Fossil Fuels and The Environment

The truth is, as most of us know, that global warming is real and humans are major contributors, mainly because we wastefully burn fossil fuels. - David Suzuki

Mickey Mouse pushes fossil fuels in this 1985 comic book.

Mickey Mouse pushes fossil fuels in this 1985 comic book.

What makes fuel energy debates confusing is that the language of resource depletion lets one make strong and accurate claims as if to justify widely divergent positions. Without a doubt, we are running out of fossil fuels; they take a long time to replace. But yes, we will never run out of fossil fuels; there will always be some amount left that are not worth extracting. You can logically argue both or you can emphasize one. In all cases, neither statement is helpful in getting to the core about why people care, and disagree, about energy. Their thoughts has more to do with differences in values, appetite for risk, time horizons, as well as urgency of competing social priorities.

“Just as fossil fuels from conventional sources are finite and are becoming depleted, those from difficult sources will also run out. If we put all our energy and resources into continued fossil fuel extraction, we will have lost an opportunity to have invested in renewable energy.” – David Suzuki.

Despite the global efforts to reduce carbon emissions through promoting clean and renewable energy resources, fossil fuels continued to dominate the global energy economy in 2012, according to new figures released by the Worldwatch Institute. Coal, natural gas and oil accounted for 87 percent of the world’s primary energy consumption last year. In the 11 wealthiest nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Overseas Development Institute estimates the market for fossil fuels ranges from $55 billion to $90 billion annually. In 2011, that number reached $74 billion, or $112 for every person alive. Not a surprising coincidence, the G20 group of nations accounted for 78% of the world’s carbon spew in 2010.

“Despite all the progress climate scientists have made in understanding the risks we run by loading the atmosphere with CO2, the world is still as addicted to fossil fuels as ever.” – Jeff Goodell

Pollution is a major disadvantage of fossil fuels. Since they give off carbon dioxide, fossil fuels worsens the greenhouse effect, which is the main contributory factor to the global warming experienced by the earth today. The use of crude oil causes pollution and poses environmental hazards such as oil spills, which happen when an oil tanker experience leaks or drowns deep under the sea. Crude oil contains toxic chemicals which cause air pollutants when combusted. Addition to the carbon dioxide, coal is a fossil fuel that also gives off sulphur dioxide, a kind of gas that creates acid rain. Environmentally, the mining of coal can often result in the destruction of various areas of land. Mining coal is also very difficult and may endanger the lives of miners. Coal mining is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

“There is hardly an activity that a person can think about that does not intrinsically involve energy, most of which is currently provided by fossil fuels.” – Lee R. Raymond.

A major advantage of all fossil fuels are their capacity to generate huge amounts of electricity at any single location. Located on every continent in the world, fossil fuels are easy to find and use. When coal is burnt in power plants, they are very cost effective. Coal is also quite abundant in supply, much easier to find than diamonds. Transporting oil and gas to the power stations can be done through pipes, which make it a remarkably easy task; power plants that utilize gas are very efficient. To top it all off, power stations that make use of fossil fuels can be constructed in almost any location. The construction is possible as long as large quantities of fuel can be easily delivered to the power plants.

“I think that the world is in the middle of a huge transition that we have to make to renewable energy. We have to transition away from fossil fuels very, very quickly.” – Josh Fox

Discussing alternatives, many sources are already widely used. Hydroelectric and nuclear energy plants generate a noticeable portion of the world’s power. Other sources, including solar energy, wind power, and biomass fuel provide a small share of the world’s power but needs development if they hope to compete with fossil fuels’ efficiency. Sources such as tidal power and geothermal heat are very site-specific, and can only be used in the right locations. Some promising technologies, for example the hydrogen fuel cell, remain under testing and rework. One key advantage of water, sunlight, wind, or plants: They are everywhere, in essentially unlimited quantities, and we just need to find the best way to use these resources to their fullest.