Fossil fuels have become so much part of our daily lives for more than a century that we are using them directly or indirectly in every single thing we do. Sadly, we are paying dearly for this absolute dependence with carbon dioxide emissions, aka carbon footprints.
The food we eat, the clothes we wear, and even a workout at the gym leave carbon footprints. When you drive/fly to meet your family or have a baby, you are contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Do you know that your social media activities and even regular internet use are not exempt from carbon emissions? While a Google search accounts for 0.2gms of co2, loading a webpage releases 2-10 gms of co2, 0.3 gms of co2 for spam mail, and half an hour of social media use emits 42 gms of co2.
And, you thought you are doing everything right! Don’t worry, you are not alone.
Most of us are not aware of how we are contributing to GHG emissions, and consequently, global warming and climate change. These are some of the hidden costs of our dependency on fossil fuels.
Of course, there are the more visible consequences of relying on fossil fuels for our energy needs. Carbon emissions only form a part of the damages, though a significant one, that fossil fuels bring with them.
Burning fossil fuels has inflicted a heavy toll on us, humans, and the environment – from polluting air, land, and water to the emission of co2, a greenhouse gas. Besides this, we also need to take into account the devastating effects of petroleum-based products like chemicals and plastics.
Read on to learn more about how we are harming this beautiful planet with our refusal to let go of fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources like solar energy and wind power.
What is a fossil fuel?
Fossil fuel refers to all naturally occurring fuel resources that are formed from the fossilized remains of living organisms. The three most common fossil fuels we use are coal, oil, and natural gas.
While coal is formed from the remains of dead vegetation, oil or petroleum is formed from the remains of ancient marine organisms like plants, algae, and bacteria. These plant and animal remains got buried under the soil or seabed millions of years ago and got fossilized.
When geological forces like intense heat and pressure acted on these fossils, they turned into carbon-rich substances. By this time, more layers of soil and debris got added on top of this. We have to drill wells and dig mines into the earth’s crust to extract fossil fuels from rock and other geological formations.
Carbon and hydrogen are the building blocks in the bodies of plants and animals. During their lifetime, these plants and animals store energy in the hydrocarbon structure present in themselves. This energy will continue to remain in the fossils and it is this stored energy that we use when we burn fossil fuels.
What are the different fossil fuels?
Besides the more known fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas, there are lesser-known and less used ones like oil shales, tar sands, bitumen, and heavy oils. All are formed from the fossilized remains of plant or animal matter on the action of geological forces over millions of years.
Coal is a black sedimentary rock rich in carbon and hydrocarbon. It is readily combustible and when burned it releases the energy stored in it millions of years ago. This energy, on burning, gets converted to heat energy, which can be used to generate electricity and get other work done.
Coal is extracted either by surface mining or underground mining. Both methods are detrimental to the environment, though surface mining, also known as strip mining is considered more harmful.
Related: Coal Disadvantages and Advantages
Oil or petroleum
Petroleum means rock oil in Latin and that is exactly what it is. It is a liquid fuel composed primarily of hydrocarbons. Oil is found deep underground in huge reservoirs in the pores, crevices, cracks of sedimentary rock. Tar sand and oil shale found near the surface of the earth is another source of oil.
Oil is extracted by drilling on the earth’s crust, be it on land or at sea. In the case of tar sand and oil shale, strip mining is used for extraction. Once extracted in its crude form, oil is refined in refineries to convert it into variable usable fuel forms like gasoline, jet fuel, propane, and kerosene. Paint and plastics are also petroleum products.
The least polluting of the three fossil fuels, natural gas is mostly composed of methane and ethane with traces of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium, and hydrogen sulfide. It is a colorless, odorless, and highly inflammable gaseous form of hydrocarbon.
While conventional natural gas is extracted by drilling from oil reservoirs or porous, permeable rock beds, unconventional natural gas is obtained by a method known as fracking.
What are the disadvantages of fossil fuels?
Fossil fuels are termed “dirty” for the pollution and other harmful emissions they release into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we became aware of the consequences of burning fossil fuels too late. By then, fossil fuels and their derivatives had already become an integral part of our lives.
We cannot repeat and emphasize enough the importance of switching to cleaner and renewable energy resources. Here is a comprehensive list of disadvantages of using fossil fuels.
As mentioned earlier, fossil fuels take millions of years to form. At the rate at which we are using it up, the known deposits of fossil fuels are expected to last us for about 50-100 years. This makes them practically nonrenewable.
Coal is expected to last for about 100 years, while oil and natural gas reserves will last us for 50 years.
2. Extraction is dangerous
Drilling and mining are both dangerous to the environment and human life. Even with the advancements in technology, we are unable to eliminate mining disasters. Both mine collapses and mine explosions are costing us lives as well as destroying the environment. For more on this topic, see our article on why is burning fossil fuels bad for the environment.
3. Refining is equally dangerous
As we are dealing with highly inflammable and volatile substances, refinery disasters are not completely unavoidable. Fires and explosions at refineries and oil rigs are common occurrences, risking the lives of people working there and adding to the pollution and emissions.
4. Oil spills and contaminating water resources
Oil spills happen too often despite technological advances and elaborate precautions. Accidents in oil rigs, refineries, bursting pipelines, or explosions in refineries and storage facilities are way too common for comfort. Some of them are attributed to sabotage, deliberate acts, or mistakes.
Incidences of oil tankers and barges colliding or running aground can lead to oil spills in rivers and oceans. This can be either because of accidents or human error. Either way, this leads to contamination of water bodies and the death of marine creatures.
5. Fracking contaminates groundwater
Fracking is harmful to the environment on many counts, the most serious one being the poisoning of the water table. If all goes well as planned, nothing bad is supposed to happen. But often that is not the case. Accidents, human error, laxity about precautions, and errors in calculations can lead to contamination of the water supply.
6. Air pollution
During fossil fuel combustion, toxic gasses are released into the atmosphere. One of the most harmful among them is nitrogen oxide. Vehicles, factories, and thermal power plants contribute substantially to toxic emissions. When sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxide, it contributes to the formation of smog. Smog is a serious health risk, causing asthma and lung cancer.
Even without burning, gasoline, paints, and solvents release volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere.
7. Acid rain
When nitrogen oxide reacts with sulfur dioxide in the presence of oxygen, water, and other chemicals in the atmosphere, precipitation happens. The acidic rain comes down as rain, snow, hail, fog, or dust.
One of the major contributing factors to acid rain is the burning of fossil fuels in large quantities in power plants. Acid rain pollutes land and water, besides causing damage to plant and animal life and buildings.
8. Mercury emission
During the fossil fuel combustion in power plants, mercury gets released into the atmosphere. Mining is another activity that contributes to mercury emissions. Mercury, though occurring naturally on the earth, is highly toxic. The emitted mercury comes back to the earth to contaminate land and water bodies.
9. CO2 emission and global warming
One of the major byproducts of fossil fuel combustion is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. As we use fossil fuels in our everyday life, we are generating large quantities of this greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, the presence of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the heat and raising the atmospheric temperature.
This blanket of greenhouse gasses prevents the earth from cooling down, leading to global warming. This has serious consequences like the melting of ice caps, the rise of sea levels, and climate change. The domino effect of global warming is felt in food production, availability of freshwater, weather patterns, and submerging of coastal areas.
10. Harmful to wildlife
From extraction, transport, refining, and burning of fossil fuels are done without considering the impact it will have on the environment, especially wildlife. Once fossil fuel deposits are identified, nothing else matters other than setting up infrastructure for extraction. Vast tracts of land are rendered usable and the environment together with plant and animal life gets destroyed in the process.
11. Health consequences
The numerous toxic byproducts generated during fossil fuel combustion are released into the atmosphere, that is the air we breathe. Besides air pollution and global warming, breathing in the poisonous gasses pose serious health threats to human beings, including asthma, respiratory diseases, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and cardiovascular issues.
Air pollution is estimated to cause 4.2 million deaths every year.
12. The more we have, the more we want
The quantity of fossil fuels available to us is never enough. As we extract more and more, the demand keeps going up, rendering the available resources insufficient. This is most felt in power generation. To keep up with energy demand, production needs to go up and this necessitates vast quantities of coal.
13. Enslaved by fossil fuels
Fossil fuel sources or deposits are found in only some areas of the world, forcing the rest of the countries to depend on imports to meet their demand. Over-reliance on imports can be detrimental to the security of countries like the United States. Often oil-producing nations use this as leverage to create undesirable situations for importing countries.
14. Economic consequences
The world is divided into fossil fuel producers and importers, with fewer producers. This is a perfect scenario for market manipulation and wild fluctuations in prices. A select few countries can bring down production or increase it to suit their selfish purposes, while the importing nations are at their mercy. And, this is having a huge impact on the economies of world countries.
The world fossil fuel market is estimated to be $2.1 trillion in 2021.
Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?
The world is addicted to fossil fuels for a reason. Despite all its disadvantages, it comes with a long list of advantages as well. The question is whether we can ignore the adverse consequences and continue along the same path.
The short answer is an emphatic no. For the simple reason that the consequences of burning fossil fuels are posing a serious threat to our existence. It has the potential to wipe out the human race in the future if we continue along this path.
There are many more reasons why we should shed our dependence on fossil fuels. But none of them matter anymore in front of our existential threat.
Are alternative energy resources better than fossil fuels?
In the 1960s and 70s when the world woke up to the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, the search began for alternative energy resources to replace them. We wanted an efficient and reliable energy resource, that is clean, sustainable, and renewable.
In this search, we rediscovered some of the traditional energy sources like solar energy, wind power, and geothermal energy. They are clean energy sources and satisfy all these conditions. In fact, they are at the other end of the spectrum in every way when compared to fossil fuels.
However, the challenge we face today is to shake off our overdependence on fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy.
Related: Fossil Fuels Vs Renewable Energy
Why are we finding it hard to stop using fossil fuels despite knowing the consequences?
The reasons are too many. The convenience that fossil fuels afford us is one of the primary reasons. Again, the established players in the fossil fuel industry are reluctant to let go of their control over the energy market. Moreover, something new will take time to establish itself.
As the awareness of the adverse consequences of fossil fuels grows, the transformation is bound to happen. Discarding set practices and setting up the new infrastructure like solar panels and wind turbines is a time-consuming process.
Discontinuing fossil fuels may be hard but the truth is that it is no longer a choice for us. It is time for us to choose between fossil fuels and our future.
The silver lining is that we will run out of fossil fuels soon. But the question is will it be soon enough? Where will we be when this happens? Do we need to find out the answer to this question at all?