Skip to Content

Which Energy Source Generates the Least Greenhouse Gases?

Do you know which energy source generates the least greenhouse gases? This is a comprehensive guide of various energy sources and the amount of CO2 they contribute to the environment.

Whenever climate change topic comes up, so do greenhouse gases. Why? They have been the main culprits of global warming and climate change.

Greenhouse gases can come from many sources, although human activities contribute the largest source. Currently, the most notorious human activity in greenhouse gas generation is the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. Whether it’s for heat production, electricity, agriculture, or even transport, it always results in greenhouse gases.

Identifying which energy source generates the least greenhouse gases is paramount if we are to change this narrative. That’s why we will look into the various sources of energy to see which one offers the best alternative for a greenhouse gas-free world.

sources of energy

Types of Greenhouse Gases

Gases that contribute to the greenhouse effects are referred to as greenhouse gases. These gases absorb infrared radiation from the sun, trapping its heat inside our atmosphere. This results in global warming and climate change.

Global warming has numerous negative effects, including extreme weather, rise in sea level due to ice melting, species extinction, etc. Without a remedy, this will only get worse.

The main greenhouse gases from human activities and energy production include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and industrial gases like Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

In energy production, carbon dioxide is the main emission, which has significant effects on our environment.

Which Energy Source Generates the Least Greenhouse Gases?

So, what energy source is the most environmentally friendly? Well, let’s discuss the various sources of energy to find out. Generally, the main energy sources include water, sun, wind, fossil fuels, nuclear, and biomass

1. Fossil Fuels

As mentioned earlier, fossil fuels are the main contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels include coal, natural gas, and oil.

Currently, almost everything in the world runs on fossil fuels. For instance, oil is used for transport and heating, coal for generating electricity, and natural gas for heating. All the activities will eventually lead to the emission of greenhouse gases that end up in our atmosphere.

Burning fossil fuels releases massive amounts of CO2. This is a major greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Currently, global warming has risen by around 1°C, and if this rise hits 1.5 °C, the results would be devastating, as various studies warn.

According to a 2018 study by the IPCC (intergovernmental panel on climate change), fossil fuels and industries contribute to around 89% of the planet’s CO2 emissions. Now, this is massive! The research also showed that:

  • Coal contributes the highest amount of carbon dioxide, accounting for more than 0.3°C of the total global temperature rise. This means that coal is the largest single source of global average temperature rise.
  • Oil, when burned, also releases substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. In fact, it contributes to around 1/3 of the planet’s carbon emissions. Even worse, if this oil spills on land or water bodies, the results can be devastating.
  • Natural gas is often considered the better option of the three fossil fuel options. However, it also generates a significant amount of carbon to the atmosphere – around 1/5 of the global emissions.

Reducing fossil fuels usage by finding other more eco-friendly sources of energy is our only way out. If we want to protect our planet, the IPCC cautions that we should half, the carbon emissions from fossil fuels within the next 11 years. Otherwise, we will hit that dangerously high 1.5°C average increase.

See Related: Sunrun vs Sunpower: What’s Better?

2. Solar Energy

solar energy

The sun is one of the greenest sources of energy. Solar energy systems used in the generation of electricity produce zero greenhouse gases, thus causing no harm to the atmosphere. This means that solar energy can be an ideal alternative to fossil fuels in the race towards curbing global warming.

However, critics still have reservations about solar energy. They say that carbon dioxide is emitted during the manufacturing process of solar panels. Well, that is certainly true!

Solar panels used in the generation of solar power are mainly made of silicon. In their manufacturing process, silicon requires significantly high heat levels to enable shaping. This means that it’s true when the critics claim that the process produces CO2.

However, the amount produced is insignificant compared to what fossil fuels generate. This makes the process to be still considered a greener and safer source of energy.

But how much is insignificant in this case?

How much CO2 does the Manufacturing Process of Solar Panels Release?

To determine which energy source generates the least greenhouse gases, we must understand how much CO2 each energy source is responsible for. For instance, while solar energy is green and renewable, it’s still associated with some levels of CO2 production during solar panels production.

Typically, this process produces CO2 equal to around 50g for every kilowatt-hour in the first years of the panels’ operation. This amount of CO2 is almost 20 times less than what other energy sources like coal generates. In this light, solar panels will be free of carbon debt in about three years of power generation.

So, when we want to protect and preserve our environment, solar energy can certainly be a way out. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint and save the planet, turning to solar energy is a great choice. And, there are numerous high-quality but affordable solar panels you can buy online for this purpose.

You can start saving the world by determining your carbon footprint with this calculator.

See related: 10 Most Eco-Friendly Cars for Any Lifestyle

3. Wind Power

wind energy source

Wind power is another renewable source of energy that can go a long way in helping us reduce our carbon footprint and revert the global warming catastrophe.

Generally, wind energy is among the most eco-friendly ways to generate electricity. Wind turbines release zero emissions that can cause air or water pollution (except on rare occasions) during operation.

If we harness more wind energy to generate electricity, the world can start turning the wheels of global warming. This is because the demand for fossil fuels like coal and oil will significantly reduce, resulting in fewer carbon emissions in the air. 

Remember, more green energy means less air pollution, and subsequently, a happy environment. Reduced global warming also means fewer species extinction cases and growth in biodiversity

Also, one wind turbine in your home will have a significantly small physical footprint. You don’t need too much land to set up your home’s wind power source. And while larger wind farms will require extensive tracts of land, they are usually set up in the mountains or oceans, where their effect is less felt.

The only time wind energy is associated with CO2 emissions is during the manufacturing and transportation of the turbines and on-site construction. However, the amount of CO2 emitted is still significantly low, around 20g for every kilowatt of electricity produced.

See Related: How Are Fossil Fuels Taken from the Earth?

4. Hydro Energy

Hydropower is an excellent source of clean and renewable energy. For this reason, it is mostly used to generate commercial electricity. By building a barrier on a water reservoir, a controlled flow of water is created to drive turbines, generating electricity.

Generally, this source of green energy can be more reliable compared to other renewable energy sources like wind or solar. This is especially when using tidal power rather than rivers, whose water flow can vary.

However, despite this being a green source of energy, some projects can still lead to CO2 emissions. Research shows that reservoirs created from hydropower dams can be a source of greenhouse gases as flooded organic materials decompose. However, in other instances, the same reservoir can become a carbon sink by absorbing more carbon from the air than it usually produces.

All in all, research shows that replacing fossil fuels with hydropower in the production of electricity has prevented over 100 billion tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere in a span of only 50 years. This is way more than the amount nuclear power has averted.

See Related: Is It too Late to Stop Climate Change? Fast Facts to Know

5. Nuclear Power

Typically, nuclear power reactors will emit zero greenhouse gases during operations. However, nuclear will produce some carbon emissions during its lifecycle. It produces a similar amount of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour of electricity as that of wind energy.

On the other hand, it produces just a third of the CO2 emissions that solar energy generates per kilowatt-hour. This makes nuclear energy one of the greenest sources of energy in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, despite not being a renewable energy source. 

But how does it work? Generally, when atoms split, they generate a lot of heat. This heat is what a nuclear power reactor uses to generate steam, which drives turbines that generate electricity. The splitting process, also known as atom fission, generates zero greenhouse gases. 

So, still, wondering what energy does not produce greenhouse gases? Nuclear power is one of those.

Nuclear power is thus an excellent alternative to fossil fuels in the generation of electricity as it doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse effect. In 2018, 10.5% of the global electricity came from nuclear power.

See related: Climate Change Quotes That Will Surprise You

6. Biomass Energy

biomass energy

Biomass energy is a green and renewable source of energy. In fact, it’s an excellent alternative to fossil fuels.

While biomass burning results in CO2, a greenhouse gas, it typically doesn’t release additional CO2 into the atmosphere. How? Well, the amount of CO2 released during biomass burning is the same amount that these plants capture and remove from the environment.

This means that it’s a balance equation. No extra carbon dioxide!

Biomass can be used for heating, cooking, and transport, replacing too much use of fossil fuels like natural gas and oil. Also, this form of energy is renewable as we can always plant new plants.

Comparison: Which Energy Source Generates the Least Greenhouse Gases?

  • Natural gas – 270g to 910g per kilowatt hour
  • Coal – 635g to 1.6 kg/kilowatt hour
  • Wind – maximum 20g/ kilowatt hour
  • Solar – maximum 50g/ kilowatt hour
  • Nuclear – average 12g/ kilowatt-hour
  • Biofuels – 39g/one megajoule of energy

With these figures, it’s easy to determine which energy source generates the least greenhouse gases and which one best suits your efforts of reducing your carbon footprint. According to the figures, nuclear is the one energy source that produces the least amount of greenhouse gases. However, nuclear can only be applicable in commercial energy production.

Related Resources