Fools for Fossil Fuels

More than 80% of our global energy comes from fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal. We’ve used fossil fuels for centuries to keep us warm, cook our food and power our machines – but they’re running out.

Crisis is a word that’s overused

We’re so used to reading about crises of differing degrees of urgency that it’s easy to ignore them.
Whether it’s daily headlines about the state of our world’s finances, the latest celebrity marriage breakdown or a football team that’s lost its last three matches, we take the word with a pinch of salt. The fossil fuel crisis, however, is one we cannot afford to turn our backs on.
We’ve already extracted the fossil fuels that are within easy reach. Those that remain are in increasingly remote or difficult locations, such as deep parts of the ocean.
And extracting them is difficult and dangerous. Plus they are costly to businesses, communities and economies when things go wrong. The disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in early 2010 is just one example of how devastating the impact can be.

But while fossil fuel supplies are running out, demand continues to rise.

Rich nations have built their economies on cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, and demand continues to grow. Emerging economic giants like China, India and Brazil need energy to fuel their own development.

On top of this, the world’s population is projected to increase to over nine billion over the next 40 years.

Yet according to the International Energy Agency, production from known oil and gas reserves will fall by around 40 to 60% by 2030.

Fossil fuels present a more immediate threat
When we burn them, the carbon they contain is released into the atmosphere. Increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere trap more of the sun’s heat, adding to the “greenhouse effect” that causes climate change.

And we’re now emitting carbon dioxide at an ever-increasing rate – 80% of the carbon dioxide emissions that heat up our planet come from burning fossil fuels.

Yet instead of reversing this trend, energy companies are increasingly turning to unconventional sources of oil and gas – such as oil sands and methane hydrates, which emit even higher levels of greenhouse gases.

On top of this, many remaining fossil fuel reserves are located in pristine places such as tropical rainforests and the Arctic.

Given all this, you might expect governments to be doing everything in their power to move away from fossil fuels towards renewable alternatives. In fact, the opposite is true.

  • Globally, governments pay more than US$500 billion a year to subsidize fossil fuel production and consumption
  • About 2/3 of that is spent in the developing world.
  • Redirecting these subsidies into energy efficiency and renewable energy would do far more to lift people out of poverty, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That the world faces an energy crisis is beyond doubt. But it’s not – yet – too late to avert it.

If everyone in the world consumed at the same rate as the average US resident, conventional oil reserves would be depleted in just 9 years

Fossil fuel facts

  • The world’s 7 leading economies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Russia, also known as the G8 – pumped out 40% of world carbon dioxide emissions in 2006.
  • Coal is the world’s most widely available fossil fuel, but also one of the most damaging. Burning coal generates 70% more carbon dioxide than natural gas for every unit of energy produced.
  • Per person, emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in the US are more than 4x the world average.
Melting iceberg on coast Qaanaaq, Greenland. The rate of loss of Greenland Ice Sheet has increased three fold between assessment periods in the 1990s and the current decade. It is estimated that if Greenland temperatures rise 3°C above pre-industrial levels, the Greenland ice sheet may pass a tipping point and be committed to complete loss. The Greenland ice cap has the potential to increase global sea levels by 7.2m over time, if it is all lost.
© WWF / Staffan Widstrand/

Arctic at risk of environmental disaster from oil drilling

Extracting oil from the Arctic is dangerous and complicated – and has the potential to cause environmental disaster on a massive scale. So why are energy companies so keen to tap into this treacherous territory?
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April 2010 it caused one of the largest oil spills in history. Oil flowed for 3 months. An estimated 700 million litres spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

The accident killed 11 people and devastated marine wildlife. It put more than 400 species at risk, including endangered fish and sea turtles, causing long-term damage to their habitats. It also hit the region’s fishing and tourism industries hard. It showed us just how devastating and dangerous deepwater drilling can be.

There have been scores of other oil spills and disasters since the 60s – from a well blow-out in the North Sea in 1977 to a ruptured pipeline off Rio de Janeiro in 2000.

Each had massive environmental and financial consequences.

A similar spill in a more remote or hostile environment could be even more disastrous. Yet some energy companies are willing to take the risk. Desperate to pursue the last drops of oil our planet has left, they are pushing for deepwater drilling in the Arctic region.

The Arctic plays an essential role in regulating our climate around the globe – like a giant reflective shield, it limits the amount of sun and heat the Earth absorbs. It is home to some of the world’s most distinctive mammals, such as walruses, whales and the iconic polar bear.

A vast area of fjords and tundra, jagged peaks and frozen seas, glaciers and icebergs, and ice and snow, the Arctic is one of the planet's last pristine regions. But for how much longer? It holds the world’s largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of the largest undeveloped oil reserves. Much of this is offshore and difficult to access.

Containing and clearing up an oil spill in the Arctic would be no easy feat.

The harsh weather – high winds and freezing temperatures – make it even harder to respond to oil spills. It could take as long as 6 months to get to oil that was trapped under ice. If you waited for the ice to melt, the oil would have time to spread far and wide.

Ecosystems there are particularly fragile. Low temperatures and limited sunlight mean it can take decades for them to recover from any disruption.

The human population is vulnerable too. Many communities in the region depend entirely on the sea for subsistence hunting and fishing. An oil spill would be devastating to their culture.

The Energy Report is not a prescription, it is a vision. It is there to stimulate debate...

What do you think of the findings and vision in The Energy Report?
Dowload the Energy Report (pdf 16MB)

Nuclear: part of the solution or part of the problem?

It’s expensive to develop, dangerous to dispose of and difficult to control – but to some it’s an answer to our energy crisis…
Nuclear energy is already used to produce electricity on a large scale, and the resulting carbon emissions are low. Could nuclear power be the solution to our energy crisis?

The United States has more than 50,000 tons of nuclear waste, Germany around 12,000. This highly radioactive material has yet to be disposed of securely and, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it’ll be 10,000 years before its threat to public health is substantially reduced.

And nuclear is no ‘easy’ technology. It requires highly trained staff, it’s expensive, and existing power stations are inefficient.

Setting up new power stations also require massive investments, and projects can end up costing a lot more than originally predicted.

And while generating electricity may not produce carbon emissions, the whole process – from mining uranium to storing radioactive waste – uses huge amounts of fossil fuels.

So, is a new generation of nuclear power stations a sensible investment?

We could achieve far more by spending the money on energy efficiency and renewable power. This is particularly true in the developing world – nuclear energy will never be a solution for the 1.4 billion people currently denied electricity.

We need to end this distraction and get on with cutting our energy waste and building up the clean sources of sustainable energy.
 / ©: National Geographic Stock/ Medford Taylor / WWF
Nuclear is an unethical and expensive option.
© National Geographic Stock/ Medford Taylor / WWF

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