Are Fossil Fuels Really Bad for the Environment?
Energy sustains life. Without it, billions of people on the planet would be left hungry and shivering. At present, the major source of global energy in industrialized and developing countries comes from fossil fuels, more specifically, crude oil, coal and natural gas. Oil is currently the most consumed form of fossil fuel for energy conversion, followed by coal and natural gas.
As the world population continues to grow, the production of energy from fossil fuels is also expected to increase. However, the amount of fossil fuels that can be used is also diminishing, making it extremely difficult for mankind to meet energy demand. We must look towards renewable energy resources, like geothermal power or solar power, in order to overcome a scenario in which we run out of fossil fuels.
But the depletion of fossil fuel reserve isn’t the only reason we should consider using renewable energy resources more. When we use fuels to produce electricity, or power our cars, we are also releasing toxic substances (like carbon) into the atmosphere, thus contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Greenhouse gases create an invisible blanket around our planet that traps the sun’s heat making global temperatures rise, climates change, glaciers melt, and water levels increase. Furthermore, air pollution resulted from the manufacturing process of fossil fuels is bad for human health.
These effects have led many to believe that fossil fuels must be replaced as soon as possible if we are to secure a future for the next generation. Non-profit organizations, like the Breakthrough Energy Movement, are were created to educate the public about sustainable energy technologies that are clean and world-changing.
Fossil fuel production is currently dealing with fierce opposition from supporters of sustainable energy and eco-friendly solutions. Their strong arguments are backed by innumerable studies and real-life examples. Still, fossil fuels production cannot stop altogether. This would leave hundreds of cities in darkness, and millions of cars powerless. There most be a compromise.
If you study the environmental impacts of sustainable energy sources, you will see that, while minor, each has several negative impacts on the environment. We believe that, although present manufacturing methods for fossil fuels are damaging to the environment, other more advanced methods can be used to push their production towards a sustainable future. A future were renewable resources, and fossil fuels are used to create energy without harming the environment.
Table of Contents:
1. Are Fossil Fuels Really Bad for the Environment? Why Can’t we Quit Fossil Fuels?
2. Fossil Fuels Pros and Cons.
3. Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels.
4. Fossil Fuel Cost
5. The Future of Fossil Fuels – Fossil Fuels & Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Future
6. Fossil Fuel FAQ
Fossil Fuel Definition
The definition of fossil fuels is given to us by several online dictionaries:
“Any combustible organic material, as oil, coal or natural gas, derived from the remains of former life.” Source: Fossil fuels definition according to Dictionary.com
Are Fossil Fuels Really Bad for the Environment?
Fossil fuels, by themselves, are not bad for the environment. However, the consequences of burning fossil fuels are dire, to say the least. In the following guide, we want to address questions like “Why are fossil fuels bad for human health?” and “Why are fossil fuels bad for the environment?”, but also, discuss sustainable alternatives to using fossil fuels in the future.
Burning fossil fuels is, first of all, detrimental to our health. The fact of the matter is this: humans & animals need fresh air for good health. Because fossil fuel powered cars or fossil fuel plants release harmful gases (smog) like monoxide, sulphur oxides, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the air we breathe is no longer clean. The negative impacts of fossil fuel burning are constantly brought up by medical professionals and wildlife experts.
The biggest environmental impact of fossil fuels has to do with global warming. Carbon dioxide, notorious for trapping heat in the atmosphere, is the gas that is emitted the must during fossil fuel burning. Scientists claim that if current levels of carbon dioxide do not decrease, Earth will become warmer this century, resulting in severe climate changes. Other harmful effects of fossil fuels are difficult to track, but they include water pollution, acid rain, and lung disease in animals and humans.
The answer to “Are fossil fuels dangerous for the environment?” is yes. Everybody knows fossil fuels are dangerous, yet nobody is doing anything to stop this. Why?
Why Can’t we Quit Fossil Fuels?
There are three reasons why many countries can’t quit fossil fuels:
- They cannot cover energy demand without it.
- Environmentally-conscious policies are not among their top priorities.
- Their economy cannot support sustainable energy solutions.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Renewable energy resources have been proven to work. Geothermal and tidal plants, solar screens and wind turbines have the level of technology required to produce electricity and heat. But they’re expensive. For all the papers written on the subject of climate change, and all the energy movements that took place in the last century, the challenge comes down to this: fossil fuels are incredibly useful, terrifyingly valuable and extremely important, geopolitically.
Why would any businessman leave them on the ground, by choice, to combat problems that will probably not affect his life in anyway?
We may be hearing more about the incredible advancements made in green technology and the decrease in population growth, so why aren’t carbon emissions going down? The crux is that the environment doesn’t care that we are making our cars more fuel efficient, or that we’re turning the lights off one hour every year. What it cares about is how much globe-warming pollution our factories emit.
In fact, a graph that shows all the carbon emissions that humans have released into the atmosphere demonstrates a clear exponential curve stretching all the way to the 1850s. Take a closer look at the last decade, and you will observe some overlooked, and extremely worrying information: all the scientific work and clean technology has made absolutely no difference on a global scale.
The carbon curve just won’t let up, despite emissions falling in the US and Europe, because of an effect similar to that of squeezing a balloon: gains made in one place are cancelled out by mistakes made in another. Carbon emissions will never decrease as long as new fossil fuel plants continue to open, or as long as we continue to increase the burning of coal and oil.
This is why fuel saving techniques and fuel economy is important on the long run.
Fossil Fuels Pros and Cons
By now, most people are aware of the pros and cons of fossil fuels. We simply wish to make them clear for our readers. When debating the impacts of fossil fuels on the environment and human life, we must take into account the good and the bad. A life without fossil fuels may ultimately benefit the environment, but what strains would it put on human life?
According to Ask.com, deficiency of fossil fuels in the past would have meant a much smaller population today, absence of communism, scarcity of food supplies and a weaker understanding of human history, among others.
Advantages of Fossil Fuels
- Ability to generate enormous amounts of electricity.
- Cost effective and in abundant supply.
- They have high calorific value.
- Highly stable when compared to other substances.
- Fossil fuels can easily be transported from one location to another.
- They can be stored for long periods of time.
- They can power the entire globe.
- Power stations for fossil fuels can be constructed in almost any location.
- Recent studies show that they have potential of sustained development (more on this later).
Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels
- Air pollution (contributing to the greenhouse effect) and acid rains.
- Dangerous to human health.
- Use of crude oil can cause environmental hazards (oil spills etc.) and water pollution.
- Coal mining may result in the destruction of vast land areas.
- Power stations that use coal require a large amount of fuel.
- Rising prices. Middle-east countries, which have abundant supplies of oil and natural gas, are putting hefty price tags on their resources.
- Fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas are non-renewable.
Environmental Impact of Fossil Fuels
The environmental impact of fossil fuels includes global warming, deterioration of air quality, acid rain, climate changes, oil spills, land pollution, thermal pollution, destruction of natural habitats, etc. The best way to identify environmental problems related to fossil fuels is to take a closer look at the process chain:
- Research. Although fossil fuels are accessible and plentiful, it takes around 2-3 years only to conduct research. During this phase, natural habitats and ecosystems may be destroyed, even if the deposit will not be used.
- Drilling phase. Once a site is opened for extracting, the natural landscape is altered to fit machinery and workers. This means that the environment will become inhospitable for plants and animals that used to inhabit it.
- Extraction. Without a doubt the most polluting phase. One of the biggest environmental concerns during this stage is debris. A lot of waste, which also consists of chemical materials, is left behind and pollutes the soil. Substances are absorbed by the soil and enter the circle of life, ultimately affecting all the members of the chain.
- Cleaning phase. During the cleaning phase, polluted water is left on the ground. It affects wildlife as well as plants. Nevertheless, the biggest danger during this stage is water pollution. Water used to cleanse fossil fuels (oil and coal) generally ends up in the sea or ocean, where it affects marine life.
- Transportation, refinement and production. During these three phases, many toxic substances are released. Burning fossil fuels result in gas emissions that lead to the greenhouse effect and acid rains.
Fossil Fuel Cost
Coal, oil and natural gas represent the primary source of energy for the United States, accounting for over 85% of fuel use. Many of the costs associated with fossil fuels are obvious: the cost of labour, the cost of transportation, the coast of drilling and refining materials, the cost of building energy-generating facilities, etc. All of these costs are taken into account when setting the price of gasoline or electricity bills. But there are other fossil fuel costs that are not included in your bill.
These costs are not covered by the companies that produce energy, nor by the government. They are paid by society. These hidden costs refer to the degradation of air quality, health problems, damage to the land, environmental issues, water pollution, acid rain, and so on.
In comparison to other sources of energy, fossil fuels are still considered cheap.
Recommended Read: Fuel Cost Calculator & Fuel Economy Tips
Cost of Solar Energy vs. Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels are slowly starting to lose their cost advantage over solar and wind energy. With the advancement of technology, the price of producing energy (electricity) from renewable resources has dropped significantly. The last five years have narrowed the gap between the cost of fossil fuels and the cost of wind/solar energy.
“The costs of renewable technologies – in particular solar photovoltaic – have declined significantly over the past five years. These technologies are no longer cost outliers.” IEA in a report called ‘Projected Costs of Generating Electricity | Source: Bloomberg
The median cost of manufacturing, what specialists refer to as ‘baseload power’ has decreased from $500 (in 2010) to $200 (in 2015) for a megawatt-hour for solar energy, while the cost to produce a megawatt-hour in an atomic plant, or with natural gas, costs around $100.
Note: these costs take into account the cost of production, maintenance, fuelling and dismantling installations. Nevertheless, prices may vary greatly according to the type of technology used and location.
As far as power generation from gas and coal is concerned, the average cost of production has increased over the five-year period because deposits are running low. At the moment, these costs are roughly on par with those of solar and wind power plants. What’s more, the price of coal and gas is expected to grow, especially if new technologies are deployed to protect the environment (example: equipment to capture carbon emissions).
“New utility-size solar installations could produce power for less than $100 a megawatt-hour before 2025 in the sunniest regions while panels on rooftops could reach that level five years later.” Source : Bloomberg
The Future of Fossil Fuels
As we burn coal, gas and oil, the world is getting warmer. To avoid the worst impacts of global warming, different nations have agreed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. In order to meet this target, global emissions must remain within a carbon limit of 5 to 9 giga-tones of carbon dioxide emissions. For this to happen, the world’s biggest producers have agreed to limit their exploitation.
For coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, the situation is looking bleak. Over 82% of today’s reserves must be left unburned. The situation for gas is looking better, as only 50% of global reserves must remain unburned. Oil has the lowest value of unburnable fuel. Less than a third of it will be left unused.
“One lesson of this work is unmistakably obvious – when you’re in a hole, stop digging (…) Given these numbers, it makes literally no sense for the industry to go hunting for more fossil fuel. We’ve binged to the edge of our own destruction. The last thing we need now is to find a few more liquor stores to loot.” Bill McKibben, founder of gofossilfree.org
Fossil Fuels & Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Generation
If we continue to burn fossil fuels, the negative impacts on the environment will be irreparable. But this doesn’t mean that there is no future for fossil fuels. We have the technological capability to utilize fossil fuels without emitting greenhouse gases or other forms of pollution. Transitioning from conventional gas and coal to cleaner-burning fuels and unconventional fossil fuels will decrease energy demand for developing countries. Furthermore, due to the vast availability of fossil fuels, coal will continue to remain one of the cheapest energy resources.
Jaccard Mark wrote an incredibly detailed study and plan for the next 85 years, entitled “F.F. and clean, plentiful energy in the 21st century: the example of coal“, where he details the steps of capturing, transporting and storing carbon so that it is no longer released into the atmosphere.
Another study conducted by Siemens tackles fossil fuels and renewable energy and claims that a balanced power mix of the two will help us shape a clean future.
A combined cycle power plant (CCPP) is among the most efficient power generators fired with fossil fuels. They combine a gas turbine with a steam turbine to produce twice the energy yield from the fossil fuels they consume, enhancing overall energy efficiency by up to 60 percent.
These are only two studies, out of many, that outline alternative energy production strategies with fossil fuels. It becomes therefore clear that sustainable strategies can also be applied to pave a future for fossil fuels.
Frequently Asked Questions about Fossil Fuels
Below is a list of frequently asked questions regarding the production, use, formation and global impacts of fossil fuels:
1. How are Fossil Fuels Formed
Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuels aren’t formed from the carcasses of dinosaurs. Fossil fuels are formed from the remains of animals and plants that died several hundreds of millions of years ago (many years before the first dinosaurs). Their remains have been buried in the earth, decomposed under layers of mud and transformed by pressure and heat.
During the millions of years that passed, different kinds of fossil fuels formed, depending on the type of animal or plant debris, how long the remains were buried, and what conditions of pressure and temperature existed. For example, natural gas and oils are formed from marine organisms that were buried under river or ocean sediments. Before these prehistoric rivers and seas dissipated, heat, bacteria and pressure ‘cooked’ the organic material under layers of silt.
Coal is formed from the remains of dead ferns, plants and trees that occupied the Earth over 300-400 million years ago. In some areas of eastern United States, coal was formed in swamps covered by sea water. Because the water contained abnormal amounts of sulphur, and water eventually dried up, the sulphur was left behind in the coal. Other coal deposits were formed in freshwater swamps, so they have very little sulphur in them.
2. What are the Most Important Types of Fossil Fuels?
A 2014 study of electricity generation by fossil fuel type shows coal as the number one fossil fuel (with 38.8%), natural gas as the second most important fossil fuel (with 27.4%), and nuclear energy as third (with 19.5%). Interestingly enough, renewables also provide 13.2% of electricity in the United States.
2.1. Is Coal a Fossil Fuel?
Coal is one of the most important fossil fuels, and is responsible with nearly 39% of electric power in the United States. The combustion of coal is extremely dangerous for the environment because it releases air pollutants and acid-rain inducing sulphur dioxide (making coal responsible for 32% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.). Coal production and consumption is expected to decrease dramatically over the years.
2.2. Is Natural Gas a Fossil Fuel?
Natural gas is also an important fossil fuel. It is used in the production of electricity and heat for homes and industrial buildings. It can also be used to manufacture paints, plastics and fertilizers. Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil (nearly zero sulphur dioxide emissions and very low nitrogen oxide emissions), it has become the preferred fossil fuel in the last decade.
2.3. Is Petroleum a Fossil Fuel?
Petroleum is a yellow-to-black liquid found in geological formations that can be refined into various types of fuel. Petroleum is dangerous to the environment because it can damage ecosystems (through spills) and release pollutants into the air.
2.4. Is Uranium a Fossil Fuel?
The status of Uranium as an energy resource has long been debated. Although the Planet could, technically, run out of Uranium, this will not happen any time soon. Some online publications consider Uranium a fossil fuel, others don’t. Judging by the definition given to fossil fuels, Uranium could be considered one, because it comes under the form of heavy metal from soil, the ocean or rocks.
In addition to this, energy generated from a nuclear reaction (with uranium) is similar to the process used on fossil fuels. However, we believe that Uranium is NOT a fossil fuel because it is an extremely common in rocks worldwide (100 times more common than silver).
2.5. Is Hydrogen a Fossil Fuel?
Hydrogen is NOT a fossil fuel because it is renewable.
2.3. Is Wood a Fossil Fuel?
Because wood has not undergone fossilization processes, it cannot be considered a fossil fuel. Wood is considered
3. Are Fossil Fuels Renewable?
Fossil fuels are continuously forming, but because it takes millions of years for their processes to be completed, they are considered non-renewable. Because we use them much faster than they form, they are considered a one-time gift to the human race.
4. What are Fossil Fuels Used for?
Fossil fuels are mostly used in the production of electricity. As a matter of fact, 84% of energy in the United States comes from the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. Different types of fossil fuels are also used to heat homes, power vehicles, power manufacturing industries, and in the creation of clothing accessories, tires, tennis balls, etc.
5. What are Fossil Fuels Made of?
Fossil fuels are made out of combustible geologic deposits of plant and organic materials that have decayed and transformed over millions of years.
6. Why are Fossil Fuels Important?
At the moment, fossil fuel energy is the only the of energy capable of covering global demand. Without them, we couldn’t operate our cars, enjoy electricity, grow plants during winter & more. Fossil fuels are essential to human life.
7. How Long Will Fossil Fuels Last?
Although this number is frequently argued upon, it is believed that oil and natural gas will run out in approximately 55 years, while coal will run out in over 100 years. This means that we have managed to deplete resources that were formed in over 66 million years in less than 200 years.
8. Are Fossil Fuels Bad?
Fossil fuels aren’t bad. The burning of fossil fuels is bad and has severe impacts on the quality of air, human life and the environment.
9. What is the Most Abundant Fossil Fuel?
The most abundant fossil fuel, and also the one with the longest history, is coal. The United States is the country with the largest reserve of coal.
10. What is the Global Fossil Fuel Consumption?
You can examine the global fossil fuel consumption in the below graph.
Global energy consumption for fossil fuels.