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A fossil fuel is a
hydrocarbon In organic chemistry Organic chemistry is a branch of chemistry Chemistry is the study of the properties and behavior of . It is a that covers the that make up matter to the composed of s, s and s: their composition, structure, prop ...
-containing material formed underground from the remains of dead plants and animals that humans extract and
burn A burn is a type of injury Injury, also known as physical trauma, is damage Damage is any change in a thing, often a physical object, that degrades it away from its initial state. It can broadly be defined as "changes introduced into a ...
to release
energy In physics Physics is the that studies , its , its and behavior through , and the related entities of and . "Physical science is that department of knowledge which relates to the order of nature, or, in other words, to the regula ...

energy
for use. The main fossil
fuel A fuel is any material that can be made to react with other substances so that it releases energy as thermal energy Thermal radiation in visible light can be seen on this hot metalwork. Thermal energy refers to several distinct physical con ...

fuel
s are
coal Coal is a combustible , Germany ) , image_map = , map_caption = , map_width = 250px , capital = Berlin , coordinates = , largest_city = capital , languages_type = Official language , languages = German language, German , ...

coal
,
petroleum Petroleum, also known as crude oil and oil, is a naturally occurring, yellowish-black liquid A liquid is a nearly incompressible In fluid mechanics or more generally continuum mechanics, incompressible flow (isochoric process, isoc ...

petroleum
and
natural gas Natural gas (also called fossil gas; sometimes just gas) is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting of methane and commonly including varying amounts of other higher alkanes, and sometimes a small percentage of carbon dioxid ...

natural gas
, which humans extract through
mining Mining is the extraction of valuable mineral In geology and mineralogy, a mineral or mineral species is, broadly speaking, a solid chemical compound with a fairly well-defined chemical composition and a specific crystal structure that occu ...

mining
and
drilling Drilling is a cutting process that uses a drill bit to cut a hole of circular cross section (geometry), cross-section in solid materials. The drill bit is usually a rotary Cutting tool (machining), cutting tool, often multi-point. The bit is Pr ...
. Fossil fuels may be burnt to provide heat for use directly (e.g. for cooking), to power engines (such as
internal combustion engine An internal combustion engine (ICE or IC engine) is a heat engine In thermodynamics and engineering, a heat engine is a system that converts heat to mechanical energy, which can then be used to do work (physics), mechanical work. It doe ...

internal combustion engine
s in motor vehicles), or to
generate electricity Generate may refer to: * Creation (disambiguation) Science and math: * Generate and test (trial and error) * Generating function, in math and Generating function (physics), physics * Generating primes * Generating set * Generating trigonometric ta ...
. The principal origin of fossil fuels is the
anaerobic decomposition Anaerobic digestion is a sequence of processes by which microorganisms A microorganism, or microbe,, ''mikros'', "small") and ''organism'' from the el, ὀργανισμός, ''organismós'', "organism"). It is usually written as a single w ...
of buried dead
organism In biology Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their anatomy, physical structure, Biochemistry, chemical processes, Molecular biology, molecular interactions, Physiology, physiological ...

organism
s, containing
organic molecules , CH4; is among the simplest organic compounds. In chemistry, organic compounds are generally any chemical compounds that contain carbon-hydrogen chemical bond, bonds. Due to carbon's ability to Catenation, catenate (form chains with other carbon ...
created in ancient
photosynthesis Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to convert Conversion or convert may refer to: Arts, entertainment, and media * Conversion (Doctor Who audio), "Conversion" (''Doctor Who'' audio), an episode of the audio drama ' ...

photosynthesis
. The transitions from these source materials to high-carbon fossil fuels typically requires a geological process of millions of years, sometimes more than 650 million years. Fossil fuels can be transformed into other chemicals or derivatives by the
refining {{Unreferenced, date=December 2009 Refining (also perhaps called by the mathematical term affining) is the process of purification of a (1) substance Substance may refer to: * Substance (Jainism), a term in Jain ontology to denote the base or owner ...
and
chemical industries A chemical substance is a form of matter In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. All everyday objects that can be touched are ultimately composed of atoms, which ...
. Commonly-used refined fossil fuels include
kerosene Kerosene, paraffin, or lamp oil is a combustible , Germany ) , image_map = , map_caption = , map_width = 250px , capital = Berlin , coordinates = , largest_city = capital , languages_type = Official language , languages = G ...

kerosene
,
gasoline Gasoline () or petrol () (see the #Etymology, etymology for naming differences and the use of the term ''gas'') is a transparent, petroleum-derived flammable liquid that is used primarily as a fuel in most spark-ignition engine, spark-ignite ...

gasoline
and
propane Propane () is a three-carbon Carbon (from la, carbo "coal") is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol C and atomic number 6. It is nonmetallic and tetravalence, tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalen ...

propane
, and common chemicals include most
plastics Plastics are a wide range of syntheticA synthetic is an artificial material produced by organic chemistry, organic chemical synthesis. Synthetic may also refer to: In the sense of both "combination" and "artificial" * Synthetic chemical or s ...

plastics
and
agricultural chemicals An agrochemical or agrichemical, a contraction of ''agricultural chemical'', is a chemical A chemical substance is a form of matter having constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. Some references add that chemical substance ...
such as fertilizers and pesticides. As of 2018, the world's main
primary energy Primary energy (PE) is an energy In , energy is the that must be to a or to perform on the body, or to it. Energy is a ; the law of states that energy can be in form, but not created or destroyed. The unit of measurement in the ...
sources consisted of petroleum (34%), coal (27%), and natural gas (24%), amounting to an 85% share for fossil fuels in
primary energy consumption in the world
primary energy consumption in the world
. Non-fossil sources included
nuclear
nuclear
(4.4%),
hydroelectric Hydroelectricity, or hydroelectric power, is electricity produced from hydropower Hydropower (from el, ὕδωρ, "water"), also known as water power, is the use of falling or fast-running water Water (chemical formula H2O) is a ...
(6.8%), and other
renewable energy Renewable energy is energy that is collected from renewable resource File:Global Vegetation.jpg, Global vegetation A renewable resource, also known as a flow resource, is a natural resource which will replenish to replace the portion resou ...
sources (4.0%, including geothermal,
solar Solar may refer to: Astronomy * Of or relating to the Sun. ** A solar telescope 175px, The Swedish 1-m Solar Telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma in the Canary Islands. A solar telescope is a special purpose telescope used ...

solar
, tidal,
wind Wind is the natural movement of air or other gases relative to a planet's surface. Wind occurs on a range of scales, from thunderstorm A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by th ...

wind
,
wood Wood is a porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of tree In botany, a tree is a perennial plant with an elongated Plant stem, stem, or trunk (botany), trunk, supporting branches and leaves in most species. ...
, and
waste Waste (or wastes) are unwanted or unusable materials. Waste is any substance which is discarded after primary use, or is worthless, defective and of no use. A by-product A by-product or byproduct is a secondary product derived from a produ ...
). The share of renewable sources (including traditional biomass) in the world's total final energy consumption was 18% in 2018. Fossil fuels cause serious
environmental damageImage:Wallaroo-mines-0749.jpg, Eighty-plus years after the abandonment of Wallaroo Mines (Kadina, South Australia), mosses remain the only vegetation at some spots of the site's grounds. Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environm ...
and direct negative consequences on local communities at every stage in their use: extraction, transportation and consumption of the fuels. Most significantly, the burning of fossil fuels produces around 35 billion
tonnes The tonne ( or ; symbol: t) is a metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilogram The kilogram (also kilogramme) is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units (SI), the current metric system, having the unit symbol kg. I ...
(35
gigatonne The tonne ( or ; symbol: t) is a metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilogram The kilogram (also kilogramme) is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units (SI), the current metric system, having the unit symbol kg. I ...
s) of
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide (chemical formula A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of s that constitute a particular or molecule, using symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as pare ...

carbon dioxide
(CO2) per year, or about 89% of all carbon dioxide emissions.
Natural processes
Natural processes
on Earth (mostly through absorption by the ocean) can only absorb a small part of this amount, therefore there is a net increase of many billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year. Carbon dioxide is a
greenhouse gas A greenhouse gas (GHG or GhG) is a gas that Absorption (electromagnetic radiation), absorbs and Emission (electromagnetic radiation), emits radiant energy within the thermal infrared range, causing the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhou ...
that increases
radiative forcing Radiative forcing is the change in energy flux in the atmosphere caused by Climate variability and change, natural or Human impact on the environment#Impacts on climate, anthropogenic factors of climate change as measured by watts / metre2. It is ...
, thus fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions causing
global warming Contemporary climate change includes both the global warming caused by humans, and its impacts on Earth's weather patterns. There have been , but the current changes are more rapid than any known events in Earth's history. The main cau ...

global warming
and
ocean acidification Ocean acidification is the ongoing decrease in the pH value of the Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbour and support life. 29.2% of Earth's surface is land consisting of cont ...
. Additionally, most
air pollution Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other Outline of life forms, living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials. There are different types of air pollutants, ...

air pollution
deaths are due to fossil fuel
combustion Combustion, or burning, is a high-temperature exothermic redox chemical reaction between a fuel (the reductant) and an oxidant, usually atmospheric oxygen, that produces oxidized, often gaseous products, in a mixture termed as smoke. Combustion ...
products: it is estimated that this pollution costs over 3% of global GDP, and that
fossil fuel phase-out Fossil fuel phase-out is the gradual reduction of the use and production of to zero. It is part of the ongoing . Current efforts in fossil fuel phase-out involve replacing fossil fuels with sources in sectors such as , and . Alternatives ...
would save 3.6 million lives each year. Recognition of the
climate crisis Climate crisis is a term describing global warming and climate change, and their consequences. The term has been used to describe the threat of global warming to the planet, and to urge aggressive climate change mitigation. For example, a Janu ...
,
pollution Pollution is the introduction of contaminant Contamination is the presence of a constituent, impurity, or some other undesirable element that spoils, corrupts, infects, makes unfit, or makes inferior a material, physical body, natural en ...

pollution
and other negative impacts caused by fossil fuels has led to a widespread policy transition and activist movement focused on ending their use in favor of renewable energy. However, because the
fossil fuel industry A fossil fuel is a fuel formed by natural processes, such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organism In biology, an organism (from Ancient Greek, Greek: ὀργανισμός, ''organismos'') is any individual contiguous sys ...
is so important to the global economy and historically heavily subsidized, this transition is expected to have significant economic impacts. Many stakeholders argue that this change needs to be a
just transition Just transition is a framework developed by the trade union A trade union (or a labor union in American English American English (AmE, AE, AmEng, USEng, en-US), sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of va ...
and create policy that addresses the
stranded assetStranded assets are "asset In financial accountancy, financial accounting, an asset is any resource owned or controlled by a business or an economic entity. It is anything (tangible or intangible) that can be used to produce positive economic value ...
s of the fossil fuel industry. International policy, in the form of , and the
Paris Climate Agreement The Paris Agreement (french: l'accord de Paris) is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty add ...
, is designed to facilitate this transition at a global level. In 2021, the
International Energy Agency The International Energy Agency (IEA; french: Agence internationale de l'énergie) is a Paris Paris () is the Capital city, capital and List of communes in France with over 20,000 inhabitants, most populous city of France, with an estima ...
concluded that no new fossil fuel extraction projects could be opened if the global economy and society wants to avoid the worst
impacts of climate change The effects of climate change span the physical environment, ecosystems and human societies. It also includes the economic and social changes which stem from living in a warmer world. Human-caused climate change is one of the threats to sustaina ...
and meet international goals for
climate change mitigation Climate change mitigation consists of actions to limit global warming Contemporary climate change includes both the global warming caused by humans, and its impacts on Earth's weather patterns. There have been , but the current cha ...
.


Origin

The theory that fossil fuels formed from the of dead plants by exposure to heat and pressure in
Earth's crust 350px, Plates in the crust of Earth Earth's crust is a thin shell on the outside of Earth, accounting for less than 1% of Earth's volume. It is the top component of the lithosphere, a division of Earth's layers that includes the Crust (geology), ...
over millions of years was first introduced by
Andreas Libavius Andreas Libavius or Andrew Libavius was born in Halle, Germany c. 1550 and died in July 1616. Libavius was a renaissance man who spent time as a professor at the University of Jena The University of Jena, officially the Friedrich Schiller Uni ...

Andreas Libavius
"in his 1597 Alchemia lchymia and later by
Mikhail Lomonosov Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov (; russian: Михаил (Михайло) Васильевич Ломоносов, p=mʲɪxɐˈil vɐˈsʲilʲjɪvʲɪtɕ , a=Ru-Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov.ogg; – ) was a Russian polymath A polymath ( e ...

Mikhail Lomonosov
"as early as 1757 and certainly by 1763". The first use of the term "fossil fuel" occurs in the work of the German chemist
Caspar Neumann Caspar (or Kaspar) Neumann (14 September 1648 – 27 January 1715) was a German professor and clergyman from Breslau with a special scientific interest in mortality rates. Biography Caspar Neuman was born September 14, 1648 in Breslau, to M ...
, in English translation in 1759. The ''
Oxford English Dictionary The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' (''OED'') is the principal historical dictionary A historical dictionary or dictionary on historical principles is a dictionary which deals not only with the latterday meanings of words but also the historica ...
'' notes that in the phrase "fossil fuel" the adjective "fossil" means " tained by digging; found buried in the earth", which dates to at least 1652, before the English noun "fossil" came to refer primarily to long-dead organisms in the early 18th century. Aquatic
phytoplankton Phytoplankton () are the autotrophic An autotroph or primary producer is an organism that produces complex organic compound , CH4; is among the simplest organic compounds. In chemistry, organic compounds are generally any chemical compoun ...

phytoplankton
and
zooplankton Zooplankton (; ) are heterotroph A heterotroph (; from Ancient Greek Ancient Greek includes the forms of the Greek language used in ancient Greece and the classical antiquity, ancient world from around 1500 BC to 300 BC. It is often ro ...

zooplankton
that died and sedimented in large quantities under anoxic conditions millions of years ago began forming petroleum and natural gas as a result of
anaerobic decomposition Anaerobic digestion is a sequence of processes by which microorganisms A microorganism, or microbe,, ''mikros'', "small") and ''organism'' from the el, ὀργανισμός, ''organismós'', "organism"). It is usually written as a single w ...
. Over
geological time The geologic time scale (GTS) is a system of chronological datingChronological dating, or simply dating, is the process of attributing to an object or event a date in the past, allowing such object or event to be located in a previously establish ...

geological time
this
organic Organic may refer to: * Organic, of or relating to an organism, a living entity * Organic, of or relating to an anatomical organ (anatomy), organ Chemistry * Organic matter, matter that has come from a once-living organism, is capable of decay or ...
matter In classical physics Classical physics is a group of physics theories that predate modern, more complete, or more widely applicable theories. If a currently accepted theory is considered to be modern, and its introduction represented a major ...
, mixed with
mud Mud is soil Surface-water- gley developed in glacial till, Northern Ireland.">Northern_Ireland.html" ;"title="glacial till, Northern Ireland">glacial till, Northern Ireland. Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, a ...

mud
, became buried under further heavy layers of inorganic sediment. The resulting high
temperature Temperature ( ) is a physical quantity that expresses hot and cold. It is the manifestation of thermal energy Thermal radiation in visible light can be seen on this hot metalwork. Thermal energy refers to several distinct physical concept ...

temperature
and
pressure Pressure (symbol: ''p'' or ''P'') is the force In physics, a force is an influence that can change the motion (physics), motion of an Physical object, object. A force can cause an object with mass to change its velocity (e.g. moving fr ...

pressure
caused the organic matter to chemically alter, first into a waxy material known as
kerogen Kerogen is solid, insoluble organic matter Organic matter, organic material, or natural organic matter refers to the large source of Carbon compounds, carbon-based compounds found within natural and engineered, terrestrial, and aquatic environm ...
, which is found in
oil shale Oil shale is an organic-rich containing (a solid mixture of ) from which liquid s can be produced, called . Shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil; however, extracting shale oil is costlier than the production of conventional ...

oil shale
s, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis. Despite these heat-driven transformations (which increase the energy density compared to typical organic matter by removal of oxygen atoms),Schmidt-Rohr, K. (2015). "Why Combustions Are Always Exothermic, Yielding About 418 kJ per Mole of O2", ''J. Chem. Educ.'' 92: 2094-2099. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00333 the energy released in combustion is still photosynthetic in origin.
Terrestrial plant A terrestrial plant is a plant Plants are predominantly photosynthetic eukaryotes of the Kingdom (biology), kingdom Plantae. Historically, the plant kingdom encompassed all living things that were not animals, and included algae and fungi; ho ...
s tended to form
coal Coal is a combustible , Germany ) , image_map = , map_caption = , map_width = 250px , capital = Berlin , coordinates = , largest_city = capital , languages_type = Official language , languages = German language, German , ...

coal
and methane. Many of the coal fields date to the
Carboniferous The Carboniferous ( ) is a geologic period The geologic time scale (GTS) is a system of chronological dating that classifies Geology, geological strata (stratigraphy) in time. It is used by geologists, paleontology, paleontologists, and other ...
period of Earth's history. Terrestrial plants also form type III kerogen, a source of
natural gas Natural gas (also called fossil gas; sometimes just gas) is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting of methane and commonly including varying amounts of other higher alkanes, and sometimes a small percentage of carbon dioxid ...

natural gas
. Although fossil fuels are continually formed by natural processes, they are classified as
non-renewable resources A non-renewable resource (also called a finite resource) is a natural resource that cannot be readily replaced by natural means at a quick enough pace to keep up with consumption. An example is carbon-based fossil fuel. The original organic matter ...
because they take millions of years to form and known viable reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are generated. There is a wide range of organic compounds in any given fuel. The specific mixture of hydrocarbons gives a fuel its characteristic properties, such as density, viscosity, boiling point, melting point, etc. Some fuels, like natural gas, for instance, contain only very low boiling, gaseous components. Others such as gasoline or diesel contain much higher boiling components.


Importance

Fossil fuels are of great importance because they can be burned (
oxidized (mild reducing agent) are added to powdered potassium permanganate (strong oxidizing agent), a violent redox reaction accompanied by self-ignition starts. Redox (reduction–oxidation, pronunciation: or ) is a type of chemical reaction A ...

oxidized
to
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide (chemical formula A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of s that constitute a particular or molecule, using symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as pare ...

carbon dioxide
and water), producing significant amounts of
energy In physics Physics is the that studies , its , its and behavior through , and the related entities of and . "Physical science is that department of knowledge which relates to the order of nature, or, in other words, to the regula ...
per unit mass. The use of
coal Coal is a combustible , Germany ) , image_map = , map_caption = , map_width = 250px , capital = Berlin , coordinates = , largest_city = capital , languages_type = Official language , languages = German language, German , ...

coal
as a fuel predates recorded history. Coal was used to run furnaces for the
smelting Smelting is a process of applying heat to ore in order to extract a base metal. It is a form of extractive metallurgy. It is used to extract many metals from their ores, including Silver mining#Ore processing, silver, iron-making, iron, copper ...
of metal ore. While semi-solid hydrocarbons from seeps were also burned in ancient times, they were mostly used for waterproofing and
embalming Embalming is the art and science of preserving human remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition Decomposition is the process by which dead organic substance , CH4; is among the simplest organic com ...
. Commercial exploitation of
petroleum Petroleum, also known as crude oil and oil, is a naturally occurring, yellowish-black liquid A liquid is a nearly incompressible In fluid mechanics or more generally continuum mechanics, incompressible flow (isochoric process, isoc ...

petroleum
began in the 19th century, largely to replace oils from animal sources (notably
whale oil Whale oil is oil An oil is any nonpolar chemical substance A chemical substance is a form of matter In classical physics and general chemistry, matter is any substance that has mass and takes up space by having volume. All ev ...
) for use in
oil lamp An oil lamp is an object used to produce light continuously for a period of time using an oil-based fuel source. The use of oil lamps began thousands of years ago and continues to this day, although their use is less common in modern times. ...

oil lamp
s.
Natural gas Natural gas (also called fossil gas; sometimes just gas) is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting of methane and commonly including varying amounts of other higher alkanes, and sometimes a small percentage of carbon dioxid ...

Natural gas
, once flared-off as an unneeded byproduct of petroleum production, is now considered a very valuable resource. Natural gas deposits are also the main source of
helium Helium (from el, ἥλιος, helios Helios; Homeric Greek: ), Latinized as Helius; Hyperion and Phaethon are also the names of his father and son respectively. often given the epithets Hyperion ("the one above") and Phaethon ("the shining" ...

helium
.
Heavy crude oilHeavy crude oil (or extra heavy crude oil) is highly-viscous oil that cannot easily flow from production wells under normal reservoir conditions. It is referred to as "heavy" because its density or specific gravity is higher than that of light crude ...
, which is much more viscous than conventional crude oil, and
oil sands Oil sands, tar sands, crude bitumen, or bituminous sands, are a type of unconventional oil, unconventional petroleum deposit. Oil sands are either loose sands or partially consolidated sandstone containing a naturally occurring mixture of s ...
, where
bitumen Asphalt, also known as bitumen (, ), is a sticky, black, highly viscous The viscosity of a fluid In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually Deformation (mechanics), deforms (flows) under an applied shear stress, or externa ...

bitumen
is found mixed with sand and clay, began to become more important as sources of fossil fuel in the early 2000s.
Oil shale Oil shale is an organic-rich containing (a solid mixture of ) from which liquid s can be produced, called . Shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil; however, extracting shale oil is costlier than the production of conventional ...

Oil shale
and similar materials are
sedimentary Sedimentary rocks are types of rock (geology), rock that are formed by the accumulation or deposition of mineral or organic matter, organic particles at Earth#Surface, Earth's surface, followed by cementation (geology), cementation. Sedimentatio ...

sedimentary
rocks containing
kerogen Kerogen is solid, insoluble organic matter Organic matter, organic material, or natural organic matter refers to the large source of Carbon compounds, carbon-based compounds found within natural and engineered, terrestrial, and aquatic environm ...
, a complex mixture of high-molecular weight organic compounds, which yield
synthetic crude oil Synthetic crude is the output from a bitumen/extra heavy oil upgrader facility used in connection with oil sand production. It may also refer to shale oil, an output from an oil shale pyrolysis Pyrolysis is the thermal decomposition of mate ...
when heated (). With additional processing, they can be employed instead of other established fossil fuels. During the 2010s and 2020s there was
disinvestment Disinvestment refers to the use of a concerted economic boycott to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy, or in the case of governments, even regime change. The term was first used in the 1980s, most commonly in th ...
from exploitation of such resources due to their high relative to more easily-processed reserves. Prior to the latter half of the 18th century,
windmill A windmill is a structure that converts wind power into rotational energy by means of vanes called windmill sail, sails or blades, specifically to mill (grinding), mill grain (gristmills), but the term is also extended to windpumps, wind turbine ...

windmill
s and
watermill A watermill or water mill is a mill that uses hydropower Hydropower (from el, ὕδωρ, "water"), also known as water power, is the use of falling or fast-running water to Electricity generation, produce electricity or to power machines. T ...

watermill
s provided the energy needed for work such as milling
flour Flour is a powder A powder is a dry, bulk solid Solid is one of the four fundamental states of matter (the others being liquid, gas and plasma). The molecules in a solid are closely packed together and contain the least amount ...

flour
, or pumping water, while burning wood or
peat Peat (), also known as turf (), is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation Vegetation is an assemblage of species and the they provide. It is a general term, without specific reference to particular , life forms, structure, ...
provided domestic heat. The wide-scale use of fossil fuels, coal at first and petroleum later, in
steam engine from Stott Park Bobbin Mill, Cumbria, England A steam engine is a heat engine In thermodynamics Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that deals with heat, Work (thermodynamics), work, and temperature, and their relation to energ ...

steam engine
s enabled the
Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Great Britain, continental Europe Continental Europe or mainland Europe is the contiguous continent A continent is any of several large landmasse ...
. At the same time, using natural gas or
coal gas Coal gas is a flammable gaseous fuel Fuel gas is any one of a number of fuels that under ordinary conditions are gaseous. Many fuel gases are composed of hydrocarbons (such as methane or propane), hydrogen, carbon monoxide, or mixtures there ...

coal gas
were coming into wide use. The invention of the
internal combustion engine An internal combustion engine (ICE or IC engine) is a heat engine In thermodynamics and engineering, a heat engine is a system that converts heat to mechanical energy, which can then be used to do work (physics), mechanical work. It doe ...

internal combustion engine
and its use in
automobile A car (or automobile) is a wheeled motor vehicle A motor vehicle, also known as motorized vehicle or automotive vehicle, is a self-propelled vehicle, commonly wheeled, that does not operate on Track (rail transport), rails (such as trains o ...

automobile
s and
truck A truck or lorry is a motor vehicle A motor vehicle, also known as motorized vehicle or automotive vehicle, is a self-propelled vehicle A vehicle (from la, vehiculum) is a machine that transports people or cargo. Vehicles include ...

truck
s greatly increased the demand for
gasoline Gasoline () or petrol () (see the #Etymology, etymology for naming differences and the use of the term ''gas'') is a transparent, petroleum-derived flammable liquid that is used primarily as a fuel in most spark-ignition engine, spark-ignite ...

gasoline
and
diesel oil Diesel fuel in general is any liquid fuel Liquid fuels are combustible or energy-generating molecules that can be harnessed to create mechanical energy In physical sciences Physical science is a branch of natural science that studies abi ...
, both made from fossil fuels. Other forms of transportation,
railways Rail transport (also known as train transport) is a means of transferring passengers and goods on wheeled vehicle A vehicle (from la, vehiculum) is a machine that transports people or cargo. Vehicles include wagons, bicycles, motor veh ...

railways
and
aircraft An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to flight, fly by gaining support from the Atmosphere of Earth, air. It counters the force of gravity by using either Buoyancy, static lift or by using the Lift (force), dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in ...

aircraft
, also require fossil fuels. The other major use for fossil fuels is in generating electricity and as
feedstock A raw material, also known as a feedstock, unprocessed material, or primary commodity, is a basic material that is used to produce goods In economics Economics () is the social science that studies how people interact with value; in par ...
for the
petrochemical industry The petrochemical industry is concerned with the production and trade of petrochemicals Petrochemicals (sometimes abbreviated as petchems) are the chemical products obtained from petroleum Petroleum (), also known as crude oil and oil, is a ...
.
Tar Tar is a dark brown or black viscous The viscosity of a fluid In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually Deformation (mechanics), deforms (flows) under an applied shear stress, or external force. Fluids are a Phase (matter), ...

Tar
, a leftover of petroleum extraction, is used in the .


Environmental effects

The burning of fossil fuels has a number of negative
externalities In economics Economics () is the social science that studies how people interact with value; in particular, the Production (economics), production, distribution (economics), distribution, and Consumption (economics), consumption of goods ...

externalities
harmful environmental impacts where the effects extend beyond the people using the fuel. The actual effects depend on the fuel in question. All fossil fuels release when they burn, thus accelerating
climate change Contemporary climate change includes both the global warming caused by humans, and its impacts on Earth's weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current changes are more rapid than any known even ...
. Burning coal, and to a lesser extent oil and its derivatives, contribute to
atmospheric particulate matter upright=1.7, Movie map of distribution of aerosol particles, based on data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite: * Green areas show aerosol plumes dominated by larger particles. * Red area ...
,
smog Smog, or smoke fog, is a type of intense air pollution Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere An atmosphere (from the greek words ἀτμός ''(atmos)'', meaning 'vapour', and σφαῖρα ''(sphaira)'', mea ...

smog
and
acid rain Acid rain is a rain or any other form of Precipitation (meteorology), precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it has elevated levels of hydrogen ions (low pH). It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infras ...
. Climate change is largely driven by the release of greenhouse gasses like , with the burning of fossil fuels being the main source of these emissions. In most parts of the world climate change is negatively impacting ecosystems. This includes contributing to the extinction of species (see also
extinction risk from global warming The extinction risk of climate change is the risk of species In biology, a species is the basic unit of biological classification, classification and a taxonomic rank of an organism, as well as a unit of biodiversity. A species is often defin ...
) and reducing people's ability to produce food, thus adding to the problem of
world hunger Malnutrition is a condition that results from eating a Diet (nutrition), diet which does not supply a healthy amount of one or more nutrients. This includes diets that have too little nutrients or so many that the diet causes health problems. T ...
. Continued rises in global temperatures will lead to further adverse
effects Effect may refer to: * A result A result (also called upshot) is the final consequence of a sequence of actions or events expressed qualitatively or quantitatively. Possible results include wikt:advantage, advantage, disadvantage, Gain (accounting ...
on both ecosystems and people, with the
World Health Organization The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations United Nations Specialized Agencies are autonomous organizations working with the United Nations and each other through the co-ordinating machinery of the Unit ...
having stated climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. Combustion of fossil fuels generates and
nitric acid Nitric acid (), also known as ''aqua fortis'' (Latin for "strong water") and spirit of niter, is a highly corrosive mineral acid. The pure compound is colorless, but older samples tend to acquire a yellow cast due to decomposition into nitroge ...

nitric acid
s, which fall to Earth as acid rain, impacting both natural areas and the built environment. Monuments and sculptures made from
marble Marble is a metamorphic rock , a type of metamorphic rock Metamorphic rocks arise from the transformation of existing rock (geology), rock to new types of rock, in a process called metamorphism upright=1.35, Schematic representation of ...

marble
and
limestone Limestone is a common type of carbonate In chemistry, a carbonate is a salt Salt is a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride (NaCl), a chemical compound belonging to the larger class of Salt (chemistry), salts; salt in its na ...

limestone
are particularly vulnerable, as the acids dissolve
calcium carbonate Calcium carbonate is a chemical compound A chemical compound is a chemical substance composed of many identical molecules (or molecular entity, molecular entities) composed of atoms from more than one chemical element, element held togethe ...

calcium carbonate
. Fossil fuels also contain radioactive materials, mainly
uranium Uranium is a chemical element In chemistry, an element is a pure Chemical substance, substance consisting only of atoms that all have the same numbers of protons in their atomic nucleus, nuclei. Unlike chemical compounds, chemical elem ...

uranium
and
thorium Thorium is a weakly radioactive Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay, radioactivity, radioactive disintegration or nuclear disintegration) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus The atomic nucleus is the sma ...

thorium
, which are released into the atmosphere. In 2000, about 12,000
tonnes The tonne ( or ; symbol: t) is a metric unit of mass equal to 1,000 kilogram The kilogram (also kilogramme) is the base unit of mass in the International System of Units (SI), the current metric system, having the unit symbol kg. I ...
of thorium and 5,000 tonnes of uranium were released worldwide from burning coal. It is estimated that during 1982, US coal burning released 155 times as much radioactivity into the atmosphere as the
Three Mile Island accident The Three Mile Island accident was a Nuclear meltdown, partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, Three Mile Island, Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor in Pennsylvania. It began at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979. It is the most significa ...
. Burning coal also generates large amounts of
bottom ash Bottom ash is part of the non-combustible , Germany ) , image_map = , map_caption = , map_width = 250px , capital = Berlin , coordinates = , largest_city = capital , languages_type = Official language , languages = German langua ...
and
fly ash Fly ash, flue ash, coal ash, or pulverised fuel ash (in the UK) plurale tantum: coal combustion residuals (CCRs)is a coal combustion product that is composed of the particulates (fine particles of burned fuel) that are driven out of coal-fired bo ...
. These materials are used in a wide variety of applications (see ), utilizing, for example, about 40% of the United States production. In addition to the effects that result from burning, the harvesting, processing, and distribution of fossil fuels also have environmental effects.
Coal mining Coal mining is the process of extracting coal Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock, formed as stratum, rock strata called coal seams. Coal is mostly carbon with variable amounts of other Chemical element, ele ...

Coal mining
methods, particularly mountaintop removal and
strip mining Surface mining, including strip mining, open-pit mining and mountaintop removal mining, is a broad category of mining Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the Earth, usually from an ore body, lod ...

strip mining
, have negative environmental impacts, and
offshore oil drilling Offshore drilling is a mechanical process where a wellbore A borehole is a narrow shaft bored in the ground, either vertically or horizontally. A borehole may be constructed for many different purposes, including the extraction of water ...
poses a hazard to aquatic organisms. Fossil fuel wells can contribute to methane release via
fugitive gas emissions Fugitive gas emissions are emissions of gas (typically natural gas, which contains methane) to Atmosphere of Earth, atmosphere or groundwater which result from Fossil fuel, oil and gas activity. Most emissions are the result of loss of well integri ...
.
Oil refineries An oil refinery or petroleum refinery is an industrial process Industrial processes are procedures involving chemical A chemical substance is a form of matter having constant chemical composition and characteristic properties. Some referenc ...
also have negative environmental impacts, including air and water pollution. Transportation of coal requires the use of diesel-powered locomotives, while crude oil is typically transported by tanker ships, requiring the combustion of additional fossil fuels. A variety of mitigating efforts have arisen to counter the negative effects of fossil fuels. This includes a movement to use alternative energy sources, such as
renewable energy Renewable energy is energy that is collected from renewable resource File:Global Vegetation.jpg, Global vegetation A renewable resource, also known as a flow resource, is a natural resource which will replenish to replace the portion resou ...
.
Environmental regulation Environmental law is a collective term encompassing aspects of the law that provide protection to the environment. A related but distinct set of regulatory regimes, now strongly influenced by environmental legal principles, focus on the manageme ...
uses a variety of approaches to limit these emissions; for example, rules against releasing waste products like fly ash into the atmosphere. Other efforts include economic incentives, such as increased taxes for fossil fuels, and subsidies for alternative energy technologies like
solar panels A solar cell panel, solar electric panel, photo-voltaic (PV) module or just solar panel is an assembly of photo-voltaic cells mounted in a framework for installation. Solar panels use sunlight Sunlight is a portion of the given off by ...

solar panels
. In December 2020, the United Nations released a report saying that despite the need to reduce greenhouse emissions, various governments are "doubling down" on fossil fuels, in some cases diverting over 50% of their COVID-19 recovery
stimulus A stimulus is something that causes a physiological response. It may refer to: *Stimulation Stimulation is the encouragement of development or the cause of activity generally. For example, "The press provides stimulation of political discourse." ...
funding to fossil fuel production rather than to alternative energy. The UN secretary general
António Guterres António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres (; ; born 30 April 1949) is a Portuguese Portuguese may refer to: * anything of, from, or related to the country and nation of Portugal ** Portuguese cuisine, traditional foods ** Portuguese language, a Roma ...

António Guterres
declared that "Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes backand it is already doing so with growing force and fury." However, Guterres also said there is still cause for hope, anticipating
Joe Biden Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. ( ; born November 20, 1942) is an American politician who is the 46th and current president of the United States The president of the United States (POTUS) is the head of state and head of government of th ...

Joe Biden
's plan for the US to join other large emitters like China and the EU in adopting targets to reach
net zero Carbon neutrality refers to achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. This can be done by balancing emissions of carbon dioxide with its removal (often through carbon offset A carbon offset is a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide or oth ...
emissions by 2050.


Illness and deaths

Environmental pollution from fossil fuels impacts humans because
particulates Particulates – also known as atmospheric aerosol particles, atmospheric particulate matter, particulate matter (PM), or suspended particulate matter (SPM) – are microscopic The microscopic scale (from , ''mikrós'', "small" and σκοπ ...
and other
air pollution Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other Outline of life forms, living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials. There are different types of air pollutants, ...

air pollution
from fossil fuel combustion cause illness and death when inhaled. These health effects include premature death, acute respiratory illness, aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function. The poor, undernourished, very young and very old, and people with preexisting respiratory disease and other ill health are more at risk. Total global air pollution deaths reach 7 million annually. While all energy sources inherently have adverse effects, the data shows that fossil fuels cause the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions and are the most dangerous for human health. In contrast, modern renewable energy sources appear to be safer for human health and cleaner. The death rate from accidents and air pollution in the EU are as follows per terawatt-hour: coal (24.6 deaths), oil (18.4 deaths), natural gas (2.8 deaths), biomass (4.6 deaths), hydropower (0.02 deaths), nuclear energy (0.07 deaths), wind (0.04 deaths), and solar (0.02 deaths). The greenhouse gas emissions from each energy source are as follows, measured in tonnes: coal (820 tonnes), oil (720 tonnes), natural gas (490 tonnes), biomass (78-230 tonnes), hydropower (34 tonnes), nuclear energy (3 tonnes), wind (4 tonnes), and solar (5 tonnes). As the data shows, coal, oil, natural gas, and biomass cause higher death rates and higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than hydropower, nuclear energy, wind, and solar power. Scientists propose that 1.8 million lives have been saved by replacing fossil fuel sources with nuclear power.


Phase-out


Just transition


Divestment


Energy sector

In 2014, global energy sector revenue was about US$8 trillion, with about 84% fossil fuel, 4% nuclear, and 12% renewable (including hydroelectric). In 2014, there were 1,469 oil and gas firms listed on stock exchanges around the world, with a combined
market capitalization Market capitalization, commonly called market cap, is the market value of a publicly traded company A public company, publicly traded company, publicly held company, publicly listed company, or public limited company A public limited compan ...
of US$4.65 trillion. In 2019,
Saudi Aramco Saudi Aramco ( ar, أرامكو السعودية '), officially the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (formerly Arabian-American Oil Company), is a Saudi Arabia (''Shahada'') , national_anthem = "National Anthem of Saudi Arabia, " "Nation ...
was listed and it reached a US$2 trillion valuation on its second day of trading, after the world's largest initial public offering.


Economic effects

Air pollution Air pollution is the presence of substances in the atmosphere that are harmful to the health of humans and other Outline of life forms, living beings, or cause damage to the climate or to materials. There are different types of air pollutants, ...

Air pollution
from fossil fuels in 2018 has been estimated to cost US$2.9 trillion, or 3.3% of global GDP.


Subsidy

The
International Energy Agency The International Energy Agency (IEA; french: Agence internationale de l'énergie) is a Paris Paris () is the Capital city, capital and List of communes in France with over 20,000 inhabitants, most populous city of France, with an estima ...
estimated 2019 global government
fossil fuel subsidies Energy subsidies are measures that keep prices for customers below market levels, or for suppliers above market levels, or reduce costs for customers and suppliers. Energy subsidies may be direct cash transfers to suppliers, customers, or relat ...
to have been $320 billion. A 2015 report studied 20 fossil fuel companies and found that, while highly profitable, the hidden economic cost to society was also large. The report spans the period 2008–2012 and notes that: "For all companies and all years, the
economic costEconomic cost is the combination of losses of any goods that have a value attached to them by any one individual. Economic cost is used mainly by economists as means to compare the prudence of one course of action with that of another. The factors t ...
to society of their emissions was greater than their after‐tax profit, with the single exception of ExxonMobil in 2008." In the case of coal-only companies, the impact is worse: "the economic cost to society exceeds total revenue in all years, with this cost varying between nearly $2 and nearly $9 per $1 of revenue". In this case, total revenue includes "employment, taxes, supply purchases, and indirect employment". Fossil fuel prices generally are below their actual costs, or their "efficient prices", when Externality, economic externalities, such as the costs of air pollution and global climate destruction, are taken into account. Fossil fuels are Fossil fuel subsidies, subsidized in the amount of $4.7 trillion in 2015, which is equivalent to 6.3% of the 2015 global Gross domestic product, GDP and are estimated to grow to $5.2 trillion in 2017, which is equivalent to 6.5% of global GDP. The largest five subsidizers in 2015 were the following: Energy policy of China, China with $1.4 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies, the energy in the United States, United States with $649 billion, energy in Russia, Russia with $551 billion, the energy in the European Union, European Union with $289 billion, and energy in India, India with $209 billion. Had there been no subsidies for fossil fuels, global carbon emissions would have been lowered by an estimated 28% in 2015, air-pollution-related deaths reduced by 46%, and government revenue increased by $2.8 trillion or 3.8% of GDP. United States government subsidies include financing provided by the US Export-Import Bank (USEIB), an agency of the US federal government, for overseas projects by Big Oil, large petrochemical corporations. During the administration of US President Obama, USEIB provided close to $34 billion to finance 70 fossil fuel projects around the world, including in Queensland, Australia, Mpumalanga, South Africa, and Madhya Pradesh, India.'


Effect of government subsidy

A major effect of state subsidy for petrochemical production has been increased petroleum extraction, extraction, including increased investment into new oil well, wells. Estimated at an oil price of $50 per barrel, tax preferences and other US government subsidies have rendered profitable close to half of the investment in new oil production. This US government subsidy is estimated to drive an increase in American oil production of 17 billion barrels over the next few decades. This increase in oil use is equivalent to 6 billion tons of
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide (chemical formula A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of s that constitute a particular or molecule, using symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as pare ...

carbon dioxide
, and comprises as much as 20% of US oil production through 2050, assuming an overall carbon budget that limits average
global warming Contemporary climate change includes both the global warming caused by humans, and its impacts on Earth's weather patterns. There have been , but the current changes are more rapid than any known events in Earth's history. The main cau ...

global warming
to 2 °C.


See also

* Abiogenic petroleum origin proposes that petroleum is not a fossil fuel * Bioremediation * Carbon bubble * Environmental impact of the energy industry * Externality * Fossil Fools Day * Fossil Fuel Beta * Fossil fuel divestment * Oil well, Fossil fuel drilling * Fossil fuel exporters * Fossil fuel phase-out * Fossil fuels lobby * Fugitive gas emissions * Hydraulic fracturing * Liquefied petroleum gas * Low-carbon power * Peak coal * Peak gas * Petroleum industry * Phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles * Eco-economic decoupling * Shale gas *
Oil shale Oil shale is an organic-rich containing (a solid mixture of ) from which liquid s can be produced, called . Shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil; however, extracting shale oil is costlier than the production of conventional ...

Oil shale


Footnotes


Further reading

* Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (eds.), ''Oil Culture.'' Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014. * Bob Johnson, ''Carbon Nation: Fossil Fuels in the Making of American Culture.'' Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2014.


External links


Global Fossil Infrastructure Tracker

Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air
{{DEFAULTSORT:Fossil Fuel Fossil fuels,