Fossil Fuels + Climate Change

Fossil Fuels + Climate Change

Fossil fuels center all climate discussions and for good reason: we have to stop using them. They’re the leading cause of global warming, and while they’ve advanced society and technology in unimaginable ways, they will also define our future and ability to take meaningful steps towards tackling climate change. However, there’s a historical context of climate change and fossil fuel use that we’re hoping to shed some light on.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution reshaped our world of thinking and the global economy, fueling innovation and bringing new technologies to the forefront. Technology became the nexus between an old and new world order. It was the thing that sparked economic and social change, resulting in a number of innovations that have helped transform industries from manufacturing and transportation, to agriculture and construction. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century has undoubtedly had an incredible impact on the advancement of our civilization, but it has come with a cost. 

The Industrial Revolution was powered by fossil fuels, which offered new power sources. This ultimately improved the productivity of the global economy and sparked new innovations. The new technologies that emerged across all sectors at this time accelerated economic growth, and resulted in the economic prosperity that many countries benefit from today. The seed drill, which made agriculture more efficient and increased crop yields; the steam engine that powered locomotive transportation; the mining of coal as a new energy source; and the spinning jenny which empowered textile manufacturing, among others, were incredible technological improvements. Until this time, however, humans had not impacted the environment at such a large scale that would influence climate patterns. That’s because all of these technologies relied on burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to power them. Let’s take a closer look at fossil fuels and how they’ve been a catalyst for climate change.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels come from the remains of plants and animals that lived and died millions of years ago. Their decomposed remains have sat within the Earth’s carbon-rich crust and are extracted and burned as sources of energy. Since fossil fuels are extracted from decayed organic matter, their carbon content is very high. 

COAL: Coal is a carbon-rich rock that is burned to produce heat energy. It’s extracted via underground and surface mining, which use machinery to extract it from deposits deep underground, or remove layers of soil/rock to access the deposits. Coal is considered the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel and in 2021 accounted for almost 11% of the current energy supply in the United States alone. 

NATURAL GAS:  Natural gas is a mixture of hydrocarbons that predominantly consists of methane, which has more than 25x the warming potential of CO2. In 2021, it accounted for about 32% of the United State’s heat and energy supply, across residential and commercial use. Natural gas comes from drilling/fracking of sedimentary rocks and shale and has a number of negative environmental impacts, including air pollution, water contamination and GHG production. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are all released when natural gas is combusted, but methane emissions play a critical role, resulting from deliberate venting and inadvertent leakage (due to equipment or infrastructure challenges).

OIL: Also referred to as crude oil or petroleum, this liquid fossil fuel is also composed of hydrocarbons and is stored in geological reservoirs deep underground. Accessed by drilling or fracking, oil is extracted and refined for use as gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and a number of other products and chemicals including plastics. In 2021, petroleum accounted for 36% of the United States primary energy consumption.

Climate implications

Simply put, burning fossil fuels is a massively carbon-intensive process that causes heat-trapping greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere in abundance, and currently our entire global economy depends on it. While we can’t ignore the historical context and the power of the Industrial Revolution, we have to consider the fact that atmospheric carbon levels are at the highest they’ve been in the past 23 million years. Today, the Earth’s atmosphere has more than 1.3x as much CO2 as the previous peak in the past 800,000 years. This increase came quickly after industrialization, which increased emissions from fossil fuels and land use changes (as a result of deforestation). These greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere that would otherwise escape into space. The resulting rise in global temperatures creates long-term shifts in climate and weather patterns.

Virtually every industry relies on fossil fuels to power it. Today, we are in a race to rapidly phase out our reliance on fossil fuels and rethink our current systems in the same ways we saw this happen during the Industrial Revolution. At AIR COMPANY, we believe in the power of technology and innovation and advocate for technological advancements as solutions to ensure longevity on Earth and beyond. Carbon utilization technologies like ours that are capable of producing synthetic fuels, can help transition the global economy away from its reliance on fossil fuels, and towards a future where we convert a pollutant into a never-ending resource.

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