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Future energy demand and supply
Future energy demand and supply

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3 Environmental consequences of fossil fuel combustion

Water vapour, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, ash, soot and fuel particles are all released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels burn. The types of emissions produced by burning any given fossil fuel are similar, whether the fuel is burned to generate electricity in power stations, to provide domestic heat, or for transportation. Chemical and physical conditions of combustion are different for each of these applications, so the blend of emissions varies depending on usage as well as the type of fuel. To give one example, atmospheric smoke concentrations in London have fallen more than tenfold since 1960 with the switch away from coal for home heating and electricity generation, but nowadays over 70% of the particulates in London air come from the exhausts of diesel-fuelled commercial vehicles.

Water vapour is one of the most significant emissions from fuel burning in terms of quantity, but since it is naturally part of the water cycle there is little concern over introducing more water vapour into the atmosphere. Three effects stemming from the changing composition of the atmosphere currently cause concern: acid rain; a decline in air quality; and, most significantly, global warming through enhancement of the greenhouse effect.