Fossil Fuels & Climate Change: Solutions & Alternatives

Oil mine on a sunset, mining for fossil fuels

The combustion of fossil fuels is the principal cause of climate change.1 Another significant contributor is the destruction of natural carbon sinks, namely forests.2 This is because global warming is the result of too much carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.3 These gases prevent heat from escaping from Earth, thereby warming up the planet.4

Burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees releases carbon.5 We need to significantly curtail emissions and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. With a transition to renewable energy, a reduction in deforestation and efforts to plant trees, we can combat the detrimental effect of fossil fuel on climate change. 6

What are fossil fuels and their relation to oil and gas?

Fossil fuels are formed from the fossilised decomposition of plants and other organisms.7 Decaying remains of living matter, buried beneath layers of sediment and rock for millennia and exposed to heat and pressure form coal, oil and natural gas, which turns into a fossil fuel. 8 This coal, oil and gas have become a common source of energy. However, burning it has a detrimental effect on rising carbon dioxide levels.

Natural gas is a non-renewable source of energy. It is used for heating and general electricity generation.

Carbon and hydrogen molecules form most of the building blocks of ancient lifeforms.9 Energy stored in these fossilised hydrocarbon-type compounds millions of years ago provides fossil fuel when burned.10 However, it also produces carbon, which reacts with oxygen in the air to create CO2, thereby contributing to the greenhouse effect.11

How do fossil fuels affect climate change?

Fossil fuels are the leading cause of climate change.12 Since humans began to harness their energy during the Industrial Revolution through coal, oil and gas, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased by 47 per cent.13 The atmosphere naturally contains a small proportion of CO2, which helps make our planet hospitable to life.14 Too much of this gas, however, results in greenhouse gas emissions which contributes to the heating of the Earth.15 As a result, a planetary rise in temperature of 1°C has ensued over the past 150 years.16

Fossil fuels and CO2

The problem with burning any fossil fuel is that it releases large quantities of carbon dioxide.17 In 2018, fossil fuels and industry caused 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions.18 Coal, oil and gas supply 84 per cent of the world’s energy needs.19 We need a fundamental transition in energy production to avoid an environmental catastrophe. Reliance on fossil fuels must and can be reduced.

The effects of rising CO2 levels

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if the increase continues at the present rate. This could result in rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, mass extinctions, food scarcity and poverty for millions of people worldwide.20 Therefore, it is imperative for our planet’s health, the lives of thousands of plant and animal species, and the wellbeing of millions of people that we exchange fossil fuel usage for renewable energy. It is also essential that we take measures to protect our forests and nature.

Melting glaciers affected by climate change due to fossil fuels

Solutions to the climate change problem caused by fossil fuels 

Climate change is primarily caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 warms up the planet. To solve this issue, a two-pronged approach is necessary. First and foremost, we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced. This can be accomplished by reducing fossil fuel burning and other measures. 21 Secondly, we need to pull CO2 from the air and store it elsewhere. This can be achieved by protecting and enhancing our existing forests and planting new trees to absorb further fossil fuel carbon emissions.22

Solar Panels to promote clean energy and offset climate change

Reducing fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions through renewable energy sources

An immediate switch from burning of fossil fuels to green alternatives is crucial. Otherwise, there is no way to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5°C.23 The clean energy sector has gained tremendous momentum in recent years, as awareness of the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels has become increasingly prevalent. Global consumption of renewable energy has grown at an average annual rate of 13.7 per cent over the past decade.24 They were the only energy category that experienced double-digit growth since 2010.25

Current natural gas production

As of mid-2020, natural gas production within the United States has peaked three times. The rise of renewables and the decline in fossil fuels is anticipated to accelerate in 2021. This is particularly true in the US under President Biden’s government.26 His pledge to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, to invest USD $2 trillion into clean energy and to fully decarbonise the power sector by 2035 indicates significant advances for solar, wind and other technologies.27 This is especially important given that the US is the second-largest emitter of CO2 globally.28 In 2019, they accounted for 15 per cent of global emissions.29

Planting trees to reduce CO2 due to fossil fuels

Offsetting fossil fuel by-products: Planting trees and protecting natural climate solutions

Trees are the best ‘technology’ for removing CO2 from the atmosphere.30 They pull it from the air and use it to create food through photosynthesis.31 The average mature tree captures about 21 kilograms of CO2 per year.32 A single tree will absorb a tonne of the greenhouse gas over a 100 year lifetime.33 Trees store carbon in their biomass or the surrounding soil, preventing it from adding to the greenhouse effect.34 The world’s forests thereby sequester about 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO2 every year.35 This is 1.5 times as much carbon as the US emits annually, demonstrating the immense climate mitigation potential forests provide.36

Tree preservation and climate change

When trees are cut down, burned or left to rot, however, the CO2 they have stored is released once again.37 As a result, deforestation worldwide accounts for at least 10 per cent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions.38 To combat climate change, we must stop deforestation and help forests offset the CO2 already in the atmosphere by planting trees. If we managed our existing natural climate solutions with care, they could provide as much as a third or more of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed to stabilise warming to below 2°C.39

Trees are one of the cheapest and most effective tools for reducing the atmospheric concentration of CO2.

40 Tree planting should therefore be encouraged, provided that the right trees are planted in the right places.41 This climate change solution can help in the long term. But, preserving our existing forests is critical to avoiding global warming. Mature trees capture and store far more carbon than saplings.42 We must leave the current trees standing if we are to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets and limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

 

Sources

  1. Union of Concerned Scientists. (2018). Global Warming FAQ. [online] Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/global-warming-faq.
  2. Union of Concerned Scientists. (2018). Global Warming FAQ. [online] Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/global-warming-faq.
  3. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  4. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  5. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  6. Marshall, M. (2020). Planting trees doesn’t always help with climate change. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200521-planting-trees-doesnt-always-help-with-climate-change.
  7. Nunez, C. (2019). Fossil fuels, explained. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fossil-fuels.
  8. ocean.si.edu. (n.d.). What Are Fossil Fuels? | Smithsonian Ocean. [online] Available at: https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/gulf-oil-spill/what-are-fossil-fuels.
  9. ocean.si.edu. (n.d.). What Are Fossil Fuels? | Smithsonian Ocean. [online] Available at: https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/gulf-oil-spill/what-are-fossil-fuels.
  10. ocean.si.edu. (n.d.). What Are Fossil Fuels? | Smithsonian Ocean. [online] Available at: https://ocean.si.edu/conservation/gulf-oil-spill/what-are-fossil-fuels.
  11. Nunez, C. (2019). Fossil fuels, explained. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fossil-fuels.
  12. Nunez, C. (2019). Fossil fuels, explained. [online] Environment. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/fossil-fuels.
  13. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  14. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  15. NASA (2018). The Causes of Climate Change. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
  16. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 oC. [online] Ipcc.ch. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/.
  17. www.clientearth.org. (2020). Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts. [online] Available at: https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/.
  18. www.clientearth.org. (2020). Fossil fuels and climate change: the facts. [online] Available at: https://www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/stories/fossil-fuels-and-climate-change-the-facts/.
  19. Rapier, R. (n.d.). Fossil Fuels Still Supply 84 % Of World Energy — And Other Eye Openers From BP’s Annual Review. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/06/20/bp-review-new-highs-in-global-energy-consumption-and-carbon-emissions-in-2019/?sh=16a11ea966a1 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  20. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 oC. [online] Ipcc.ch. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/.
  21. NASA (2019). Is it too late to prevent climate change? – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. [online] Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Available at: https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/16/is-it-too-late-to-prevent-climate-change/.
  22. Forest Research. (n.d.). Forestry and climate change mitigation. [online] Available at: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/research/forestry-and-climate-change-mitigation/#:~:text=Removing%20forests%20releases%20CO2 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  23. IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers — Global Warming of 1.5 oC. [online] Ipcc.ch. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/.
  24. Rapier, R. (n.d.). Renewable Energy Growth Continues At A Blistering Pace. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/08/02/renewable-energy-growth-continues-at-a-blistering-pace/?sh=7ddd83d76b60 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  25. Rapier, R. (n.d.). Renewable Energy Growth Continues At A Blistering Pace. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2020/08/02/renewable-energy-growth-continues-at-a-blistering-pace/?sh=7ddd83d76b60 [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  26. Deloitte United States. (2019). 2019 Renewable Energy Industry Outlook. [online] Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/energy-and-resources/articles/renewable-energy-outlook.html.
  27. Deloitte United States. (2019). 2019 Renewable Energy Industry Outlook. [online] Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/energy-and-resources/articles/renewable-energy-outlook.html.
  28. Union of Concerned Scientists (2020). Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions. [online] Union of Concerned Scientists. Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions.
  29. Union of Concerned Scientists (2020). Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions. [online] Union of Concerned Scientists. Available at: https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions.
  30. Penn State Extension. (n.d.). How Forests Store Carbon. [online] Available at: https://extension.psu.edu/how-forests-store-carbon.
  31. Environment. (2019). How to erase 100 years of carbon emissions? Plant trees. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/how-to-erase-100-years-carbon-emissions-plant-trees#:~:text=Trees%E2%80%94all%20plants%2C%20in%20fact.
  32. www.viessmann.co.uk. (n.d.). How much CO2 does a tree absorb? [online] Available at: https://www.viessmann.co.uk/heating-advice/how-much-co2-does-tree-absorb.
  33. www.viessmann.co.uk. (n.d.). How much CO2 does a tree absorb? [online] Available at: https://www.viessmann.co.uk/heating-advice/how-much-co2-does-tree-absorb.
  34. unece.org. (n.d.). Carbon Sinks and Sequestration | UNECE. [online] Available at: https://unece.org/forests/carbon-sinks-and-sequestration.
  35. World Resources Institute. (2021). Forests Absorb Twice As Much Carbon As They Emit Each Year. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2021/01/forests-carbon-emissions-sink-flux [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  36. World Resources Institute. (2021). Forests Absorb Twice As Much Carbon As They Emit Each Year. [online] Available at: https://www.wri.org/blog/2021/01/forests-carbon-emissions-sink-flux [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  37. www.familiesforcleanair.org. (n.d.). Greenhouse Gases from Wood are a Burning Issue. [online] Available at: http://www.familiesforcleanair.org/greenhouse-gases-from-wood-are-a-burning-issue/ [Accessed 15 Mar. 2021].
  38. Rainforest Alliance. (2018). What is the Relationship Between Deforestation And Climate Change? [online] Available at: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/relationship-between-deforestation-climate-change.
  39. Griscom, B.W., Adams, J., Ellis, P.W., Houghton, R.A., Lomax, G., Miteva, D.A., Schlesinger, W.H., Shoch, D., Siikamäki, J.V., Smith, P., Woodbury, P., Zganjar, C., Blackman, A., Campari, J., Conant, R.T., Delgado, C., Elias, P., Gopalakrishna, T., Hamsik, M.R. and Herrero, M. (2017). Natural climate solutions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 114(44), pp.11645–11650. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/114/44/11645.
  40. Carrington, D. (2019). Tree planting “has mind-blowing potential” to tackle climate crisis. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/04/planting-billions-trees-best-tackle-climate-crisis-scientists-canopy-emissions.
  41. Natural Capital Committee. (2020). [online] . Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/879797/ncc-nature-based-interventions.pdf [Accessed 4 Mar. 2021].
  42. www.viessmann.co.uk. (n.d.). How much CO2 does a tree absorb? [online] Available at: https://www.viessmann.co.uk/heating-advice/how-much-co2-does-tree-absorb.