Fossil Fuels – Liberation or Liability?

Comprising of coal, oil, and natural gas, fossil fuels have been the primary sources of energy for the past two centuries. Paving the way for the Industrial Revolution, these fossil fuels have propelled the consequential economic, social, technological advancements, as well as cultural development and growth. So quite literally, fossil fuels have been the driving force in changing the global mindset, industries and economies.

And that was all well and good, but in the past. Now these fossils are adding more fuel to the fire that is slowly roasting and burning the world. That’s correct – consumption of fossil fuels is the major reason behind the worsening of global warming. The question now is how will these destructive forces be balanced out while sustaining our modern and industrialized lives.

Coal was first discovered as an energy source in China, back in 4000 BC, and remained the only fossil fuel in active use until the 1800s. In the mid-1700s, the commercial use of steam engines powered by coal laid down the foundation for the following 18th century Industrial Revolution of Britain. Powering everything from houses, factories, mills to cars, trains, boats and even planes, coal became the driver of all. Over the years the demand and production of coal has significantly increased, with China being the foremost producer and consumer of the earliest fossil fuel.

But coal is not as all-almighty now as it was two centuries ago. In the late 19th century, the introduction of oil and natural gas as fossil fuels changed the industrial development and the global economics game significantly. Although oil and gas had been in use for centuries, their commercial use started in the late 1800s.

So what caused that shift from coal to oil?

Despite being a pricier option at the time, oil superseded coal in terms of efficiency, and subsequently impacted overall costs and usage. Another plus point for oil was its somewhat safer extraction, which was mostly done above land and was carried out with drilling; whereas coal mining posed many dangers for workers and surrounding areas in terms of working conditions, vegetation ruin, water contamination from mine waste, and the higher probability of an accident or explosion. So over the years, oil has become the primary source of power for transportation and industries globally and made some parts and countries around the world extremely rich and economically strong because of their enormous oil reserves.

But in all the huff and puff of fossil fuel benefits, little to almost no attention was given to their alarming impact on Earth’s environment. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of over 1,300 science experts from around the world, there is a probability of more than 95 per cent that human activities have increasingly warmed the Earth in the past 50 years. To many people, a close to one degree rise in average temperature in recent history might not be as shocking, but it has and will continue to cause serious repercussions. So although these energy sources power our lives every day both domestically and commercially, their impact on the environment has been nothing short of alarming and it will only grow exponentially in the future.

Compared to coal, greenhouse gas emissions from oil are lower but still significant enough to aggravate global warming and worsen climate conditions over the years. And worsening climate conditions don’t just encompass land-based pollution but also damage marine life through oil spills and energy intensive extraction methods. So burning aside, even extraction is harmful to the environment.

Another resource coming at par with oil is natural gas. Much cheaper to extract, process, and environmentally friendly in comparison, natural gas is on its way to replace oil and coal as a primary source of energy in many developed countries around the world. But the fact remains that natural gas is also a fossil fuel and contributes, though in a much reduced capacity, to the carbon imprint and its adverse effects on the environment.

Increasing temperatures from growing greenhouse gas emission are leading to melting glaciers, dying forests and wildlife, extended and more intense heat waves, droughts, and rising sea levels. Due to such growing environmental concerns, efforts have been made in the past decades to curb usage. As such, the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 was a major step in the right direction to reduce growth in fossil fuel energy demand and conduct further research into renewable and energy efficient power generation options.

The most promising fields in renewable and energy efficient power generation right now are wind, biomass and solar. These resources are not only eco-friendly but also extremely sustainable and waste-free. However, they require heavy initial investment and need further research in terms of their mass application for the economy. So do fossil fuels remain the only answer to our immediate energy and economical needs? Or are they not worth the ruin of our living environment?

The answer is not straightforward. In the past, fossil fuels did pave the way for industrial, technological, and economical growth. They were the need of the hour and became the game changer for the now developed world. So fossil fuels became the liberating force for development in the past two centuries.

But every good thing comes to an end and so do the benefits of fossil fuels. Firstly, resources are finite and will one day deplete, thanks to increasing demand of the global population. However, the horrifying environmental implications of the continued use of fossil fuels make even these finite reserves seem bountiful, as there would probably not be a habitable Earth to use these fossil fuels if impacts of climate change keep increasing at the current pace. So these fossil fuels have become a liability for future generations.

We now need more sustainable and green solutions to keep the Earth livable and nurturing for the coming decades. For the developing world, fossil fuels are still the way forward to development. Responsible use of natural gas is probably one of their best bets along with a strong focus on afforestation and improving energy efficiency in communities during this transition period. But for the economically, educationally and strong societies, decarbonization is an important responsibility as they have been the major contributors to the past environmental degradation and need to look for ways to balance it out with greener energy avenues.

Komal Nawaz is a nature lover and always up for a conversation about travel, philosophy, Harry Potter, music, and food.