Fossil fuels: past, present and future

Fossil fuels: past, present and future

I bet you have heard about fossil fuels. But, do you also know they are one of the biggest sources of air pollution? Did you know they are the main source of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)? This is an important greenhouse gas that is affecting our planet and contributing to our current climate change.

Let’s start with the definition of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are formed over millions of years as animal and plant remains were heated and pressurized in Earth’s crust. The three most used fossil fuels are oil, coal and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable sources. In contrast to renewable sources, the amount fossil fuels are finite (unless you want to wait millions of years).

Oil gets extracted from the ground as crude oil, a black sticky liquid. It is sent to a refinery that boils the oil and separates various the components based on their boiling point. This separation (called refining) creates different products, such as gasoline, lubricating oil or asphalt.

Coal comes from prehistoric vegetation that has been heated and pressurised into a solid, black stone like material. Coal comes ready to be used and is burned to create energy. The mining of coal and the burning process make it the most pollution fossil fuel.

Natural gas is a mix of different gasses formed in the Earth surface. It contains mainly methane but also propane and butane, which are separated after extraction. Natural gas is used for cooking (also when camping), for cars, or as electricity supplier through burning.


The first reported use of fossil fuels is about coal in China around 4000 B.C. However, the widespread use and production started with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the end of 19th century. Coal was the most popular fossil fuel for a few decades, but through the years we expanded the use of other fossil fuels. At the moment we use all three fossil fuels abundantly, with only a small proportion of renewable or nuclear energy, as you can see in the figure below (Our World in Data):Global primary energy

How bad they are for our planet?

Fossil fuels can have a short-term and long-term environmental impact. Let’s focus on the production of CO2. Coal, oil and natural gas, produce a different quantity of CO2 when they are burned, but how can we measure this? The IPCC (formed by climate scientists all over the world) uses an international factor, measured as the quantity of CO2 emitted in kilograms per unit of energy produced in megawatt-hours. This sound pretty complicated, but this means that we see how much CO2 is polluted for the same amount of energy. As you can see in the chart below (Our World in Data): the longer the bar, the more emission.

Carbon Dioxide emissions factorIt really depends on the fuel, but in general coal is the biggest polluter, followed by oil and in the end natural gas. Considering that an average American household uses 0.9 MWh per month for its electricity, the total emissions of burning fossil fuels does end up.

Our use of fossil fuels

The use of fossil fuels is highly intertwined with our lives through transportation, heating and in particular electricity. I will focus mainly on the last one because of one simple reason: electricity is literally everywhere. Every single device we use works on electricity. If we need oxygen to live, the modern world needs electricity to exist.

At the moment, electricity is mainly produced by burning fossil fuels. On the chart below (Our World in Data) you can see how this source distribution has changed throughout the years. Coal has been the main producer over the past decades, with about a 40% share in electricity production.

Seeing this graph, you might think that we depend a lot on fossil fuels, but I have good news for all of us: We can produce electricity also with renewable resources! Why we do not do this more? Yeah, always the same story, money. The costs of change are high, but the costs of a slow transition might be even higher..

What to do for the future?

We should use these fossil fuels less! That is an easy answer. If we want a chance to respect the Paris agreement, we should basically leave around 80% of the fossil fuels left in the ground. We are not exactly sure how many resources are left exactly, as there might be fossil fuels reserved that have not been discovered yet. But, we actually have quite a lot left. Even, if we are using it since the Industrial Revolution.

As you know, the modern world has a strong focus on the money factor. Practically, if we want to turn the use of fossil fuels around, the involved companies will “lose” trillions of euros. Obviously some people will not be happy. But, are we really that stupid to swap money for our oxygen and our climate? Of course not, I hope. So what is the key? The balance.

Find the balance also means finding a way to sustain our economy system respecting the environment. How? Renewable energy, such as solar or wind power. As you see in the previous graph, we only use a small amount of “clean energy” at the moment. There are some technical limitations when it comes to renewable energy, but the only way to overcome these is investments in innovation. Eventually, we will again be able to generate a huge amount of euros.


– Save electricity! Pay attention to all your devices and turn off the television when you are not using it or turn off the light once you leave the room.

– If you need to have a car, keep its emission in consideration. Maybe you can swap your old vehicle for a “cleaner” newer model, or take the train when possible!

As always you will find all the sources in our sources page. Did you like this article? Let us know in the comments below! 🙂

Heading image: Sascha Steinbach-EPA

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