Environmental issues, especially those related to the climate change phenomenon, are complex and, due to their basis in advanced science, often difficult to fully understand. However, because of the genuine environmental and ecological concerns many people have, we are often guilty of simplifying challenges and overestimating our ability to solve compounded problems easily.
Such is the case with fossil fuels.
Regardless of the position any one person takes on climate change, we know that burning fossil fuels contributes to the volume of airborne chemicals that produce smog and air pollution. Some, like coal, create more pollution. Others, like natural gas, are often considered to be alternative fuels, because they create nearly 50 percent less pollution than their extracted relatives.
Over recent decades, human beings have become quite dependent on fossil fuels like coal and oil. Most notably to power technology and transport us from place to place. While on the whole we recognize that this situation requires our attention, energy consumption around the world continues to grow not only as Americans use more and more, but also as other countries around the world continue to develop and strive to provide a better quality of life to their citizens.
For many looking for solutions to the multifaceted problems of energy and climate, fossil fuels have become the ultimate evil the silver bullet that, when eradicated, will stop the world from evolving in a way that is inconvenient to humans. Perhaps. But a closer look at how we use fossil fuels and their role in the development and growth of society shows that the solution may not be so simple, and that we may find ourselves relying on them for some time to come.
What do we use fossil fuels for? Primarily for electric generation and transportation fuel. When it comes to electricity which we need more and more everyday thanks to the wonders of electronic technology fossil fuels not only create the majority of what we generate around the world, they do so overwhelmingly. Even doubling or tripling the amount of solar and wind energy we use right now would make only a slight dent in that majority. For so many of today’s mission critical needs hospitals, computer server technology, refrigeration, and sanitation alone there must not only be lots of energy available, it must also be reliable. Right now, only fossils can provide that stability.
When it comes to transportation, oil of course is the great evil. And of course it does contribute to air pollution not only in the form of carbon when we burn it in our cars and trucks, but also in the form of volatile organic compounds that blend with carbon dioxide to make smog. Yet how many of us are willing to relinquish the freedom we gain with our single passenger vehicles to embrace mass transit? How practical or safe is it to expect a family of four or five to fit into a SmartCar or even a Prius? Are we willing to forego seeing the world via plane? Plug in vehicles may be the answer but once again, in using them, we add to the demands we place on electric generation. (See paragraph above,) And don’t forget about the new hazards we’ll create from battery manufacture, use and disposal.
Unfortunately, fossil fuels are more than coal burned in power plants and oil refined for gasoline, making them even harder to live without. If we stopped using fossil fuels, there would be no plastics. Some, who are rightly concerned about our neglect of recycling, BPA and the HDPE island growing out in the Pacific Ocean, may think that a good thing. But without plastics, life expectancy on our planet would likely drop significantly. Many of the sterile instruments used in hospitals would be impossible to create, not to mention many of the medical devices we now depend on everyday. Firefighting and safety equipment would not be state-of-the-art, putting our police, soldiers and emergency crews in greater peril.
We’d return to glass bottles, cans, jars and making glass is NOT a clean process. Many of the products women use to keep looking younger would not be available. There would be no petroleum jelly. We would not have helmets to protect us when biking or skating, or many of the medicines that heal us when injured or ill. Without fossil fuels, it would even be difficult to make sturdy towers for those wind turbines coal is a necessary ingredient of the steel making process.
The burning of fossil fuels most certainly has an impact on the quality of the air we breathe and depending on who you ask these days, on the future of the planet. Yet considering the lengths to which developed countries like the United States have utilized them to build prosperity and a health citizenry, ridding our lives of them could be harder than we’ve ever dreamed, especially as others look to our inventiveness to improve their own lives.
Yet not all fossil fuels are created equally. Unlike coal and oil, natural gas burns much cleaner (as much as 50 percent less carbon), is more readily available, and can be used through known technology to reliably power vehicles, generate electricity, heat and cool homes, and run industrial processes. In fact, as we bridge over to a new, greener way of life, it very well may be a fossil fuel that allows us to maintain our standard of living.
Fossil fuel has become something of a four-letter word in today’s environmental and ecological conversations. Yet the ability those resources have given the world to reach a place where we may even consider life without them is remarkable. It’s simply illogical to think that in a world where demand increases everyday, that we can remove the backbone of our energy generation and not experience serious, if not cataclysmic, impacts. But with patience and common sense, we can use the cleanest of the fossils to lower emissions, teach us to conserve, and build better methods of harnessing the earth’s powers.