“Fossil fuels are like cholesterol—we’ve let them build up over time and now it might kill us.” - Jacque Francis
Fossil fuels were a catalyst for human advancement. Until the early 19th century when fossil fuels were being widely used, we humbly relied on the sun, the muscle of horses, the power of wind, water, and simple machines to supply our energy needs. Starting with the introduction of coal, moving towards oil, and then gas, society’s energy needs changed forever. No longer needing to rely on limiting energy resources, humanity was able to rapidly industrialize commercial goods, agriculture and transportation. Since the initial expansion of fossil fuels, our use of fossil fuels has doubled every 10 years, now supplying roughly 80% of the world’s energy needs.
But now with climate change accelerating, it’s impossible to ignore the need to shift away from fossil fuels and transition towards using renewable energy sources.
Why do we rely on fossil fuels so much?
Fossil fuels are energy dense. Fossil fuels are the result of organic materials from millions of years ago getting compressed and heated into concentrated carbon deposits, so a little bit goes a long way.
Fossil fuels are easy and convenient to use. While renewable energy sources take a lot of innovating, planning, storing and expanding, fossil fuels are readily available and their functionality is not dependent on external factors. Wherever the infrastructure exists, fossil fuels can be supplied on demand.
Now that fossil fuels have been our main source of energy for over 150 years, all of our current infrastructure relies on the extraction and use of fossil fuels– our cars, houses, jobs, food, clothing, technologies, supply chains and all of the systems we have in place were built to run on fossil fuels. They are so ingrained in everyday life that it’s difficult to move away from them, even under the pressure of global warming.
The bottom line is that fossil fuels are extremely good at doing their job. They’re reliable, readily available, and our society is set up to use them. But they have consequences.
What will happen if we continue at the rate we are going with fossil fuels
Though fossil fuels have helped our society advance in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without them, it’s time to move on.
We’ve all heard about the dangers of greenhouse gasses. The reality is that carbon dioxide is an important greenhouse gas– it absorbs and radiates heat, keeping the earth’s surface temperature above freezing. However, by burning fossil fuels at the rate we have since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we’ve increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by over 50%. Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means lots of heat is being re-released back toward Earth’s surface, increasing global temperatures.
If we continue at the rate we’re going with fossil fuels, global temperatures will continue rising, heating the oceans, melting the ice caps, causing sea levels to rise, increasing natural disasters, killing off whole species, throwing off the delicate balance of the ecosystem, and creating dangerous climate conditions for communities globally.
We need to move forward and embrace renewable energy sources at all costs— the survival of humanity and the health of the planet are dependent on it.
Why aren’t we moving faster to implement renewables?
Renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, nuclear, biomass, hydro and thermal are all becoming more popular, but weaning an entire society off its main energy source is tricky to say the least.
Our existing infrastructure has been in place for decades, and transitioning to renewable energy sources comes with a hefty price tag. For some countries this may not be feasible. Fossil fuels are the cheaper option in the short-term, since there’s already structures in place to use them, and making the transition away from these established systems requires time, resources, and planning. Fossil fuel industries have a powerful influence in many economies and as such may resist efforts in order to protect profits. Supportive legislation is crucial for funding innovation and implementation of renewables, and the legislative processes necessary for a transition this big can be slow moving. Storage is another problem. Some renewables like solar and wind are reliant on weather conditions, and need proper storage technologies for consistent use.
Integrating renewables into our existing power grids and finding the funding and support to make it happen, is a complicated and costly process— but not impossible.
What's it going to take to move away from fossil fuels faster?
Many people have misconceptions about the dangers of fossil fuels and the capabilities of renewable energies, making it difficult for everyone to get on board. Education, resources and supportive legislation are imperative so we can all come together and build a sustainable future.
Funding innovative solutions to our climate problems is one way we can move forward– and there are people all over the world making a difference right now.
What if you could choose where your energy comes from? Or, what if there was a way to recycle carbon into renewable energy? Watttime and Lanzatech are both past Keeling Curve Prize winners who are already tackling our fossil fuel problem in innovative ways.
It takes a group effort. We all need to be on the same page in order to reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate the effects of global warming. Fossil fuels have served us well but now they’re holding us back. It’s time we move on to healthier, sustainable alternatives so that humanity can continue to advance without harming our home in the process.
Written by: Hailey Spinks