Fossil fuels refer to any fuel that comes from the Earth that is generated by the fossilization process. By definition, this is generally coal, natural gas, and petroleum products. It is the fuel that has helped the world develop into what it is today. Nearly 90% of the energy consumption that we have, even with the rise of renewables and cleaner fuels, comes from fossil fuel.
The combustion of fossil fuels is not without a cost. When fossil fuels burn, they release emissions into our atmosphere. For many in the scientific community, this emission release is at least partially responsible for a global warming effect. It may also contribute to higher pollution levels, which are believed to be responsible for up to 2 million deaths globally each year.
The advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels show us that the choices we face in the future for fuel consumption are going to be difficult. Here are the key points to consider.
What Are the Advantages of Fossil Fuels?
1. Fossil fuels are a technology that is globally developed.
We have numerous technologies available to us because of the presence of fossil fuels. Although this fuel source is often thought of as a way to provide transportation needs, many of the products that we use every day contain items that were manufactured thanks to fossil fuel technologies. That includes the computers and mobile devices that are used to read this content. Even renewable fuels have a foundation built on fossil fuels.
2. Fossil fuels are both cheap and reliable.
Because the technologies which surround fossil fuels are well-established, the consumer cost to use them is quite load. The energy that is produced by their refinement and combustion is incredibly consistent. If you pour gasoline into your vehicle, there isn’t a doubt that the fuel will fail to ignite. Fossil fuels give us a strong base load, reliable energy, and it can be created around the clock.
3. Fossil fuels have become safer over time.
An example of technology catching up to the emissions problem of fossil fuels comes through clean coal technologies. The emissions can be captured and condensed, reducing the overall amount that escapes into the atmosphere. Some technologies have come close to eliminating the production of greenhouse gases, condensing them into water that can be safely released back into the environment.
4. Fossil fuels still have plenty of availability.
New fossil fuel resources are being found annually and often in amounts that are beyond any prediction that could be made. In 2013, up to 233 billion barrels of oil was discovered to be in the Australian Outback. Additional development opportunities exist for tar sands oil, shale oil, and natural gas. It may be a finite resource, but there is still the potential of more than a full century of use available with currently known resources.
5. Fossil fuels contribute to the overall welfare of an economy.
We use fossil fuels to transport goods and services to one another. We are productive because of fossil fuels. We can generate renewable energy because of fossil fuels. We drive to the grocery store thanks to fossil fuels. Not only does the purchase of fossil fuels contribute to the national economy, but the use of fossil fuels helps to generate revenues for localized economies. Just about everything we do in life right now is tied, one way or another, to the consumption of a fossil fuel.
What Are the Disadvantages of Fossil Fuels?
1. Fossil fuels are a finite resource.
It takes a certain amount of time for the fossilization process to occur on our planet. This means fossil fuels are a finite resource. Once they are harvested, they cannot be replaced in the lifetime of anyone living right now according to our current knowledge. It takes millions of years and specific conditions to replace a fossil fuel. That’s a very different effort compared to the energy released in a daily sunrise.
2. Fossil fuels are often cheap because of subsidies.
Many governments tend to subsidize the price of fossil fuels instead of letting the free market govern what they tend to be. Businesses that operate within the fossil fuel industry also receive subsidies so that they can continue providing energy products to consumers at reasonable costs. US Government incentives for fossil fuels are typically $4 billion or more annually. In comparison, renewable energy resources like solar may receive about $1 billion annually.
3. Fossil fuels combust to create an acidic environment.
Many of the outcomes which come out of the combustion of fossil fuels without condensing technologies lead to an environment that is more acidic. This acidity can change ocean environments, alter how crops can grow, and may even lead to a higher risk of drought and famine. Many ecosystems on Earth are very sensitive to changing conditions, which means continued fossil fuel use could lead to unpredictable and extremely negative consequences.
4. Fossil fuels can damage the environment through human error.
Fossil fuels can also spill during transport, creating environmental damage as the product spills out. This is particularly problematic for petroleum products. From oil pipeline spills to disasters such as the Exxon Valdez spill, human error can cause a lot of unintended environmental damage. Even regular wear and tear, if not properly maintained, can lead to a higher risk of a leak occurring.
5. Fossil fuels aren’t a technology.
Although we can make it cheaper to find and access fossil fuels, the fuel itself is not a technology. This means there will always be a baseline price for this product, especially since many of them are traded as commodities. Renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, are based on technology. The prices for these energy resources has been in a continual decline since the 1970s. In some communities, solar and wind energy is virtually the same price as the energy created through fossil fuel combustion.
6. Fossil fuels may contribute to public health issues.
Outside of the risks that pollution causes for premature fatalities, there are ongoing health issues that can be caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. Air pollution that comes from fossil fuel consumption can trigger symptoms that are similar to asthma. It can also create irritation with a person’s air passageways that can trigger chronic coughing, allergy development, lethargy, and other quality of life concerns.
7. Fossil fuels can be dangerous to harvest.
Coal miners can develop a condition known as Black Lung Disease, which in severe cases is almost always eventually fatal. Natural gas drillers can be exposed to concentrated chemicals and silica, which can lead to adverse health issues. Oil workers are exposed to toxic chemicals frequently, which can increase their risks of cancer development. This shows that harvesting fossil fuels can be dangerous to personal health.
The advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels show that life would be very different without them. Life might be very different, however, if we keep using them. That is why these key points deserve careful and frequent attention.
Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.