Mining, drilling, and burning dirty energy are harming the environment and our health. Here’s everything you need to know about fossil fuels, and why we need to embrace a clean energy future.
Managing the climate crisis means diminishing our reliance on both.
Fossil fuels are formed from the decomposition of buried carbon-based organisms that died millions of years ago. They create carbon-rich deposits that are extracted and burned for energy. They are non-renewable and currently supply around 80% of the world’s energy. They are also used to make plastic, steel and a huge range of products. There are three types of fossil fuel – coal, oil and gas.
Pollution from burning coal, oil and gas kills millions each year. The toll is heaviest in China and India.
We asked people steeped in climate and renewable-energy issues how they reduced their personal carbon footprints.
A short news clip from a New Zealand paper published in 1912 has gone viral as an example of an early news story to make the connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change.
The same fossil fuels producing the greenhouse gases warming the Earth’s atmosphere also form large quantities of air pollutants. The pollutants most hazardous to health are small particles which can penetrate deep into the lungs.
The burning of fossil fuels has many consequences. The health effects of air pollution are often overlooked in policy debates over energy transitions in favor of the long-term consequences of climate change, which are often projected to the end of the century. But air pollution effects are a clear, short-term impact, scientifically well-supported, and without the political overlay that often accompanies debates over climate.
There is widespread public discussion about the effects of fossil fuel combustion and emissions on climate change. That’s only right: Climate change poses a threat to the health of the planet and the humans living on it. But the dearth of talk about the health effects of burning fossil fuels doesn’t make sense.
To stop global warming, we’ll need to zero out greenhouse gas emissions from billions of different sources worldwide: every coal plant in China, every steel mill in Europe, every car and truck on American highways.
It’s such an enormous task that it can be tough to figure out where to begin.
We can muster the effort and investment over the next 10 to 15 years to accelerate it, to reach it in time to avert the worst of climate change. We can have clean air, clean energy, a prosperous economy, and a stable climate, all the things we want, if we’re just willing to do the work.
In this world, it makes sense to draw on all four quadrants — to use the portfolio approach taken for granted in so many other areas of policy. Climate change is a big problem. We can’t afford to leave any tools in the toolbox.
“Emissions from fossil sources are correspondingly larger than many have been estimating,” Dr. Howarth said. “I find it very convincing.”
The effects of burning large amounts of coal, oil and gas from factories, cars and other sources has long been evident, with major cities in the US and Europe sometimes shrouded in smog before the advance of modern clean-air laws.
It is not feasible to immediately stop extracting and using fossil fuels. The global economy, human health and livelihoods currently depend heavily on oil, coal and gas. But over time, we need to displace fossil fuels with low-carbon renewable energy sources.