Ever since John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson, an English industrialist, came up with an efficient oven to convert coal into coke in the mid-18th century, there has been no looking back. We, humans, powered forward just like the first coke-fuelled steam engines.
Coal and coke are considered the supreme symbols of the Industrial Revolution. It opened up possibilities that we never thought conceivable. As more and more industries mushroomed, spewing out a wide range of products, we thanked the heavens for the invaluable gift of coal.
We learned about the potential of oil almost a century later when Col. Drake discovered it in Pennsylvania.
Together, coal and oil changed the way we, humans, live, unlike any other discovery or invention in our 200,000 years of history.
The question here is were fossil fuels, coal and oil, a boon or a bane?
For close to two centuries, we thought they were the most amazing gifts humankind can ever hope for. Though there were a few discordant notes here and there, fossil fuels were considered manna from heaven.
In the second half of the 20th century, specifically in the 1970s, the troubling news started trickling in that fossil fuels are not blessings after all. There is no doubt about what they can help you achieve but the hidden cost of burning fossil fuels slowly became evident.
After a few years spent in denial, the world finally accepted the truth – burning fossil fuels is harmful to the environment and consequently to our existence.
How do fossil fuels affect the environment?
This article is an attempt at understanding the harmful environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels. Here, we are also discussing the alternatives to replace fossil fuels and how you can help save the planet by switching to renewable energy.
What are fossil fuels?
Energy resources like coal, oil, and natural gas are called fossil fuels as they are formed as a result of the decomposition of carbon-based organisms. Since we discovered the fossil fuels in all the three avatars – solid fuels, liquid fuels, and gaseous fuels – there has been no looking back.
The plants and animals that died millions of years ago get buried and fossilized under the soil. During this period, the geological forces act on these fossilized remains and turn them into carbon-rich deposits.
While coal has its origin in dead plants, crude oil is formed from the remains of ancient marine organisms like algae and zooplankton. Natural gas originated from the remains of small sea plants and animals.
The high-carbon fossil fuels release energy when burned. The burning of fossil fuels is the most popular energy source on the earth, making up around 80% of the world’s total energy share.
The use of fossil fuels doesn’t end there. They also form an integral component in the production of plastic, steel, and a variety of common-use products.
4 Reasons Why Burning Fossil Fuels is Bad for the Environment
We have all heard umpteen times how burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. Here is an in-depth take on the adverse effects of fossil fuels on the environment.
1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
At the time fossil fuels are burned to make use of their energy, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the air as a byproduct of the reaction. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas causing considerable damage to the environment.
Greenhouse gasses tend to trap the heat in the atmosphere by forming a blanket. This phenomenon is called global warming. It is estimated that the average global temperature has gone up by 1°F in the past century. Rising temperature has numerous consequences.
One of the most direct consequences of global warming is the melting of ice caps. This leads to more water in the oceans, resulting in rising sea levels. As the sea levels rise, low-lying areas will come under water, displacing people from the region.
Global warming also leads to extreme weather events like flash floods, droughts, frequent hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. All these can result in the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of species. Food scarcity, the decline in health, malnutrition, hunger, and poverty for the most vulnerable sections of the world population are all fallouts of global warming and climate change.
2. Air pollution
While GHG emission is a silent killer, air pollution and the health hazards it poses are the more visible side effects of burning fossil fuels. When fossil fuels are burned, soot and smog are their natural by-products. Soot is the fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and smog is a mixture of smoke, harmful gasses, and chemicals.
A person breathing polluted air 24×7 has an increased risk of death from lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and a variety of respiratory illnesses like asthma.
People from lower strata of society and poorer countries are more affected by the harmful effects of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels as they don’t have the technology or wherewithal to save themselves.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 4 million people die annually worldwide as a result of air pollution.
3. Water pollution
Oil spills, blasts, and other similar accidents have resulted in fossil fuels contaminating water bodies and wiping out marine and aquatic life and vegetation.
The most prominent among such incidents are British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe that spilled 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and Enbridge’s massive tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River.
The repetition of such incidents is proof of the danger of using fossil fuels. Even with advances in technology and supposed failsafe arrangements, these kinds of events continue to happen across the world. And every time such events happen, it is the poor and the marginalized sections of society that suffer the consequences the most.
These disastrous events may happen at any stage of the process – mining, extraction, refining, transportation, or even when it is burned to generate energy.
Coal and oil extraction can also lead to groundwater contamination.
Related: Coal Disadvantages and Advantages
4. Nutrient pollution
So much is written about carbon dioxide and its deadly impacts on the environment. The lesser-known toxic pollutant when burning fossil fuels is nitrogen. Not only does it pollute the air, but it also contaminates land and water.
Nitrogen is the main component in the atmosphere and it is essential for the survival of all living beings including plants. However, the nitrogen released into the air as a result of burning coal or oil ends up upsetting the natural balance of various elements in the atmosphere.
Nitrogen, released as nitrogen oxides, is the main contributor to smog and acid rain. Industries and transportation are the main contributors to the release of nitrogen oxides. Ammonia is also a nitrogen compound released into the atmosphere due to the use of fossil fuels in agricultural activities.
Besides transportation and industries, the main contributor to nitrogen oxides is the coal-fueled power plant.
Nitrogen oxides in the air get deposited on the land and later washed into water bodies. Excess nitrogen in rivers and lakes leads to oxygen-deprived water bodies and deadly algal blooms. Excess ammonia lowers the pH level of water bodies, rendering them unsafe and toxic for aquatic organisms.
What are some alternatives to burning fossil fuels?
As the world woke up to the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, the search for alternative energy resources began. Scientists went back in time and explored the potential of traditional energy sources like the sun, wind, and water.
It took years of painstaking research to come up with efficient technologies to harness these natural energy sources. This led us to solar cells, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, biomass, and geothermal energies. All these are clean energies without any of the harmful effects to the environment as is the case with fossil fuels.
Nuclear energy is also considered a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Though it is clean and sustainable, nuclear energy comes with its own downsides.
Why should you switch to renewable energy?
All energy sources come with their own advantages and disadvantages. However, the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels overshadow their convenience and utility. Renewable energy sources may not be as efficient, powerful, or user-friendly as fossil fuels, but the switch needs to be made for the greater good.
If we continue to burn fossil fuels disregarding the evidence and warnings, we, humans, will end up destroying this beautiful planet that we all call home. It is becoming crystal clear that the only way to escape this catastrophe is to make the switch now.
Besides its toxic effects on the environment, fossil fuels are also limited in supply. At the rate at which we are guzzling it up, we will run out of fossil fuels within the next century. By switching to renewable energy, albeit partially, we can continue to enjoy the benefits of fossil fuels for a longer period.
By choosing alternative energy sources over fossil fuels, we can hope to reverse some of the damages inflicted on the environment by global warming and climate change. By reducing pollution levels, renewable energy can save millions of lives every year. Reducing severe weather conditions, job creation, and boosting the local economy are just some of the advantages of switching to renewable energy resources.
- The History of Renewable Energy
- 6 Arguments Against Renewable Energy
- Fossil Fuels Vs Renewable Energy
Burning all types of fossil fuels is bad for the environment because it emits harmful gasses into the air, which contributes to climate change. It also pollutes our water supplies and harms local ecosystems. We should all work together to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and switch to alternative energy sources, like solar and wind power.
Often we consider switching to renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. In fact, renewable energy comes with so many positive tags that there is no need to think of it as a replacement; renewable energy sources can hold their ground on their own might.
Cleaner, greener, sustainable, healthier, and affordable, renewable energy can help us become self-reliant.
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- 5 Disadvantages of Solar Energy to the Environment
- Why Do We Use Fossil Fuels Instead Of Renewable Energy
- 14 Disadvantages of Using Fossil Fuels
- Why Are Fossil Fuels Considered Nonrenewable Resources?