Fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal as they are more commonly known) are formed by organic matter deposits buried in the ground, normally hundreds of millions of years ago, that over time in the Earth’s crust experience different pressures and temperatures that eventually lead to the formation of such fossil fuels. The UK alone has been burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760) and has not stopped since. Furthermore, in 2013, over 84% of our energy production came from fossil fuels. This begs the question: should we be using fossil fuels?
If you ask anyone about the use of fossil fuels, one of the first points they are likely to make is about the environmental impacts. Of course it is true that burning these fuels leads to large amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. We know stories of worldwide changes to environments from these increased levels of carbon dioxide etc., such as the melting of the ice caps, destruction of coral reefs and so on, which in the future look to have unimaginably destructive consequences.
Leading on, an easy answer would be to just use another type of energy instead. If only it was that easy. The fact that, in 2013, they accounted for over 84% of the UK’s energy shows just how reliant we truly are on fossil fuels. Although this percentage has decreased since then, it is still a high amount. But is there a new source to replace it? At the moment it appears not, even though renewable usage is increasing every year. Countries such as Iceland use very little fossil fuels (only oil for their cars to my knowledge) so it could be said, why can the UK not do the same? Iceland has a different geological environment, where they have both glaciers and very active tectonics, which allow for mass amounts of geothermal energy, hydroelectric power and so on. The UK does not have the same environment.
There are however ‘bailout solutions’, as I call them, where you continue using fossil fuels but use technology to clean up afterwards. An example of this is Carbon Capture Storage. This is where you take carbon from burning fossil fuels and store it in the ground in the locations where the oil and gas were extracted. This way the carbon is not released into the atmosphere. It is in theory a good idea (provided the carbon never reaches the atmosphere), but it almost justifies using fossil fuels which is not the point we should be getting across.
Fossil fuels are of course a finite resource. Hence they are only a temporary solution to our energy needs. Of the same token, fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract each year. This is because the reserves that are the easiest to extract have, for the most part, been taken and those that remain are complex and hence costly. These points alone should suggest to us that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
When you look at the geopolitics involved with fossil fuels, you see that a lot of the countries that have large reserves are considered to have lower political stability. This makes trade a lot harder for imports and they could at any point just cut you off. This gives them power. In effect, it is better to create energy within your own resources.
An option that the UK is currently pursuing involves using gas where possible. This is because gas produces around half the emissions of coal. If we have no option at this moment in time but to use fossil fuels, we may as well use the one that will release the least amount of harmful gases into the atmosphere.
Finally, to answer my question: should we be using fossils fuels? I believe in my honest opinion we have no option with our high energy demands but to use fossil fuels. I consider myself to be an environmentalist and it would make me very happy to not use them but I believe we all have to be realistic and say that there is no energy source that can replace fossil fuels at this time. Renewables will over time become more significant and fossil fuels will slowly phase out especially when they become economically unviable. Unfortunately, this will not be for a while. This of course needs to change in the future as fossil fuels are only a temporary solution, but there are ways to reduce its environmental impacts with Carbon Capture Storage and using more gas.
If you have anything to say on the topic, please feel free to comment below!