb/d total.

Our World in Data: Oil Consumption

Here are the life-cycle stages of oil energy and each stage’s carbon footprint:

  • Building of oil: CO2 emissions from oil extraction and refinement, construction of oil-fired plants, and transportation of oil to refineries and plants
  • Operating of oil: CO2 emissions from oil combustion and operation of mechanical equipment at plants
  • Building back of oil: CO2 emissions from plugging wells and decommissioning power plants; CH4 seepage from unplugged wells
Related: Check out the full article about oil energy here: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Oil Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

The world collectively emitted 12.36 billion tons (bt) of CO2 from oil in 2019, and because oil has been one of the most in-demand global fuel sources since the 1920s, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is and how its carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.

Coal Energy Has the Second Highest Carbon Footprint at 820 grams of CO2/kWh on a Life-Cycle Basis

Coal energy is produced via the combustion of black or brownish-black sedimentary rock containing energy stored by plants that lived in swampy forests over a hundred million years ago. The 4 main types, or ranks, of coal depend on the type and amount of carbon the coal contains and the amount of heat energy the coal can produce. The ranks are anthracite, lignite, subbituminous, and bituminous coal. 

“Coal: a combustible black or dark brown rock consisting mainly of carbonized plant matter, found mainly in underground deposits and widely used as fuel.”

Cambridge Dictionary

On a life-cycle basis, coal emits 820 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per kWh of electricity produced, which is the second-highest out of all of the fuel types. 

In 2020, 477 million tonnes (432.7 million tons)  of coal were consumed in the United States (US) alone, which represents around 10% of total US energy consumption. While consumption has decreased in the US and European Union (EU), consumption continues to increase in some Asian countries such as China and India.

Our World in Data: Coal Consumption

Here are the life-cycle stages of coal energy and each stage’s carbon footprint:

Related: Check out the full article about coal energy here: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Coal Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

In 2019, the world collectively emitted 14.36 billion tons of CO2 from coal alone, higher than that from all other industries. Because coal remains an important fuel source for the global economy, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is and how its carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.

Natural Gas Energy Has the Fourth Highest Carbon Footprint at 490 grams of CO2/kWh on a Life-Cycle Basis

Commonly referred to as the world’s cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas (NG) is a flammable gas composed of mostly methane (CH4), some hydrocarbon gas liquids (HGLs), and nonhydrocarbon gases (CO2 and water vapor). When burned it produces mostly CO2, water vapor, and some nitrogen oxides. NG is acquired in one of two ways, either by conventional (vertical) drilling or by hydraulic fracturing

Natural Gas: flammable gas, consisting largely of methane and other hydrocarbons, occurring naturally underground (often in association with petroleum) and used as fuel”

Oxford Dictionary

On a life-cycle basis, NG emits 490 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh, the third-highest amount out of all of the fuel types, but the lowest out of the three fossil fuels. 

In 2020, 30.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of NG were consumed in the US alone. This represents around 34% of total US energy consumption. And since 2010, 80% of NG growth has been concentrated within the US, China, and the Middle East. 

Our World in Data: Gas Consumption

Here are the life-cycle stages of NG energy and each stage’s carbon footprint:

  • Building of NG: CO2 emissions from extracting and processing NG, transportation of NG through pipes and on ships, construction of NG power plants 
  • Operating of NG: CO2 emissions from NG combustion, operation of equipment at NG power plants, and leakage of CH4 from in-service wells
  • Building back of NG: CO2 emissions from plugging wells and decommissioning power plants, CH4 seepage from unplugged wells
Related: Check out the full article about natural gas (NG) here: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Natural Gas? A Life-Cycle Assessment

The world collectively emitted 7.62 billion tons (bt) from NG in 2019, the fewest amount out of the three fossil fuels (i.e. coal, oil, NG). Because NG is the world’s fastest-growing fossil fuel that accounts for around 23% of primary energy demand and 25% of electricity generation, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is and how its carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.

Biomass Energy Has the Third and Fifth Highest Carbon Footprint at 740 and 230 grams of CO2/kWh on a Life-Cycle Basis

Biomass is renewable organic material that comes from plants and animals. It is incredibly versatile and can be used to produce fuel, energy, and everyday products that contain plastics.  Sources of biomass energy include wood and wood processing wastes, agricultural crops and waste materials, municipal solid waste, animal manure, and human sewage. To harvest biomass energy, these sources are burned or are converted to release the stored chemical energy from the sun. 

Biomass: natural materials from living or recently dead plants, trees and animals, used as fuel and in industrial production, especially in the generation of electricity”

Oxford Dictionary

On a life-cycle basis, regular biomass energy emits 230 grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh (gCO2 per KWh), the fourth-highest amount out of all of the fuel types, and the highest amount out of all of the renewable fuel types. However, co-firing biomass energy, where biomass is added as a partial substitute fuel in coal boilers, emits 740 gCO2 per KWh, the second-highest amount out of all fuel types and second only to coal. 

In 2018, 637 Terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity were produced globally from biomass. Solid biomass accounted for 66% (420 TWh), municipal and industrial waste 19% (121 TWh), and biogas 14% (89 TWh) of total biopower. Also in 2018, 160 billion liters (bl) of biofuels were produced globally from biomass. North and South America account for 75% and Europe 14% of global biofuel production. 

Our World in Data: Biofuel Energy Production

Here are the life-cycle stages of biomass energy and each stage’s carbon footprint:

  • Building of biomass: CO2 emissions from extracting and processing biomass, transportation of biomass on trucks or by rail, construction of biomass power plants 
  • Operating of biomass: CO2 emissions from biomass combustion, operation of equipment at biomass power plants
  • Building back of biomass: CO2 emissions from utilizing construction equipment to demolish the buildings and construct new buildings in the old power plant’s place
Related: Check out the full article about biomass energy here: What Is the Carbon Footprint of Biomass Energy? A Life-Cycle Assessment

Because biomass is still an important fuel source for the developing world and has become an important transportation fuel in the developed world, it is important to understand what its carbon footprint is and how its carbon emissions affect the global climate change process.

What Roles Do The Energy Sources With the Highest Carbon Footprint Play in Combating/ Contributing to Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the most severe, long-term, global impact of fossil fuel combustion. The carbon found in fossil fuels and biomass material reacts with oxygen in the air to produce CO2. This warms the earth by acting as a heating blanket, and a warmer earth comes with a host of negative side effects. 

Every year, approximately 36 bt of CO2 are emitted from burning fossil fuels. 44% (15.8 bt) of this comes from coal, 34% (12 bt) from oil, and 21% (7.5 bt) from NG. Also, per kWh,  biomass power plants emit 150% the CO2 of coal and between 300% – 400% the CO2 of natural gas, making them a major contributor to climate change. 

CO2 emissions contribute to climate change in the following ways:

  • Melting of sea ice: Since 1979 arctic sea ice has declined by 30%. Sea ice plays a major role in regulating the earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight into space and providing habitat for animal species. If all of the glaciers on Earth melted, sea levels would rise by approximately 70 feet, effectively flooding out every coastal city on the planet. 
  • Changing precipitation patterns: Extreme weather events (e.g., hurricanes, floods, droughts) are becoming more common and more intense. Storm-affected areas will experience increased precipitation and flooding whereas areas located further from storm tracks will experience decreased precipitation and droughts.
  • Ocean acidification: The ocean absorbs 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere, which decreases the pH (increases the acidity) of the ocean. In the past 200 years, the pH of oceans has decreased by 0.1 pH units, which translates to a 30% increase in acidity. Aquatic life unable to adjust to this rapid acidification will die off. A prime example of this is coral bleaching, where coral expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues as a result of changes in temperature, light, or nutrients. 

Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2040

The more we reduce CO2 emissions, the more we slow the rate of temperature rise, sea-level rise, ice melting, and ocean acidification. When these rates are slowed, the earth’s biodiversity does not have to struggle to adapt to temperature and pH changes. People will not be displaced due to the flooding of coastal areas. And icebergs will continue to provide climate regulation. 

How Environmentally Friendly Are The Energy Sources With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Fossil fuels are our primary energy source and biomass is often referred to as a better option than coal, but their combustion produces a significant amount of CO2 emissions annually which contributes to global climate change.

“Environmentally friendly: (of products) not harming the environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Coal, oil, and NG are considered dirty fuel sources because of their high rate of CO2 emissions, toxic heavy metals, and other chemicals that contribute to global climate change. Biomass power plants can emit more CO2 from their smokestacks than coal plants. Because of this, the environmental benefits are scarce, and the environmental drawbacks are abundant. 

What Are Environmental Drawbacks of The Energy Sources With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Each of the main fossil fuels and biomass has its environmental drawbacks as well as collectively adding to atmospheric CO2 levels and contributing to global warming. 

  1. Oil: Oil spills cause serious environmental harm by contaminating water and soil, causing explosions and fires, and harming wildlife. Oil combustion also releases CO2 and other particulates which can cause respiratory problems. In the case of fracking, large amounts of water and potentially hazardous chemicals are required, which can decrease water availability for people and aquatic life and can result in leaks and spills of fracking fluids. Fracking produces large amounts of wastewater which require treatment before disposal, and injecting it back underground can cause earthquakes that are large enough to be felt.   
  1. Coal: The combustion of coal produces over 14 bt of CO2 emissions every year which contributes significantly to global climate change. Air pollution can cause numerous health problems including asthma, breathing difficulties, brain damage, heart problems, and cancer. Leftover coal ash residue and toxic heavy metals can leach into surface (ponds, lakes) and groundwater ponds, lakes, landfills, and other sites which could eventually lead to the contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies. Methods to burn coal without adding to atmospheric CO2 levels are often expensive and difficult to successfully implement.
  1. NG: Drilling for NG can disturb vegetation and soil and may require clearing and leveling the area around a well pad. Drilling also produces air pollution and may contaminate water sources via erosion, fracking fluids, equipment runoff, and sedimentation. Erosion and fragmentation of wildlife habitat and migration patterns have also been documented. When NG is burned at well sites, it releases CO2, carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. Burning NG instead of releasing it directly into the atmosphere produces lower levels of GHG emissions because CO2 is not as potent as methane, but it still contributes to the overall level of CO2 in our atmosphere. 
  1. Biomass: Existing biomass power plants emit more CO2 from their smokestacks than coal plants. Developed countries that burn organic matter for heat and cooking release particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons, oxygenated organics, free radicals, and chlorinated organics, all of which are health hazards. Chopping trees to produce wood pellets that are burned for electricity speeds up deforestation and reduces the number of trees that can capture our CO2 emissions (decreases carbon sequestration). It could take anywhere from decades to well over a century before we start receiving the climate benefits provided by biomass, which is well outside the timeframe of averting our current climate crisis. 

Overall, burning fossil fuels and biomass adds to the total level of CO2 in our atmosphere and expedites global warming. 

  • Atmospheric CO2: Levels of CO2 in our atmosphere have increased as a result of human emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750. Emissions increased steadily to 5 bt per year in the mid-20th century before increasing exponentially to more than 35 bt per year at the end of the 20th century. The global average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1750 but today registers at over 400 ppm. By the end of the 21st century, this number is expected to exceed 900 ppm. Burning fossil fuels adds to this total, which in turn amplifies the greenhouse effect and causes global warming. 
  • Global warming: This phenomenon occurs when CO2 and other air pollutants absorb sunlight and solar radiation in the atmosphere, trapping the heat and acting as an insulator for the planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s temperature has risen a little more than 1 degree Celsius (C), or 2 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Between 1880-1980 the global temperature rose by 0.07C every 10 years. This rate has more than doubled since 1981, with a current global annual temperature rise of 0.18C, or 0.32F, for every 10 years. Experts claim that to avoid a future plagued by rising sea levels, acidified oceans, loss of biodiversity, more frequent and severe weather events, and other environmental disasters brought on by the hotter temperatures, we must limit global warming to 1.5C by 2040

The easiest way to mitigate the environmental impact of fossil fuels and biomass is to simply not rely on either in the first place. Fossil fuel and biomass combustion releases toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and CO2, while also directly contributing to global warming.

What Are Environmental “Benefits” of The Energy Sources With the Highest Carbon Footprint

Although fossil fuels do not benefit the environment, there are ways to possibly mitigate their environmental impact. Various methods to do so include:

  1. Oil: To minimize environmental impacts, technological advances in drilling, production, and transportation of oil as well as strict safety and environmental laws and regulations must be enforced. For example, satellites, GPS, and remote sensing technology can detect oil reserves underground which negates the need to drill many exploratory wells. Also, horizontal and directional drilling allows a single well to produce oil from a much larger area, reducing the overall number of wells needed. 
  1. Coal: Ways to possibly mitigate its environmental impact include desulfurization, carbon capture, and re-use and recycling. For desulfurization, scrubbers are installed in smokestacks to remove sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions before they enter the atmosphere. For carbon capture, CO2 from coal emissions is separated and recovered in a concentrated stream for later injection underground (sequestration). For re-use, land used for coal mining is reclaimed and repurposed as airports, landfills, and golf courses. For recycling, waste emissions can be used to produce cement and synthetic gypsum for wallboard.
  1. NG: This is considered the cleanest fossil fuel because it has lower levels of CO2, CO, nitrogen oxides, and SO2 than both coal and oil. However, these emissions and methane still contribute directly to global climate change. The best way to mitigate its environmental impact is to detect, fix, and repair methane leaks from well-pads, processing plants, compressor stations, and large distribution facilities. Doing this can reduce methane output by 1.70-1.80 million metric tons per year.

Biomass indirectly benefits the environment by promoting energy independence and creating jobs, but it does not benefit the fight against climate change because of its high carbon footprint.

  1. Energy Independence: Being able to produce our own electricity in the U.S. without the aid of foreign countries is an important step to help us become more self-sufficient instead. Former President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 to reduce U.S. dependence on oil, expand the production of renewable fuels (and confront global climate change). 
  1. Employment Opportunities: The renewable energy sector employed 11.5 million people worldwide in 2019. Renewable energy jobs continue to increase as we start to realize just how beneficial renewable energy is for our environment.

Final Thoughts

Oil, coal, natural gas, and biomass have the four highest carbon footprints across their building, operating, and building back phases compared to all other energy sources. They contribute directly to global warming and have various other environmental drawbacks. Our atmosphere and Earth’s biota would all benefit if we reduce our consumption of these four energy sources.  

Carbon emissions have devastating effects on the environment. Reducing our carbon footprint is important because it mitigates the effects of climate change, which has a positive cascade effect on public health and plant and animal diversity. In addition, this boosts the global economy and leads to innovative, more environmentally-friendly solutions.

Stay impactful,

Illustration of a signature for Grace



Sources

Did you know that the internet is a huge polluter of the environment? But fortunately not this site. This site is powered by renewable energy and all hosting-related CO2 emissions are offset by three times as many renewable energy certificates. Find out all about it here.

Three Related Posts

One Unrelated Post