Fossil fuels are the most commonly used means of energy in the modern world. Mostly in the form of oil, natural gas, and coal, these fuels power cars and machines, heat homes, and run most factories. Although fossil fuel has been used by humans since ancient times, the massive application of its power did not begin until the Industrial Revolution of the 1850s. In the 21st century, humans are beginning to understand the major limitations of these forms of energy, as well as the severe negative implications of fossil fuel consumption.
The term fossil fuel refers to the geological processes that create fuel material. Animal and plant matter, buried for millions of years under the surface of the Earth, eventually heats and compresses to form usable fuel. The process takes about 30 million years to complete, and thus is an extremely slow method of creating energy. Although vast reserves of fossil fuel exist, the dramatic increase in fossil fuel consumption since the 19th century has lead to the severe depletion of these reserves. One of the most devastating consequence of fossil fuel consumption is simply that the reserves are running out while society remains massively dependent on them.
Although they are inherently a natural substance, fossil fuel consumption leads to a severe increase in air, water, and land pollution. In order to create energy, the fuel must be burned, releasing chemical compounds into the air. Carbon dioxide, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides are three of the most common results of burning fossil fuels, all of which lead to atmospheric damage to the ozone layer as well as contributing to acid rain.
In urban centers, the mass burning of fuel to power cars also releases enough smoke to cause pollutant hazes known as smog. In addition to creating an unattractive, orange-brown haze over the affected area, smog can also be potentially harmful to humans that inhale it. Many experts believe that smog can be a contributing cause to respiratory diseases such as asthma, as well as potentially worsening already-existent lung or breathing problems in some people.
Fossil fuel consumption also requires that the fuel be transported from the reserves around the world. Unfortunately, uncertain and unenforced safety precautions can lead to environmentally devastating oil spills as the fuel is transported across oceans. When oil spills occur near coastlines, the impact is often more pronounced due to the large amount of marine and coastal animals, fish, and birds that live in the region. Some oil spills have directly resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 animals, while also decimating fishing industries for years.
The many negative implications of fossil fuel consumption have lead to a shift in public policy throughout much of the developed world. Leaders and scientists are now actively urging the invention and perfection of alternative energy sources to replace traditional fossil fuel uses. Regardless of the environmental impacts of fossil fuel consumption, the dwindling reserves make the implementation of alternative fuels a race against time. Thanks to environmental and scientific pressure, most of the new energy sources being explored in the 21st century are both renewable and safe for the planet. Solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal power look to become major replacements for fossil fuel consumption.