What is fossil fuel?
The earth’s crust is formed by many layers of rock. As more layers of rocks form on top of the pile, the bottom layers will be subjected to phenomenally strong pressure and heat. Sometimes, the layers at the bottom will contain organic remains, consisting of plants and animals. The continuous pressure, which extends to millions of years, augmented by the right level of temperature and other geological processes, will eventually turn the organic matter into fossil fuel, either coal, crude oil and natural gas.
Broadly speaking, plants are converted into coal, while organic remains of animals turn into crude oil. In high temperature environments, animal remains can turn into natural gas.
Fossil fuel played a huge role in – and can even be considered to be an integral part of – the Industrial Revolution, as well as the subsequent technological, economic and social progress that followed.
What is fossil fuel used for?
As of 2015, fossil fuel accounts for 80.04% of global energy consumption. The three major sectors which rely on fossil fuel are energy generation (42% natural gas and 9% coal), transportation and heating. Other uses of fossil fuel and its by-products include cooking (kerosene and propane), lubricants for motor oil, hydraulic fluid, petroleum jelly, manufacturing of plastic and polyester materials, solvents (benzene), dyes and pesticides.
How does fossil fuel affect the environment?
The carbon content of fossil fuel, which originates from organic plants and animals, is what makes them such a valuable source of energy. By simply burning oil, natural gas or oil, the carbon undergoes a complex series of events which ultimately transfer stored energy from the sun into power plants, car engines, factories, etc.
However, at the end of the process, the carbon is released into the air where it quickly forms a bond with oxygen, producing carbon dioxide, or CO2, which is a greenhouse gas. The earth’s ecosystem is equipped to deal with CO2 – plants use them for photosynthesis, and thereafter, release oxygen back into the atmosphere. However, when the volume of CO2 increases beyond what the green lung of the planet is capable of processing (ever smaller, due to deforestation), CO2 will then start to accumulate at the roof of the atmosphere, which will heighten the planet’s greenhouse effect, leading to an increase in global temperature. This is the primary cause of global warming and climate change.
In addition, other chemicals and pollutants, such as nitrogen and sulphur oxides, are also released during the process, and they create their own set of environmental problems.
Moreover, the environmental impact of fossil fuel begins way before the burning process. The mining, drilling, offshore drilling, and fracking of fossil fuel almost always disrupt and damage the integrity of the ecosystem they are based at. The delivery medium, i.e., oil pipelines, oil tankers and oil trucks, have also caused massive environmental damage over the years.
Fracking, in particular, is causing widespread fears of systemic disruption to the environment. Methane groundwater contamination, for instance, have led to homes with fiery tap water! Imagine growing up drinking that contaminated water. In fact, imagine a fireman using a fire hydrant with methane contaminated water to put down a burning house…
Fiery tap water from fracking
What can be done?
Right now, pretty much nothing meaningful can be done immediately. Society and economy relies on fossil fuel far too much, whether intentionally or otherwise. However, with the steady growth of renewable energy technology, the era of fossil fuel domination will eventually come to an end. Even now, renewable energy has made remarkable inroads into traditional energy markets. As of 2017, 29.8% of electricity in the UK is generated from renewable energy (solar and hydro, primarily).
For consumers, the easiest way to help combat greenhouse gases is by conserving energy. At home, switch off lights in empty rooms, unplug devices from power sockets, do laundry at one go, use energy efficient products – it’s the simple things, really.
Participate in recycling activities, and support companies that adopt sustainable management and production practice to reduce manufacturing demand.
If you have the option, use a hybrid, electric or low emission vehicle. You will save thousands of KGs of carbon monoxide emissions over the lifetime of the car.