Evolution of fossil fuels

Fossil fuel history and impact

With an ever-increasing energy demand, the world’s reliance on fossil fuels has escalated to an incomprehensible level in recent years. Although efforts to transition towards clean and renewable energy sources are underway, there’s still evidence that fossil fuel consumption is rising.

The World Energy Outlook reported that in 2018, the global consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas, increased by 0.7%, 1.3%, and 4.6% respectively when compared to the previous year. Since the combustion of fossil fuel leads to increased greenhouse gasses, unsurprisingly, carbon emissions were also up by around 1.7% in the same year; the highest rate of growth since 2010. The report also went on to estimate that emissions will increase by 0.6% every year between now and 2050 given the upward energy consumption trends in non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

What are fossil fuels?

The term fossil fuel is used to define high carbon & hydrogen remains of plants and animals that have been buried and subjected to huge amounts of pressure over millions of years, subsequently transforming them into coal, crude oil, or natural gas. The enormous amounts of energy encapsulated in these geologic reserves now accounts for around 80% of the world's energy supply, powering the majority of our high energy sectors from transportation and aviation to agriculture.

How have fossil fuels evolved?

Coal can be dated back to ancient China as early as 206BC. The use of fossil fuels can be documented to the second century in Europe, where archaeological remains show evidence of the Romans using coal for heating and smelting purposes. Later records also show the use of coal in the fourteenth century by the native American tribes known as the Hopi Indians.

Energy production through fossil fuel combustion increased significantly around 1769 given the inception of James Watt’s steam engine, and the commencement of the Industrial Revolution. Further advances in technology and manufacturing processes, meant that coal surpassed wood as a source of fuel by the 1780s given its superior energy efficiency (Caineng, et al., 2016).

In 1886, the advent of the internal combustion engine meant that the industrial sector took on a new direction, and oil and natural gas took over from coal as the most widely used energy resource. Since then, the fuel industry has witnessed several transitions which continue to evolve in order to meet the latest trends and technological advancements, however the underlying fossil fuel sources have remained exactly the same. 

The consequence

Despite fuelling the industrial sector for hundreds of years, the escalating social and ecological consequence of fossil fuel usage cannot be overlooked. We often neglect to remember that fossil fuels are a finite resource, and its capacity to replenish is negligible. These depleting reserves and the associated uneven distribution of remaining resources could likely spark transboundary conflicts and ‘energy wars’ as stocks continue to deplete over time. Furthermore, the use of fossil fuels as a mainstream domestic energy source, means it is a leading cause of deteriorating human health, accounting for around ‘4 million premature deaths worldwide’ every year (GreenPeace, 2020).

Fossil fuel usage has amplified global greenhouse gas emissions to such an extent that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hit 33 giga-tonnes in 2019 - that’s 33 billions tonnes! But it doesn’t stop there. The devastating impact of stripping resources from the earth is far-reaching and significant, and one that is quite literally destroying eco-systems en-masse. One report by the Guardian in 2019 highlighted, that "extractive industries account for nearly 80% of the decline in the wildlife species populations”. Huge figures that result largely from land-use changes linked to mineral and biomass extraction, and cultivation for biofuel generation (Watts, 2019).

Another challenge comes in the form environmental accidents that are ever-present within the energy sector. Whether it’s equipment malfunction, human error, or negligence, the outcome of such events are catastrophic and impact entire habitats. One such example was an oil spill in Mauritius that recently caught the world’s attention, when 1,000+ tonnes of oil contaminated the pristine biodiversity hotspot after the Japanese ship, MV Wakashio, struck a coral reef and ruptured, spilling it contents into two environmentally protected marine ecosystems of 'significant global importance'. The impact of events like these are felt for years if not decades to come.

What comes next?

It’s clear to see that the deleterious effect of fossil fuel usage needs to be curbed, but this will only really happen when national and international alignment occurs through a unified purpose. This will undoubtedly require the issuance of unambiguous strategic regulation, alongside operational and tactical policies that not only guide and monitor, but also enforce cooperation. 

Many countries including Norway, Germany, Sweden, and Iceland have stepped forward and are playing a leading role in phasing out fossil fuels. With increasing investment in low-carbon fuel and interventions like green stimulus, many countries are aligning these commitments with the Paris Agreement, setting up ambitious goals and developing frameworks for a decarbonised economy.

However, regardless of state and government level efforts, individual consumers have an immediate role to play. We need to minimise our own personal carbon footprints, which are directly proportionate to our own lifestyles. From mobility choices, to our diet; to what we wear, and what we dispose of; our everyday actions have far reaching consequences. As an example, if you reduced your mobile telephone usage by 1 hour every day for an entire year, you would prevent 1 tonne of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, that’s the same amount as flying from London to New York (Berners-Lee, 2010 ). Phones don’t consume much power - but the networks they rely on do - that's the impact of trivial steps!


Fossil_fuel_infographic - Green_Bee


Berners-Lee, Mike. “What's the carbon footprint of ... using a mobile phone?” The Guardian,2010, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2010/jun/09/carbon-footprint-mobile-phone. Accessed 2020

“Toxic Air: The Price of Fossil Fuels.” GreenPeace, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, 2020, https://www.greenpeace.org/southeastasia/press/3594/toxic-air-the-price-of-fossil-fuels/

Watts, Jonathan. “Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions.” The Guardian,2019,  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/12/resource-extraction-carbon-emissions-biodiversity-loss. Accessed 2020

World Energy Outlook. “International Energy Association.” Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2019, https://www.iea.org/reports/global-energy-co2-status-report-2019/emissions. Accessed 2020

Zou, Caineng, et al. “Energy revolution: From a fossil energy era to a new energy era.” Natural Gas Industry B, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-11. Science direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352854016300109. Accessed 2020.

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