Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Sustainable Energy for University Science Majors: Developing Guidelines for Educators

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Sustainable Energy for University Science Majors: Developing Guidelines for Educators

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Sustainability is a vision for human and environmental development that uses Earth's resources so as not to deplete them and minimizes the potential damage to the planet. Sustainability has many aspects, some practical-such as the effect of pollution and waste on health issues and some ethical-such as providing equity in the control and use of natural resources. However, if one topic is to be chosen as most important for sustainable development, it would be the management and use of energy (Raven, 2002).

The main issue at stake in relation to energy use is climate change. The December 2015 Paris Climate Summit has defined a global goal-keeping the average global temperature from reaching 2°C above preindustrial levels by reducing CO2 emissions (Cornwall, 2015). The quantity of manmade CO2 emissions is the product of four components: the number of people, services (per person), energy (per service), and CO2 emitted per energy unit produced (Gates, 2010). Assuming that governmental actions that curb population growth (e.g., by limiting the number of babies per family in China) are unethical and that allowing the services people use (e.g., public transportation, indoor temperature control, lighting) to improve is an inherent incentive for economic and technological development, one needs to address the latter two factors-energy per service and CO2 emitted per energy unit-to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy per service is related to the efficiency of energy transformations. That is, to promote a more sustainable future, we need to find ways to increase the efficiency of the processes in which energy is being used to manufacture goods, move people and goods around, heat houses, etc. Although this factor is significant, the most important factor is investigating available energy resources as well as the environmental and economic tradeoffs that are incurred in using them. Solar, wind, and hydropower sources, as well as various nuclear energy resources, emit only marginal amounts of greenhouse gases in mining the materials for the power generators and building them (Hoffert et al., 2002). However, the utility of renewables like wind, hydro, and solar depends largely on the local climate and geography. Thus the aforementioned Paris Summit acknowledged that the actions that must take place toward achieving reduced greenhouse gas emissions vary among nations (Cornwall, 2015).

The central idea in developing a sustainable energy future is to supply the energy for the things people need, while making a minimal impact on the environment (e.g., CO2 emissions, radioactive waste). This goal is achieved by legislation that incentivizes renewable energy production and requires manufacturers to raise the standards on the efficiency of appliances and devices that provide the utility for people (e.g., heating, transportation). However, understanding the path to a more sustainable future should not be limited to politicians or decision-makers since citizens can promote legislation in a free democratic society and adapt their own behaviors to reduce emissions (e.g., when building their homes, or choosing their means for transportation). Making a personal effort to reduce emissions is often a value-driven choice because it favors a hidden benefit (of the planet) over personal comfort. Thus, understanding the science of sustainable energy may affect public values and beliefs.

In reality, public understanding of energy related concepts in general, and their environmental impact in particular, is poor. Research reports have documented student difficulties in understanding fundamental energyrelated concepts such as the law of energy conservation (Goldring and Osborne, 1994) and misunderstandings of issues related to alternative energy resources (Cheong et al., 2015). For example, about one-third of the students in the aforementioned study (Cheong et al., 2015) stated that all biodiesel products emit less greenhouse gases than regular diesel fuels, yet this is, in fact, false. …

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