Fossil Fuels: An Introduction
To start to understand renewable energy, you need to know exactly what fossil fuels are. Fossil fuel is not a renewable energy. The Oxford Language Dictionary describes Fossil Fuels as:
A natural fuel such as coal or gas, formed in the geological past from the remains of living organisms.
This might seem confusing as it is a natural fuel, which should logically be a good source. But in the The Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels article on the fantastic website Union of Concerned Scientists, they explain that:
Burning coal, oil, and natural gas has serious and long-standing negative impacts on public health, local communities and ecosystems, and the global climate. Yet the majority of fossil fuel impacts are far removed from the fuels and electricity we purchase, hidden within public and private health expenditures, military budgets, emergency relief funds, and the degradation of sensitive ecosystems. We don’t pay for the cost of cancer, or the loss of fragile wetlands, when we pay our electricity bill—but the costs are real.
Scary right! So, to break it down:
- Firstly, coal, crude oil, and natural gas are all fossil fuels as they were formed from the fossilized remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Because of their origins, fossil fuels have a very high carbon content. Carbon is in carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas that works to trap heat close to the Earth. It helps the Earth hold the energy it receives from the Sun so that it doesn’t all escape back into space. But “Carbon dioxide becomes a poisonous gas when there is too much of it in the air you breathe. Besides the effects it can have on the planet and the atmosphere, carbon dioxide poisoning can lead to central nervous system damage and respiratory deterioration in humans and other breathing creatures” (source Sciencing website). So when the fuels are burned, they emit toxins and global warming emissions.
- To obtain the raw materials that we make into fossil fuels, we need to find and extract them from the ground. For example coal is preserved by the earth in a rock layer called a coal seam. Mining is the only way to remove it whether it’s near the surface or deep underground (Lehigh College of Arts and Sciences). You can read about the many (many) negative effects of coal mining here: The World Counts (such as the destruction of landscapes and habitats, deforestation and erosion, the contamination of ground water, air pollution, health hazards and displacements of communities).
- Costs accrue at every point of the fossil fuel supply chain. Extraction processes can generate air and water pollution, and harm local communities. Transporting fuels from the mine or well can cause air pollution and lead to serious accidents and spills. Even the waste products are hazardous to public health and the environment.
- Nonrenewable, or the “dirty,” energy of fossil fuels are only available in limited amounts and take a long time to replenish.
The carbon cycle is important in ecosystems. It moves carbon, a life-sustaining element, from the atmosphere and oceans into organisms, and back again to the atmosphere and oceans. But too much carbon emission is dangerous, as you read above.
There are other ways in which humans can use non-carbon containing fuels for energy.
Understanding these impacts is critical for evaluating the true cost of fossil fuels — and for informing our choices around the future of energy production (source Union of Concerned Scientists).
From National Geographic:
Fossil fuels are embedded in nearly everything we do, and as a result, the greenhouse gases released from the burning of those fuels have reached historically high levels.
As greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space, average temperatures on the surface are rising. Global warming is one symptom of climate change, the term scientists now prefer to describe the complex shifts affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems.
Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts.
So, if you understand the impact of fossil fuels on ourselves, and our environment, then you will want to be a part of the change to using renewable energy as much as possible, right!
Read our next post about how renewable energy is far more beneficial, and the different sources that it comes from…