Energy is in the spotlight of global debate, and the subject of fossil fuels features heavily in the discussion. Sources such as coal, oil, and gas take hundreds of millions of years to create and are non-renewable forms of energy, yet they are heavily used today, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption.
From the cars that we drive to the way that we heat our homes, these energies fuel modern life. Beginning our reliance on fossil fuels in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution – the beginning of life as we know it today – saw agriculture being replaced by manufacturing industries and handmade goods being replaced by factory-made products. The arrival of machinery for the production process meant that factories required the use of energy such as coal to keep them running. The Industrial Revolution, quite literally, was powered by fossil fuels. Prior to the Industrial Revolution industry was on a far smaller scale, and energy was often generated by machinery such as windmills and watermills. Coming full circle, with many people striving to find more sustainable sources of energy, the world is once again turning its attention to harnessing natural forces to unlock energy sources. While there can be no doubt that fossil fuels have played a significant role in advancing society, the city skylines filled with chimneys pumping out smoke may have meant that business was booming back in the 1800s – but it is a sight often viewed today as a sign of something more sinister. Carbon-rich and formed from organic matter such as decomposing plants and organisms – over the course of hundreds of millions of years – this natural process may sound harmless. However, the use of fossil fuels such as petroleum, oil, coal, and natural gas presents two particular fundamental issues.
A Diminishing Resource
An indisputable issue raised by the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is that they are non-renewable. Coal began to form between 300 million and 360 million years ago, and as all fossil fuels take hundreds of millions of years to form, the rapid depletion of them via their use in supplying the majority of the world’s energy means that fossil fuels are being depleted far faster than they can be replenished (Nunez, 2019). Some predictions suggest the world will run out of fossil fuels in the potentially near future, with discussions of peak production mounting across the globe. Estimates regarding the timing of reaching peak production are highly disputed, however, with those denying fossil fuels will run out in the near future citing alternative extraction methods as the solution. Though while it may be true that new techniques such as fracking can keep the supplies of fossil fuels flowing for longer, they are not without their own controversy.
The finite quality of fossil fuels is only one of the driving factors behind the world’s efforts to seek alternative forms of energy. While limited supply remains a spectre over the industry, the environmental impact of fossil fuels has additionally come increasingly into consideration over the last decade. Fossil fuels are a natural resource. However, when burnt, they have a significant negative impact on the environment, and tackling climate change has become a top priority for governments across the world. Reducing the use of fossil fuels is seen as a crucial factor in the battle against the greenhouse effect, and global agreements have come into play to try to limit the world’s carbon footprint. The more carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere, the more the earth’s temperature increases. In turn, the Earth’s polar ice caps begin to shrink, while sea levels rise and weather becomes increasingly volatile. Climate change increases the likelihood of more extreme weather conditions like those witnessed over many recent years, such such as drastic floods, extreme fires, extended droughts, and intense heatwaves. The media covers climate change extensively, and the global weather shifts are a hot topic at international forums like the G20 summit, with the world convening to discuss ways to tackle climate change and reduce the usage of fossil fuels in favor of cleaner renewable energy sources.
Impact on Industry
Abandoning fossil fuels, however, is easier said than done. Most industries are powered by fossil fuels in at least one stage of production, and since the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, many industries now depend heavily on fossil fuels to power them. Over the span of a mere two hundred years, the use of fossil fuels in everyday life has become integral, with necessary systems and machines fueling the world utterly dependent on fossil fuels, either to produce them or to serve as a power source. The automotive industry, as it stands today, would collapse without fossil fuels. Since the invention of the internal combustion engine, petroleum and oil have created booming businesses and driven the American public. Oil prices, likewise, have a strong influence over the economy – and the demand for oil is such that when prices rise, its impact is not just felt by big businesses. The general public is also affected, with an increase in oil prices not only meaning a higher total at the gas station, but also more expensive items at the grocery store as well. The interconnectivity of oil with almost every sector leaves no stone unturned – causing the increased cost of transporting those goods to be passed down to the retailer, and finally onto the consumer.
As concern mounts about the impact that fossil fuels are having on the world – along with their role in climate change, as news of extreme conditions is splashed across front pages around the world – it’s logical that industries should look to alternative sources of energy for the future. However, while a retail store may be able to use solar power as its main energy source, there are other industries that seem destined to remain reliant on fossil fuels, as no viable carbon-free alternative has been found. The aviation industry is an example of one such industry. In an effort to source alternatives to traditional fuel, the aviation industry has recently developed sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – however, it is not widely available for commercial flights. At the same time, the financial viability of using SAF is low, costing approximately three times more than standard aviation fuel. In the long term, wider availability of SAF can help to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, as a plane running on SAF will reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent over the jet’s lifespan. However, difficulties in sourcing are also adding to the aviation industry’s conundrum of switching to alternative fuels, and they’re not alone. The medical industry is also a large consumer of fossil fuels, with hospitals as another large consumer of oil, gas, and coal. Energy, for healthcare, is quite literally a lifeblood – vital to keep hospitals functioning and their patients safe. These factors can make it challenging for hospitals to reduce their reliance on non-renewable fuels, with some healthcare equipment – such as MRI scanners, for example – directly dependent on specific resources. MRI scanners require helium to work, which is derived from uranium. Vital to diagnosing a myriad of illnesses and injuries, MRI scanners are just one example of the density to which fossil fuels impact life, and suggest pause when considering the consequences should those sources be running out.
Focusing on Facts
With so much focus on fossil fuels, particularly in recent years, it can be hard to discern the truth. In particular, fossil fuels and the subject of climate change have become interconnected. And with climate change becoming a polarizing issue, heightening emotions across the globe, it also follows that fossil fuels have become a victim of inaccurate reporting and emerging rumors. While there is no doubt that fossil fuels are finite, in the 1950s, geologist M. King Hubbert made a prediction that the United States would run out of oil in the 1970s, followed by the rest of the world reaching peak oil production in the early 21st century. Of course, as oil is used perhaps more now than it was in the past, we know that Hubbert’s theory turned out to be more myth than fact. However, Hubbert was correct in his timescales for peak production in the areas that he studied. What Hubbert hadn’t accounted for, meanwhile, was the advances in technology that made it possible to extract oil from reservoirs that were previously too complicated to access. There is no shortage of facts on the impact that fossil fuels have on climate change, and while burning fossil fuels may be the biggest cause of greenhouse gases, it would be false to state that fossil fuels are the sole cause. While fossil fuels remain a large contributor, the greenhouse effect is also caused by deforestation and land being cleared for agricultural use in addition to other factors.
The Role of Fossil Fuel Subsidies
Fossil fuel subsidies are a contentious issue and the subject of much debate. While governments may argue that the main reason for giving subsidies to fossil fuel companies is to keep costs lower for consumers, many do not see this as justification for the sums of money spent by governments on fuel subsidies. Using subsidies to freeze fuel duties means that governments miss out on large sums of money that they would otherwise have received through the tax on fuel that could have been used on spending in other areas. Governments around the world have long debated the merits of the subsidy system, with the UK chancellor in 2018 strongly criticising the program and citing that the money lost due to fuel subsidies could have funded the entire staff of the United Kingdom’s National Health System twice over (Hammond, 2018). Meanwhile, other arguments against fuel subsidies suggest that it encourages wasteful energy consumption at a time when the world should be working on lowering their consumption of fossil fuels. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), G20 leaders made progress towards phasing out subsidies at the 2009 summit. Agreeing to a plan to begin the reduction of fuel payouts with the consensus that subsidies were working against the efforts being made to tackle climate change, G20 leaders emphasized that subsidies would take investment away from the development of cleaner, renewable forms of energy. Although a medium-term plan was agreed upon, however, recent figures show that subsidies are in fact still prevalent. The IEA figures for 2018 show that fossil fuel subsidies have grown, rather than reduced, by as much as one-third, pushing subsidies in excess of $400 billion.
The Future of Fossil Fuels
The future use of fossil fuels is a subject which is embroiled in uncertainty. Despite the looming fact that no one clearly knows how much longer fossil fuel supplies will be able to sustain the ever-increasing demands of modern society, fossil fuels are still deeply ingrained in everyday life. Beyond simply a logistical feat, a significant shift in the attitudes, perspectives, and potentially way of life of the general population in regards to alternative fuels will be required to phase out the use of fossil fuels completely. Energy is big business, and the basic rules of supply and demand apply. As long as consumers demand fossil fuels, the energy companies will certainly continue to find ways to supply them. Meanwhile, while governments continue to provide energy subsidies for fossil fuels, the incentive to switch to renewable energy sources will remain less attractive to both suppliers and consumers. In the meantime, to continue to meet the demand for fossil fuels, energy companies may need to begin investigating alternative methods of extraction and develop increasingly advanced technology to make this possible. Their controversial methods – such as fracking – however, will almost certainly meet strong opposition from environmental campaigners and others. Until renewable energy becomes more accessible and affordable, it is likely that the majority of people will continue to rely on fossil fuels. However, as evidence of climate change becomes increasingly apparent for all to see, governments may need to stop talking about future plans for sustainable power and clean energy supplies, and instead take decisive action to make these plans a reality.
IEA. (2018). “Tracking the Impact of Fossil Fuel Subsidies.” International Energy Agency.
Nunez, C. (2019). “Fossil Fuels, Explained.” National Geographic.
UK Parliament. (2018). “Fuel Duty.” UK Parliament.