Over the past two hundred or so years, the modern world has become completely dependent on fossil fuels. They now are an utterly indispensable part of modern society and, without a doubt; the world would both literally and figuratively come to a complete standstill without them. But what happens if they were to run out, and why is their use currently such a monumental issue?
Firstly – scientists warn that, being a finite source of energy, fossil fuels are bound to one day run out. If that became the case today, what would happen?
Well, firstly, it’d be difficult to get anywhere beyond the front door. The estimated 1.2 billion cars and 312000 aircraft in the world today almost exclusively rely on oil as their energy source – one of the three substances referred to as ‘fossil fuels’.
Travelling anywhere is assuming you’ll actually make it to the front door; if it were not for coal-produced electricity, the second fossil fuel, you would not be able to heat your home, and, given the current frosty temperatures as we head into the new year, survival may suddenly become a rather pressing issue.
You’d have to light the stove in a bid to raise the house’s internal temperature, but here we are again reliant on fossil fuels, this time the third fossil fuel, gas, to do so. Otherwise, you’d have to get hold of an axe and find your nearest forest to chop wood before it gets dark.
To call for help you’d have nothing but your solitary voice, because all modern communication methods: landline, mobile and everyone’s favourite WhatsApp, all require electricity which means we have to burn more and more coal, even the ageing postal system is dependent on fossil fuels!
Statistics tell a stark story. In 2011, 85.6% of the UK’s energy came from fossil fuels. As of 2013, this figure was only down 1.4%, at 84.2%. In the same years, US dependence on fossil fuels stood at 83.7% and 83.6%.
Yet it is estimated that world oil reserves will run dry in 53 years, natural gas supplies will be exhausted in 54 and coal will run out in 110.
Though reliance on fossil fuels is now in gradual decline, we are still hugely dependent on them for the fulfilment of most of our energy needs. The event of them eventually running out will necessarily mean our world coming to a virtual standstill, and, as above imagined a lot of people dying.
The Greenhouse Effect
However, an arguably greater danger of the continued use of fossil fuels at such high levels is climate change, more descriptively termed as ‘global warming’. The earth absorbs vast amounts of heat from the Sun, but also reflects a lot out. What keeps the heat in the earth and us warm is our ozone layer, a gaseous layer around our earth, made up mainly of carbon dioxide and methane, which absorbs a lot of this reflected energy in the form of heat, thus regulating and maintaining a safe Earth temperature for human, animal and plant life to flourish. The rest of the heat leaves our atmosphere and goes into space.
Burning fossil fuels, however, produces dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide, like wearing a jumper, hat, scarf, coat and gloves in summer, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere means that too much heat is being retained, and that the earth is warming to perilously-high temperatures. This is the second and greater danger of the use of fossil fuels, and is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’.
A Grim Statistical Outlook
Statistics bear powerful witness that the earth is heating up. According to the World Meteorological Association (WMO), the five-year period from 2011–15 is the hottest on record. The previous year of 2014 has been officially declared the warmest ever. Nine of the hottest ten years on record have been in the 21st century, with the sole exception at the very tail end of the last, 1998. June of this year has been the earth’s hottest, as well as the first half of this year as a whole. 2015 is ‘97% likely’ to be the hottest year in human history. The record for the coldest year, conversely, was last broken way back in 1911, and global temperature has been increasing ever since. The average global surface temperature for January to October of this year is + 0.73°C on the 1961–1990 average, an already massive increase on the + 0.57°C difference of 2014.
‘+ 0.73°C?!,’ I hear you exclaim. ‘What difference does that make?’
After all, we, especially here in the UK, experience the fluctuation of the temperature by at least a few degrees on a daily basis, and, throughout the year, the rise and fall of the temperature by at least 20°C with the coming of winter and summer is a completely ordinary phenomenon. So what exactly is the big deal?
What it is, is that the amount of heat needed to warm the vast reams of the earth’s oceans, land and atmosphere by even a single degree is enormous. Though this change in global surface temperature by a single degree would be largely imperceptible to the human skin; it will have a significant effect on the planet as a whole. And, according to the UK Met Office, the world is on the verge of this one-degree temperature increase. This, according to the Met Office ‘means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into unchartered [sic] territory at a frightening speed.’
Experts warn that, if climate change continues unabated, or, even if restricted, not restricted sufficiently, then heatwaves, droughts and wildfires will become increasingly common. Extreme-heat events already cause more deaths every year than ‘hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.’ Eventually, the European summer heatwave of 2003, which caused the death of 70,000, will become ‘the annual norm’. Also, the average global sea level has increased eight inches since 1880 and continued global warming puts low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands at great risk of being completely inundated and likely destroying the countries as well as killing the inhabitants.
Increasing temperatures and rising sea levels are just some of the numerous and devastating consequences of which experts warn if global warming isn’t heavily curbed very soon – before it’s too late!
A lot closer to home, near the end of 2015, vast swathes of Northern England have been flooded as a result of exceptionally-high levels of continued rainfall causing scores of rivers to burst their banks. Yorkshire and Cumbria were particularly affected – with the town Glenridding of the latter having been flooded for the third time in a single month. Manchester city centre was also flooded when the river Irwell breached its banks downstream, and 5500 homes in the town of Rochdale in Greater Manchester were left without electricity after the inundation of an electricity substation.
According to research at Oxford University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, climate change makes such flooding on average ‘40%’ more likely. According to the Met Office, man-made global warming means that such events of extreme UK rainfall are ‘seven times more likely’.
To try and tackle the issue, representatives from 196 countries met from November to December 2015 in a conference in Paris to discuss climate change and try and come up with a plan to urgently reduce carbon emissions. An agreement was reached, known popularly as the ‘Paris Agreement’, committing signatories to reduce the global temperature increase to less than 2 °C as compared to pre-industrial times.
The agreement, however, despite being lauded by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius as ‘ambitious and balanced’ and a ‘historic’ turning point in the fight against global warming, has met with criticism, as it lacks binding commitments, instead featuring ‘aims’ and ‘promises’.
The agreement will be open for signature in April 2016 to the 197 countries of the United Nations Framework Covention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The agreement will only come into force if 55 countries that produce at least 55% of carbon dioxide ratify (make binding through national law) the treaty. However, it is not currently known which or how many of the signatories will comply.
Here, the issue of enforcement is where agreements have historically foundered. In 1997, 82 countries signed the ‘Kyoto Protocol’, but the US, by far the biggest emitter, did not ratify the treaty and was thus completely unobliged to remain bound by it. In 2009, for the first time, all participants in the Copenhagen Summit agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. But, no legally-binding treaty was agreed upon.
Ultimately, the crisis can be averted. At this present time, when the vast majority of the damage forecast that the change in weather will bring is expected rather than in effect, the biggest polluters in the world especially, and the world as a whole generally, has the chance to mend its ways. It requires a measure of long-sightedness; short-term gain needs to give way to long-term survival. Considerable time and effort, that would have otherwise been directed towards the growth and expansion of the use of fossil fuels, needs to be directed towards weaning the world off of them. We need to find alternative solutions to meet our energy needs, before our current ones run out and before their usage causes devastatingly irreversible damage to our planet.