The use of fossil fuels kickstarted in the mid-1700s during the Industrial Revolution, which saw the rise of machine manufacturing that resulted in the expansion of infrastructure and technology throughout North America and Europe. Ever since, fossil fuels have been used to operate vehicles, lights, and other energy sources.
As the name suggests, fossil fuels are derived from fossilized animals and plants found beneath the earth, many of them millions of years old. As a result, these fossilized remains contain large amounts of carbon that humans can extract in the forms of coal, crude oil, and natural gas. Currently, these three types of fossil fuels generate 80% of the energy we use to power industries such as manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, and more.
Climate Change and Fossil Fuels
While fossil fuels have undoubtedly changed the way that humans live, they are also changing the earth’s climate. The burning of fossil fuels releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air, which trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. Additionally, the extraction of fossil fuels harms humans and the earth in other ways, such as through the degradation of lands that belong to Indigenous peoples, the pollution of water supplies, and ocean acidification.
These processes have resulted in global climate change, and it has prompted scientists, politicians, and activists to call for a decrease in the rate at which we extract and use fossil fuels to ensure that the average global temperature does not rise above 1.5℃. However, this has proven to be easier said than done.
Despite climate change being a global issue, not everyone contributes to this problem equally. Countries in the Global North have a much higher rate of historical emissions compared to the Global South. For instance, North America and Europe alone have cumulatively produced over half of global fossil fuel emissions since 1750. As such, many argue that the Global North should be held most responsible for reducing emissions to limit global warming.
Perhaps what is more alarming is the fact that 20 oil and gas companies – including Exxon, BP, and Shell – are responsible for approximately one-third of global fossil fuel emissions. In fact, some of the first studies discovering the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change were funded by oil and gas companies, only for the findings to be covered-up and denied through massive disinformation campaigns.
Calls for politicians to not only regulate oil and gas companies but to halt their expansion by stopping the construction of pipelines and other extractive projects have been strong. The loudest voices include Indigenous land defenders and water protectors, who have witnessed the destruction of their lands, air, and waters by governments and fossil fuel corporations. A recent study found that over the last decade, Indigenous-led environmental protests in Canada and the U.S. have prevented the equivalent of 25% of the countries’ annual emissions from being released into the atmosphere.
Alternatives to Fossil Fuels
While the largest consequences of climate change are still imminent, there is also hope. In 2020, the consumption of crude oil in the United States fell considerably and is expected to continue falling due to an increase in electric vehicles. Coal, the most carbon-rich fossil fuel, is now only responsible for one-third of electricity generation in part due to the use of fossil fuel alternatives. These alternatives include renewable energy sources like solar and wind power that replenish naturally and emit far fewer emissions.
Similar efforts to invest in renewable energies and shift away from fossil fuels are happening in many countries, but many scientists and activists are rightly concerned that they have not been radical enough for global warming to stay below 1.5℃. To help achieve this, fossil fuels must remain in the ground, requiring stricter regulations and policy coordination among all levels of government throughout the world.