Fossil Fuels and Air Pollution (the connection)

The below article talks about air pollution due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and the resulting air quality, along with some frequently asked questions about air pollution caused by fossil fuels. 

Does using fossil fuels cause air pollution?

Fossil fuels have been a crucial step that has aided humanity in its rapid economic development patterns and globalization. Burning fossil fuels has brought energy to us for every need, yet it is costly to the environment and to our health. Various studies, researchers, and reports have reported year and after the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels, and a large number of toxic emissions that are put into the atmosphere as a result. However, profits made out of burning fossil fuels, as well as rapid growth that favors the financial markets of growing and developed countries, have encouraged the use of fossil fuels. With increasing global climate temperatures and global warming on the tow, stakeholders are being forced to look at alternative options and energy optimization activities to reduce the toll on the environment through emissions and extraction activities. 

About Fossil Fuels 

Fossil fuels are non-renewable exhaustive natural resources that were formed through decomposing plants and organisms, that were buried amongst several layers of rock and sediment for millennia, to form the carbon-rich fuel source we use today. Fossil fuels are responsible for providing up to 80% of the world’s energy and are used for various activities from power generation for countries for electricity, to fuel sources for vehicles, heating activities, and making products such as steel and plastic. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, anthropological use of fossil fuels has increased dramatically, and the impacts of this usage can be observed through the increasing air pollutants in the environment and through increasing global temperatures. The burning of fossil fuels is said to be the primary cause for climate change on Earth, and for creating an imbalance between the different ecosystems on the planet that causes severe impacts on human, plant, and animal health. 

When fossil fuels are burned, they release immense amounts of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, which has heat-retaining capabilities and thus increases global temperatures on the planet. The three main types of fossil fuels used are coal, oil, and natural gas. 

Oil 

Oil or crude oil is a liquid form of fossil fuel, which is mainly composed of carbon and hydrogen. It is usually black in color but can come in various colors and viscosities depending on its chemical compositions and where they are sourced from. They are usually found in underground reservoirs, in the cracks/ crevices/ pores of sedimentary rocks, in tar sands near the earth’s surface; and are said to be formed around the Mesozoic period, approximately 252 to 66 million years ago. It is extracted through various methods such as drilling on land or sea, strip mining on tar sands, etc. and once it is extracted from onshore or offshore mines, they are transported to refineries via tankers, pipelines, trucks, trains, etc. and it is refined to form various products such as gasoline, heating oil, kerosene, jet fuel, plastic products, paints, etc. 

US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia are the top oil-producing countries in the world and account for approximately 40% of the world’s supply. In the US, petroleum products supply for about 37% of the country’s needs in 2018, this would have increased much more by now. Past patterns show that oil usage patterns in the country have increased, and the relatively lower fuel prices have compelled a rise in the number of vehicles that are on the road. The US contributes to a third of the global emissions every year, and forecasts show that this trend will decrease as frameworks for clean energy sources are optimized and enforced in the country, and with the increased engagement with electric vehicles. 

Air pollution is just caused during the combustion of fossil fuels, it is caused during the extraction processes, the refinery processes, the transportation processes, etc. and there have been several incidents that have exacerbated the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuel activities such as Exxon Valdez Spill in 1989, Shell Oil Spill in Nigeria in 1970, the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010, along with the thousands of pipeline incidents that have caused heavy damages to communities and ecosystems nearby. Even with the rampant environmental degradation in various countries, the demand for crude oil and other petroleum products has been on the rise, giving no heed to the consequences that are paid by vulnerable and marginalized communities, and various endangered species of plants and animals. 

Below is a map that depicts the production rates of oil in the world in 2019 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Below is a map that depicts the consumption rates of oil in the world in 2020 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Coal

Coal is a solid carbon-rich fuel source that began to form in the Carboniferous period around 300 to 360 million years ago. There are four main categories of coal depending on their carbon content and they are lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite. Coals were formed through millennia when algae and vegetation debris sank into several layers of mud under swamp conditions. Coal is usually extracted by two methods: underground mining or surface mining. Underground mining refers to when heavy equipment and machinery is used to dig up coal from deeper underground reservoirs, and surface mining a.k.a. Strip mining refers to when entire layers of soil and rocks are removed to access the coal deposits. Coals are responsible for a third of the world’s energy and the top consumers and producers are China, India, and the US (Nunez C., 2019). 

Carbon dioxide emissions from coal contribute to 44% of the world’s total emissions and are the single largest element that contributes towards global warming and global climate change. All coal is considered a dirty source of fuel due to its capability for large amounts of carbon emissions and is the most carbon-intensive form of fuel used by humans. All processes involved with coals and coal mines are detrimental to human and environmental health, particularly strip mining or surface mining where several ecosystems and natural habitats are destroyed simultaneously to get to coal deposits. While coal demands have lowered, especially in the US, over the years with the increasing focus being paid on the harmful effects of using this fuel source, projections for coal demand have still risen in countries like India and China. Ironic being that China has made a pact to reduce its emissions from coal-powered sources, and yet reduced the investments being made into the renewable energy sector. 

Below is a map that depicts the production rates of coal in the world in 2019 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Below is a map that depicts the amount of electricity generated through coal in 2020 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Natural Gas

An odorless gas composed mostly of methane, natural gas usage can either be conventional or unconventional depending on where it is sourced from. Conventional sources of natural gas come from it being located in porous and permeable rock beds and/ or mixed with oil reservoirs and are usually extracted by drilling. Unconventional sources of natural gas are essentially any that is too difficult to be attained through drilling and require specific processes such as fracking. The process of fracking revolutionized the way in which natural gas is extracted, and it has made the US, the world’s top natural gas producer since 2009 (Denchak M., 2018). 

With the new techniques, natural gas surpassed coal in becoming the fuel source mostly used for electricity production, especially in the US. Natural gas covers approximately 30% of the country’s needs and is the largest source of energy in the country currently (Denchak M., 2018). While natural gas is considered cleaner than coal and oil, it does contribute to a significant amount of air, water, and land pollution. While not all natural gas reservoirs are being currently tapped into, especially the ones under the sea bed, these are considered potential reservoirs and would be used in the immediate future with exhaustive resources reduced globally. 

Below is a map that depicts the production rates of natural gas in the world in 2019 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Below is a map that depicts the amount of electricity generated from natural gas globally in 2020 (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Environmental Impacts due to Fossil Fuels 

Fossil fuels have been formed over millions of years worth of carbon-life forms being buried under layers of rocks, sand, etc. under high-pressure and temperature conditions. We have all heard that energy is neither created nor destroyed, therefore, energy and carbon that was present in the earth then was used to make these plants and organisms, and these have been fossilized over the years to provide us with fossil fuels. The burning of all of this carbon in a short span of time, in comparison to the amount of time it took to create this fuel source, is the reason that these emissions have been affecting the environment. 

The rate at which this carbon source is being utilized is a hundred or thousand times faster than what it took to create it, therefore the overloading of all existing carbon sources into the environmental system creates the imbalance we see today as global warming, and the fact that there is lesser number of carbon sinks to absorb these emissions, create an extra load on the earth’s capacity. This causes severe impacts such as ocean acidification, acid rain, soil and land pollution, bioaccumulation of these pollutants in living systems, etc. 

Below is a chart that depicts the carbon dioxide emission rates of all fossil fuels over the years (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Does fossil fuel contribute to air pollution?

How large is the impact of fossil fuels on climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) through their research has found out that fossil fuels are one of the leading reasons as to why we are currently undergoing global warming. In their 2018 report, they stated that 89% of the worlds’ emissions came from fossil fuels based industries. Coal is considered the dirtiest source of energy and is said to be responsible for approximately 0.3℃ of the 1℃ increase in global temperatures, causing it to be the single largest source contributing to global warming. While natural gas is considered “cleaner” in comparison to other forms of fossil fuels, it is responsible for larger degrees of pollution including soil, land, and water pollution due to activities such as fracking (ClientEarth, 2020). 

Which countries consume the highest amount of energy from fossil fuels?

Source: (Ritchie H. & Roser M., 2020)

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

How is the air quality in El Paso?

What are some causes of air pollution?

What is point source air pollution?

References 

ClientEarth. (2020, November 11). Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts. Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/ 

Denchak M. (2018, June 29). Fossil Fuels: The Dirty Facts. Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts#sec-examples 

Nunez C. (2019, April 02). Fossil fuels, explained. National Geographic. Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fossil-fuels 

Ritchie H. & Roser M. (2020). CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions. OurWorldInData.org. Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-fuel?country= 

Ritchie H. & Roser M. (2020). Energy. OurWorldInData.org. Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://ourworldindata.org/fossil-fuels#citation 

Understanding Global Change (UGC). (n.d.). Burning of fossil fuels. Viewed on 12-24-2021. https://ugc.berkeley.edu/background-content/burning-of-fossil-fuels/  

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