Climate change: What are fossil fuels, how do they harm the planet?

Fossil fuels are the most widely used form of energy in the world. However, these have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, amid growing awareness of climate change, pollution, and renewable energy.

But what exactly are fossil fuels? How are they formed and why are they so problematic?

Here you will find everything you need to know about fossil fuels.

What are fossil fuels? How are fossil fuels formed?

The term fossil fuels refers to a category consisting of any form of fuel that is formed from the remains of dead plants or animals, hence the term “fossil”, although they are also known as hydrocarbon fuel. They become fuel after these dead life forms undergo anaerobic decomposition, and the process itself can take hundreds of millions of years.

Malfunction at the oil refinery in Haifa, May 26, 2021 (credit: ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION UNION IN HAIFA)

These fuel sources are mined, drilled, or mined underground to be used as fuel sources. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the specific type of fossil fuel in question.

What are examples of fossil fuels?

There are many different types of fossil fuels. However, the main ones are coal, oil (petroleum) and natural gas. These are extracted in various ways and used as fuel or converted into energy. Of these major fossil fuels, oil is the most widely used worldwide.

However, many fossil fuels are also further refined or converted into other by-product processes. Some of these refined versions of fossil fuels include propane, gasoline, and kerosene, while fertilizers and plastics are common derivatives.

These fuel sources are not renewable due to the nature of their formation. As such, they are considered non-renewable resources.

Why are fossil fuels bad? How do fossil fuels affect global temperatures?

Fossil fuels are extremely harmful to the environment, and this is not due to their use alone. The extraction and transportation of fossil fuels alone causes serious damage from the start. Mining and hydraulic fracturing efforts can cause severe damage and land degradation, as large tracts of land, such as entire mountain tops, can be destroyed to find coal or oil, and the land does not return to normal, damaging the local ecosystem and ruining wild habitats.

These mining and hydraulic fracturing operations also severely impact water, with acid runoff, rock spills, and oil spills causing severe damage and contamination to all bodies of water. It is also known that fracking in particular can contaminate local drinking water, and the wastewater produced can see waterways contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The effects of these pollutants can be very harmful to humans, and studies have shown links between them and various health problems, such as birth defects and cancer.

Mining also causes serious air pollution, which has been linked to many types of cancer and affects millions of people around the world.

However, burning fossil fuels is the most damaging. When fossil fuels are burned, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as the carbon combines with oxygen from the air. This is because fossil fuels were formed from life forms that once lived, which naturally contain carbon, like all life forms. This carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas, warms the atmosphere and raises global temperatures.

A big part of this problem is also how the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels is treated. Through a phenomenon known as the carbon cycle, the planet actually has a means to absorb and deal with released carbon dioxide, especially through ocean absorption. However, it can only absorb a limited amount, and the amount released by burning fossil fuels far exceeds this comparatively small limit, leaving unabsorbed gases to remain in the atmosphere.

According to the US Department of Energy, carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by around 40% since the mid-19th century, at the time of the industrial revolution. However, emissions have skyrocketed since the 1950s.
As pointed out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature between 1951 and 2010 was caused by anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.”

What are the benefits of renewable energy?

Renewable energy resources are, in theory, much more efficient because they are not limited in supply, as well as not being as harmful to the environment compared to fossil fuels. These include solar energy, which depends on the sun, and wind energy, which is used by wind turbines that drive the wind. This efficiency is observed, with wind power in particular creating 1,164% of its input when it is converted into electricity, compared to 29% for coal, as noted by the Wall street journal.

Clean energy resources are also experiencing an economic boom, with jobs in the sector increasing over the years as more progress is made. Renewable energy is also getting cheaper and cheaper over the years, and it is possible to integrate it with existing systems.

Significantly reducing the use of fossil fuels is quite possible, in theory, and that is why many countries have pledged to drastically reduce their carbon footprints. It is also the subject of two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

To use the US as an example, a recent report from the nonprofit organization Council for the Defense of Natural Resources (NRDC) found that it is possible to reduce the use of fossil fuels in the US by 80% by 2050, in case the US reduces energy demand, invests in renewable energy and transitions from transportation to be more electric rather than relying on fossil fuels.

However, there are obstacles that interfere with this change. These include the difficulties many face regarding the installation of wind turbines and solar panels, as well as the political and economic influence of many companies in the well-established coal, oil, and natural gas industries. In particular, there are many countries that base much of their economy on fossil fuels, especially in the oil- and natural-gas-rich Middle East.

What about nuclear energy?

Nuclear power is another factor to consider, since while it is not a fossil fuel or a renewable energy source, it is carbon-free and very efficient. As pointed out by the US Office of Nuclear Energy, nuclear power is highly reliable and has supplied one-fifth of America’s power annually since 1990. Its capacity factor is very high, it produces several times more power than natural gas and coal, and more reliable than wind and power. solar.

Many scientists have suggested solving the fossil fuel-induced climate crisis through a drastic shift towards nuclear power around the world.

But it also has its detractors.

As noted by the German Green Political Foundation Heinrich Böll Foundation, there are various problems, such as the timeframe to make a nuclear power plant, which means 93 million people could die in the meantime, they are incredibly expensive both in terms of cost and in terms of the damage they could cause to the core of a nuclear reactor melting, the risk of increased proliferation of nuclear weapons, the risk of cancer in uranium miners, the risk of radioactive waste, and the possibility of catastrophic meltdown, such as the one that occurred at Chernobyl.

Ultimately, renewable energy is viewed by many as a safer alternative and a more efficient option due to cost, time, and the limited risk of causing damage in a severe meltdown.

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