How many times do you think you use fossil fuels every day? It’s probably more than you think. If your house is heated with oil or natural gas, you may use these fuels before you even get out of bed. You might use them again to take a shower, cook your breakfast, or drive to work. And you also rely on them in many ways you can’t see. They’re in countless objects you use every day—plastics, cosmetics, and even some medicines.
Fossil fuels are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. But in many ways, a world like this would be better than ours. The air and water would be cleaner. The weather would be less extreme. And it’s also quite possible we’d all be spending less on our electric bills.
Fossil fuels are the remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. Coal is formed from plants, while oil and gas come from tiny creatures called plankton. These substances contain all the energy that these living things stored in their bodies while they were alive. Burning them releases all that stored energy at once.
At the same time, it releases large amounts of carbon in the fuel. Most of this enters the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Burning fossil fuel also releases other greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide (N2O). And it produces a variety of other chemicals that can pollute the air and water.
Obviously, we wouldn’t rely on fossil fuels as much as we do if they didn’t have some benefits. For over 200 years, they have been the most reliable way to power our homes and industries. We’ve built our society around them, and that’s one reason they remain so popular today.
Fossil fuels are a highly efficient source of energy. That means a relatively small amount of oil or gas can produce a large amount of energy. This is especially important in transportation, since a vehicle needs to carry around its own fuel supply. A pound of gasoline holds about 40 times as much energy as a pound of batteries in an electric car. Fossil fuels are also capable of producing the large amounts of heat needed for industrial processes like steel smelting.
Another advantage of fossil fuels is that they’re widely available. Large deposits of coal, oil and gas exist in many parts of the world. And for areas that don’t have them, these fuels are easy to transport. In some parts of the world, fossil fuel use is currently the only alternative to energy poverty.
The electric grid only works if the amount of power produced matches the amount used. But many renewable energy sources, such as wind power and solar power, can’t produce electricity on demand. They only work when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Fossil fuels, by contrast, are easy to store until they’re needed.
Fossil fuels go into many of the products we use every day. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are over 6,000 products made from oil and natural gas. This includes all kinds of plastic goods, from cell phones to fabrics. Petrochemicals (compounds derived from oil and gas) are also used in fertilizer, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals.
Nowadays, there are alternatives to many fossil fuel uses. For instance, it’s possible to heat homes with electricity and produce power with solar panels. But in many cases, the systems we have now were set up to run on fossil fuels. Switching energy sources means replacing these systems, which takes both time and money.
Fossil fuels play a big role in many countries’ economies. Extracting, transporting, processing, and using them provides nearly 1.7 million jobs in the U.S. alone. Clean energy provides jobs too—more of them worldwide, in fact—but not always in the same places. For countries with a large fossil fuel sector, switching away from fossil fuels is a real blow to the economy.
Many of the reasons fossil fuels are so valuable stem from the fact that we built our 20th-century society around them. But in the 21st century, the negatives of fossil fuel use outweigh the positives. These fuels have major environmental and safety risks, and newer alternatives are both greener and cheaper.
Fossil fuels are not a renewable energy source. They take millions of years to form, so we can’t just make more to replace what we use. The current supply of fossil fuels buried in the earth’s crust is all we’ll ever have. As of 2020, the world has enough oil and gas to meet its needs for about 50 years. Coal supplies will last longer—around 140 years. But once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Extracting fossil fuels from the ground is a dangerous process. Underground coal mines can collapse, trapping or killing the miners inside. They also contain trapped pockets of poisonous and explosive gases. And miners who avoid these risks still suffer high rates of lung illness from coal dust exposure. Surface mines are less hazardous for their workers, but they create pollution that threatens the health of nearby communities.
Drilling for oil and gas is also perilous. Without adequate safety measures, oil and gas wells can explode. This happened to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010, killing 11 workers. A newer method of extracting natural gas, called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, can cause earthquakes.
Besides being dangerous, drilling and fracking are highly water-intensive. In drought-prone California, extracting and refining fossil fuels uses up more than 280 billion gallons of municipal water each year. Coal-burning power plants make this problem worse because they require large amounts of water for cooling.
Fossil fuel use doesn’t just deplete the water supply. It also pollutes it. Fossil fuels contribute to water pollution in multiple ways, including:
All these forms of water pollution are harmful, but oil spills are probably the most destructive. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion released over 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting oil slick spread from Texas to Florida and harmed fish, birds, coral, wetlands, and beaches. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is still working on cleaning it up.
Fossil fuels pollute the air as well as the water. Burning them releases a wide variety of harmful chemicals into the air, including:
These chemicals cause all kinds of health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks, strokes, autism, and Alzheimer’s. A 2021 study in Environmental Research concludes fossil fuel air pollution killed over 8 million people in 2018. That’s roughly one out of every five deaths worldwide.
The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. Global warming is the single biggest threat to our environment. Air and water pollution cause many deaths, but climate change could potentially make the entire planet unlivable. Already, it’s causing increasingly severe weather disasters, including heat waves, storms, droughts, floods, and wildfires. It’s melting polar ice, leading to a rise in sea level. And it’s making the ocean warmer and more acidic, threatening marine life.
The pollution and climate hazards posed by fossil fuels don’t affect everyone equally. Low-income communities and nations are more likely to suffer from polluted air, extreme weather, or sea level rise. Wealthy people and wealthy nations get the most benefit from fossil fuel use, while poorer ones pay the price. This makes fossil fuels a direct threat to environmental justice.
For years, one of the biggest arguments in favor of fossil fuel use was its low cost. But today, most renewable energy sources are cheaper than fossil fuels. And this cost gap will only grow over time. The cost of clean energy solutions is falling across the board, while fossil fuel extraction costs are rising.
Society can’t simply get rid of fossil fuels immediately. There are too many systems built around them, from transportation to manufacturing to agriculture, to change overnight. They will certainly remain an important part of our lives for at least a few years.
But continuing to rely on fossil fuels in the long term is unsustainable. We need to move away from them toward renewable energy, and the faster the better. And this is growing ever easier as we find new approaches to the processes that currently depend on fossil fuels.
Today, there are many alternatives to fossil fuel use. Increasingly, we can rely on electricity to heat our homes, cook our meals, and power our cars. The electricity to support these new technologies can come from wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear energy. New energy storage methods will help smooth out any gaps in power production.
That doesn’t mean the transition to a clean energy future will be easy. Changing systems people have relied on for decades takes time and money. And it will be difficult to replace fossil fuels for some specific purposes, such as steel smelting, air travel, and petrochemicals. Perhaps in the short term, we will keep using fossil fuels for these jobs, paired with carbon capture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But ultimately, our goal must be to eliminate fossil fuels from our lives entirely. Our survival depends on it.