Fossil Fuels & Their Impact on the Environment

Impact of Fossil Fuels on Environment

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Fossil fuels are formed by anaerobic decomposition of organisms over a period of millions of years. When burnt, they produce significant amounts of energy per unit weight and cannot be reused to supply energy. They are thus nonrenewable resources. The applications of fossil fuels range from use in motor vehicles, trains and industries to household consumption in stoves and lamps. Their huge popularity means that any hindrance in their use or harmful effects caused by them is bound to affect the masses significantly.

Traditionally, developing nations had a minute share in the world’s fossil fuel resources, however with an increase in industrialization and urbanization the need for fossil fuels as an energy source becomes essential. India serves as an ideal example. To cater to the increased demand of oil and gas from industries the government is increasing its import of fossil fuels from the Middle East. However often it is the upper class and transnational corporations that benefit most from this import. More than 70% of India’s population resides in rural areas and are deprived of basic necessities including health care, education and proper housing. Many feel that more money should be allocated to improving and providing the basic necessities to the people instead of laying down pipe lines to provide fuels to factories and business’s owned by the minority elite class. For instance in Singrauli, where one of the world’s largest power plants is allocated, the nearby poor neighborhoods do not have access to the power, which is transferred through grids to foreign factories.

Secondly, in India about 70% of the electricity produced is through the burning of coal and most often in places where mining is done, little regard is paid to the nearby living human populations. They are exposed to harmful gases and their environment is polluted, adversely affecting the health of the people. The atmosphere is severely affected by increased production of CO2 causing global warming and bringing with it destructive changes in weather. The cyclones in Orissa in 1999 serve as an ideal example. The incident took over 10,000 lives and made many more homeless (Shalizi, 2007).

Thus protest against the use of oil and gas was inevitable. LH Manjunath from Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala Rural Development (SKDRDP) in an interview urged the Indian government to refrain from spending millions on subsidies on fossil fuels and focus on increasing alternative and environment friendly sources of energy. Manjunath further said that large scale changes on global level are needed to protect the environment from the dangers of fossil fuel combustion. He complained that presently, little subsidies are available for development of solar energy in India (Ford, 2012).

Combustion of coal and oil leaves a significant amount of solid waste and harmful gases, which disperse into the environment. Primary pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen and sulfur and carbon monoxide are direct products of burning of fossil fuels. They react with one another and with other constituents of the atmosphere to form secondary pollutants. Unlike the primary pollutants, secondary pollutants affect regions of continental size, typically causing troposphere ozone, acid rain and regional haze. Furthermore, increase in carbon dioxide level is a direct consequence of burning of fossil fuels, causing increased greenhouse effect and thus global warming. Currently about 25Gt/year of CO2 is emitted by fossil fuel combustion. Consequences of global warming include increased sea levels and melting of polar ice caps resulting in increased incidences of flood, cyclones and other destructive climatic affects. When air pollutants exceed certain concentrations, they cause acute or chronic diseases in humans, plants and animal. Acid rain caused mainly by primary pollutants corrodes buildings, monuments and makes previously arable soil unable to grow crops by decreasing its PH, thus making large portions of land useless. Furthermore, it is predicted that by the end of the 21st century, the temperature will have risen by 2oC as a result of global warming (Giere, 2004).

Increased use of oil and gas indicates greater industrialization in a country. However, it adversely affects the lives of its inhabitants. In a study conducted in 1972 by Cohen et al. It was concluded that there were significant correlations between the rate of asthma attack and temperature. It was also found that pollution levels directly affected the rate of asthma attacks. In another study in 2009, the National Research Council found that damage to the health of citizens as a direct result of burning of fossil fuels cost the United States government $120 billion annually. It was further stated by the Clean Air Task Force that around 13,000 people died annually as a consequence of pollution from burning of fossil fuels (Blackburne, 2012).

Marshall McLuhan’s four laws of media can be applied to the use of fossil fuels to further understand their impact on the environment and the human population. The effects of fossil fuels are divided into four categories and studied separately.

Firstly, what does the use of fossil fuels enhance? The use of fossil fuel has prominently increased three things, namely pollution, ease and speed of transportation and industrialization. The burning of fossil fuels has significantly increased air pollution. Coal and petroleum contain several aromatic compounds including benzothiophenes and dibenzothiophenes, the combustion products of which contain oxides of nitrogen, sulfur and carbon dioxide. Heavy metal compounds such as lead and mercury are also produced. Air pollution causes increase in lung diseases, allergies and cardiovascular diseases (Gupta, 2010).

Increased production of CO2 has shown marked increase in temperature due to global warming. A study conducted in 2007 showed that in the past 50 years temperature has increased approximately by 0.13oC per decade. Furthermore, a study conducted by IPCC showed that from 1961 to 2003, the average sea levels rose by 1.8mm per year as a result of global warming. Also, the concentrations of green house gases, which contain methane, carbon dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, have prominently increased since the industrial revolution (Osborne, 2007).

Now coming towards the impact of fossil fuels on industrialization and ease of transportation, there can be no doubt that energy obtained from fossil fuels has changed the face of both the fields. The use of fossil fuels in the internal combustion engine as a means of providing energy to motor vehicles has not only increased the efficiency and speed of vehicles but played a revolutionary role in making automobiles smaller, faster and more powerful. It has opened up new means of transportation, from motor bikes to airplanes to large luxury ships.

Fossil fuels are burned to generate steam to generate electricity that now powers numerous transportation systems, industries and commercial goods factories. Indeed energy obtained from coal was the driving force behind the industrial revolution that began in Europe. It was not until the 19th century that the use of fossil fuels as an energy source made it possible to build large steamers and factories, requiring less man power, increasing economy and standard of life of people of the country (Hester, 2003).

The second of Marshall McLuhan’s law asks; what was the technology or method that has now become obsolete owing to the popular use of oil and gas as energy sources. Conventionally, it was firewood that was burned to supply energy to cook food, keep homes warm and fuel ships. Indeed some communities such as the ancient Egyptians even built their homes and buildings to capture and utilize the solar energy from the sun. In ancient times pits from fruits was often used as a source of fuel when firewood was scare. Vegetable oil was obtained from olive, radishes and sunflowers and Indian oil was skimmed off melted butter. Both of these oils were used as fuel in lamps (Garbini, 1966).

In fact even today in many developing nations where access to fossil fuels is little or people are unable to afford it due to rising prices biomass, which is a mixture of firewood and agricultural residues, is still used instead of oil or gas. A study shows that in 1978 energy obtained from burning of firewood was more than 20% of the total energy consumption. In poor countries such as Africa almost all of the energy obtained is from firewood. Overall in developing countries the use of firewood as fuel is rapidly decreasing as fossil fuels come in to replace them as an energy source (de Montalember, 1983).

The third law of media by Marshall McLuhan inquires about the technology or method that has been retrieved by the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. A very large portion of fossil fuels in the modern world is used to produce steam. This steam is then used to rotate turbines placed between large magnets and electricity is generated. This strikes a close comparison to the water wheels that were used in ancient times to convert kinetic energy of water into mechanical energy of the wheels.

The Romans used these water wheels to dewater underground mines. Part of such waterwheels can be found at archeological sites. A waterwheel was found in 1930 in an ancient gold mine, deep into the ground. The waterwheel has been found to date as far back as 90 AD. Similarly, Chinese used these water wheels to crush their grains in mills and for making cast iron. The Arab countries also used water wheels in numerous applications ranging from steel mills and grist mill to sugar mills. One of the wheels with a diameter as big as 20 meters is found preserved in Syria. A wheel found in Iraq is found to raise as much as 153,000 liters per hour. In ancient times a water wheel served the same purpose that it does now in the use of fossil fuels, that is to convert one form of energy to another. Nowadays chemical energy from fossil fuels is converted to electrical energy with the use of wheels, now called turbines (Lucas, 2006).

Lastly, we address Marshall McLuhan’s final law, that is when pushed to its extreme what will the media reverse into. Since use of fossil fuels is closely related to our day-to-day lives, any change in their use is bound to adversely affect our lifestyle. When reserves of fossil fuels start running out, countries will face shortages in their fuel supply and fuel prices will hike up. Poor countries would not be able to afford them and will have to go back to conventional farming methods. There would be shortage of food. In developed countries restrictions would be placed on the use of fossil fuels. A similar thing happened in America after World War II when gasoline was short and speed limits were set up.

As oil and gas deplete, people in colder countries might have to migrate to warmer countries near the equator. Countries where basic life processes such as farming are carried out by oil and gas as a means of energy, such as North America and Europe, will suffer the most from their depletion than other countries might. Thus new designs for cars, air planes and factories would have to be made to increase the efficiency. Nuclear fission reactors, solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells would come in to replace the role of fossil fuels (Snook, 2008).

Fossil Fuels are non-renewable resources and will deplete sooner than we expect. Thus to protect our future generation, there is an urgent need to think of new and environment friendly solutions.


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