Fossil Fuels 101

This article by Environment North board member Scott Harris was first published in the Chronicle Journal in January 2017.

Is it a lesson too late for the learning? Singer-songwriter Tom Paxton posed this question in relation to lost love. Perhaps it needs to be applied to our use of fossil fuels, and the human species in general.

Lesson 1
Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. It can, however, be changed into another form.

Carbon is a form of matter. On earth carbon molecules are exchanged among various “reservoirs”, the atmosphere, oceans, land, including rocks, and is known as the “carbon cycle”. As carbon is a key component of life forms, all living things are also a part of the carbon cycle.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and energy from the sun is captured, through photosynthesis, by plants, and some plants are then eaten by animals up the food chain.

About 360 million to 300 million years ago, life forms lived and died in great abundance during the 60 million-year-long Carboniferous Era. And yes, you and an ancient sea slug may have shared the same carbon-era lunch, as those carbon atoms keep circulating in our world in one molecular form or another.

The carbon of these ancient life forms was sequestered as coal, gas and oil, in effect stored solar energy from long ago. We humans have learned how to dig up and use this carbon to fuel our engines and drive the Industrial Revolution. We won the carbon lottery, and have binged on this windfall since about the mid-1700s. Even cetaceans must have blow-holed plumes of celebration when James Young invented coal oil, replacing the whale oil used to fuel lamps.

Lesson two
Changing the amount of carbon in one reservoir, will have a ripple effect in the others. Changes that add carbon to the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, will increase the global temperature by trapping more energy from the sun, the greenhouse effect. When fossil fuels are burned, the released carbon combines with the oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide. James Hansen, renowned NASA scientist, has estimated that the additional heat energy captured from the sun by the carbon dioxide belching from our smokestacks and tailpipes is the equivalent of exploding 400,000 atomic bombs each and every day, 365 days a year. The 5th International Panel on Climate Change warns that if our grandkids are going to inherit a tolerable climate, with a temperature increase of no more than 2 degrees Celsius, we must leave most of our known fossil fuels in the ground.

The oceans are also impacted. They absorb some of the increased carbon in the atmosphere resulting in the acidification of seawater, which eats away at coal reefs and the skeletons of shellfish. The oceans today are about 30 per cent more acidic than in pre-industrial times.

Bottom line, carbon-based fuels have proven to be a most problematic energy source. Luckily for us, we do have alternatives. Over the last 5 years, investment in renewables like wind and solar, and the jobs they generate have surpassed that of new investments by the fossil fuel industry. Last year $286 billion was invested in renewable energy worldwide, $100 billion by much-maligned China. But they are still a small fraction of our energy supply. In addition we can use energy more efficiently. The International Energy Agency estimates that energy efficiency could provide 40% of emission reductions needed for a safe climate.

Will we make the transition fast enough to avoid widespread climate-related suffering? Back to Tom Paxton, and his words of longing and regret. Addressed to future generations: “We could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind…”. Except now we do know how unkind business-as-usual really is. The science of human-induced global warming is clear, and our actions, and inaction have become wilful.

If we as individuals, and all levels of government work together to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we can help ensure that we humans , and the myriad life forms that support us, will avoid the prospect of “going away with no word of farewell.”

(Learn more about the carbon cycle at The Carbon Cycle - NASA