A Climate Change with Matt Matern Climate Podcast


Uncovering the Truth: Examining the Pros and Cons of Fossil Fuels

pros and cons of fossil fuels

Depending on your outlook, the world is in a perilous position. The question of how we proceed from this moment regarding how we power the infrastructure of humanity is a topic of great debate. There’s no denying that fossil fuels aren’t perfect, but are they as bad as some would have us believe?

If we’re to consider a problem that affects every human being, the world over, the pros and cons of fossil fuels must be weighed carefully. It’s not so difficult to imagine living on this planet under different circumstances. Harmony ought not to be impossible between a world and its inhabitants; it’s just a case of navigating correctly.

In terms of direction and aim, we’re lost without informing ourselves as best we can about the topics that matter, taking care to watch ourselves carefully for bias. Before making a final rule on the topic of fossil fuels, it might do us good to reevaluate what we think we know, and how we think we know it.

Addressing Potential Biases

The use of fossil fuels is divisive. The narrative surrounding them is well-established and taught in school from an early age, and the message is clear. The use of fossil fuels is poisoning the world, and without intervention on a global scale, we’re going to make our world uninhabitable.

Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other problem gasses into the atmosphere, which contribute directly to the greenhouse effect. The gradual warming of the planet can be directly attributed to human activity, especially those activities that involve plundering the earth for naturally occurring resources. Most children can tell you the same thing by the age of eight and can explain the situation by rote.

If the question concerning the pros and cons of fossil fuels were simple, that would be enough information to go on. Unfortunately, the business of fossil fuels is a multi-trillion-dollar industry, and with those kinds of numbers, we can rest assured of a little obfuscation. All of what we know about the fossil fuel industry is what we’re taught, and what we’re taught is decided by the governing bodies of the countries we happen to live in.

This means we have to ask ourselves what we know, and how we think we know it. If the information we’re given is supplied by a group with a vested interest in shaping public opinion, we must question it and try to understand what’s shaping its intent. One thing is for sure, the truth behind the use of fossil fuels is the same as the driving force behind that of renewable energies; profit.

What Do You Know and How Do You Think You Know It?

With so much money on the line, it stands to reason that some of it might have gone into advertising. Adverts are “The means of communication in which a product, brand or service is promoted to a viewership to attract interest, engagement, and sales.” We’ve grown up in the information age, after all, and we should know better than anyone to question what we’re told.

In the case of fossil fuels, where the narrative is ubiquitous, it may be a good idea to consider why. It’s good practice, in general, to pay enough attention to notice if a debate seems one-sided and to find and consider the other, too, if we’re able.

To uncover the truth of something, it pays to take a reductionist stance and scrutinize our premises. Analyzing the consensus and questioning how it may have come about is as good a place to start as any. As the saying goes, “When in doubt, follow the money.”

The Energy War

Fossil fuels are bad, green energy is good. Not many people would argue this point, not because they’re experts in the field, but because they know what they’ve been told and what makes a certain sense. It’s a safe opinion; everyone believes it, so it must be true.

But can fossil fuels be good?

In an ideal world, all our energy would be clean, and derived from a renewable source. Harvesting all our energy from the sun, wind, and waves is a beautiful idea on paper, but the reality leaves a lot to be desired. Green energy is far from as clean as its proponents would have us believe, for example.

At the moment, the war between the continued use of fossil fuels and their replacement by more modern and ethical means is raging more fiercely than ever. If it were a simple question of what’s best for the environment, one side may very well triumph over the other by nothing more than simple merit and rationale. At the very least, Team Fossil Fuel and Team Green would be working together to bring about an agreed-upon goal as fast as possible.

Unfortunately, humanity’s goals are not united to this end. Instead, they’re as many and varied as the people who have the power and property to affect change on a large scale. The people who are capable of affecting these changes are the industrialists of the world, and their goals rarely align with those of Greenpeace, etc.

The energy war is first and foremost a fight over the minds of the planet’s inhabitants. If they fail to convince us, either way, of the toxic nature of fossil fuels or of the imperative necessity that we change to renewables, their market shares will reflect their failure. Revenue is the concern, not the state of the planet, and on this bottom line, the board members of both sides can agree.

The Necessity of Using Fossil Fuels

The switch away from dirty energy sounds great. Abundant, clean, and renewable energy that pollutes neither our environment nor our conscience is touted as the next step in humanity’s journey toward utopia. The vision of the future is clear, and it doesn’t leave room for smokestacks.

Unfortunately, reaching this idyllic vision isn’t as simple as flipping a switch or gluing your hand to the road. The switch is made harder still by the fact that fossil fuels are both fuel for the world we live in and a main ingredient in much of the materials we’ve used to make it. The reality of the situation is that 80% of the energy we use comes directly from nonrenewable energy sources, including the energy used to manufacture alternative routes to greener energy sources.

Fossil fuel is the foundation of our modern world. From bicycle tires to aspirin, most things not made from wood, glass, stone, or metal originate from the same place, including the plastics necessary for solar panels and wind farms. It’s simply impossible to achieve a reliance on renewable energy without burning fossil fuels to get there.

The Pros of Fossil Fuels

To better understand their importance, taking the time to appreciate some of the ways fossil fuels benefit us is a good idea. Doing so will help us understand exactly where we would be without them, despite the ruinous effect they have on the environment.

While it’s a noble pursuit to become an activist in the hopes of re-truing humanity’s aim in the name of avoiding acid rain and straw-choked turtles, there are some very real hurdles to overcome. Fossil fuels aren’t all bad, far from it, and that’s what makes them so hard to abolish.

If the choice were as simple as choosing between good and evil, beneficial and detrimental, wise and stupid, there wouldn’t be so much friction surrounding the topic. As things stand, the question of how to transition from a fossil fuel-burning species to being considerably more renewable-reliant is a difficult problem, to say the least.

Old Reliable

The reliable supply of energy is paramount to industry. The world runs on a schedule, and without strict adherence to this schedule, everything would quickly fall apart. If a train doesn’t get fuel, it can’t deliver the freight it promised. If the freight isn’t delivered, every business that needs it to survive takes a direct hit.

The people who rely upon these businesses to supply them with goods or gainful employment suffer from their lack. The key to this system is understanding that the fountainhead of all human endeavors in 2023 is a reliable source of energy. Without it, the world would simply stop turning and our way of life would become a distant memory.

A day’s delay for a train at the start of the supply chain becomes a three-day delay for the factory waiting on materials. This becomes a week’s delay for the factory worker, a month’s delay for the consumer, and so on and so forth.

Fossil fuels are reliable; they’re tried and true. For better or worse, and despite our hopes for more enlightened alternatives, they’re the lifeblood of the world we live in and we’d be lost without them.

Energy Density

Part of the beauty of fossil fuels is how dense their energy is. This means that we’re able to get a lot of energy out of a relatively small mass or volume, which is also handy in terms of transport and logistics.

If we take coal, for example, it’s a simple case of extracting it from a seam where it exists naturally and transporting it wherever necessary. The only processing required is mining and transportation, making it straightforward to deal with. It’s worth mentioning that the easier an energy source is to access, the harder it’ll be to do without or to find a suitable replacement.

Energy density is described as “The amount of energy stored in a given system or region of space per unit volume.” With an energy density of 24MJ/kg, coal scores relatively high on the list. Its ease of use and high energy density make it a particularly reliable fuel, especially considering the complicated processes involved in manufacturing alternatives.

Other fuels such as bioethanol (26.8MJ/kg) are more expensive due to production costs, despite being a greener alternative with a higher energy density. When it comes to big industry, and the massive scale involved, it makes perfect sense to prefer one over the other.

The Existing Infrastructure

Our cities and their industries didn’t just pop up overnight out of nothing. We’re standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years of economic development, whether it’s obvious to us or not. In the present day, it’s easy to take the infrastructure we have for granted and forget about its origins completely.

While we revere the idea of going completely green, and for good reason, we have to remember that the dream of doing so has its roots firmly embedded in the foundation of fossil fuels. This foundation is what has enabled us to even broach the question of perhaps finding a better, cleaner way to power our existence.

This infrastructure isn’t going to vanish simply because we’re becoming more aware of the damage our current solutions are doing to the environment. Instead, we’re going to have to work with it while simultaneously dismantling and replacing it. This is a herculean task, requiring total renovation of a system that has to somehow support its own destruction during the process.

All the power plants and industrial machinery that run on fossil fuels will have to be scrapped and replaced with green alternatives. The cost of doing so is astronomical, and the result is untested. The balance between what works and is dirty, to what might work and is clean, attracts a lot of skepticism concerning the idea as a whole.

The only certainty is that the process is going to be slow, costly, and something of a gamble.

Hard-Won Technology and Forced Obsolescence

A lot of technological innovation has gone into extracting and processing fossil fuels. It took hundreds of thousands of man-hours alone to research, develop, and invent the machines we use today to streamline all the processes necessary to deliver and utilize fossil fuels. At this point, we have never been so efficient at making use of naturally occurring fuel deposits.

The development of better techniques concerning the extraction of fossil fuels also does less damage to the environment than ever before. That’s not to say they’re guilt-free, but through the necessity of mollifying climate activists and other people who care for their planet, extraction methods have come a long way from their more barbaric origins.

There’s something to be said for everything we’ve learned and the knowledge amassed over years of innovation and problem-solving. Leaving fossil fuels behind us is an agreement to let much of the effort involved go to waste. There’s a compelling argument that methods may continue to advance to our great benefit if allowed to do so, but in the face of a green revolution, the chance may never come.

Cons of Fossil Fuels

The cons of fossil fuels are equally numerous. We hear about them much more frequently than we do of their pros, but they’re worth revisiting to strike a balance for the sake of argument.

The most obvious con is the hugely destructive nature fossil fuel pollution has on the temperature of the planet. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have heard all about the dangers of a rising average global temperature. It only takes a change of 1 or 2 degrees to wipe out entire ecosystems and irrevocably change the landscape for the worse.

Life on our planet exists in an incredibly delicate balance, one we usually take for granted. The general feeling is that whatever we do, nature will continue doing its thing unperturbed in the grand scheme of things. This is nonsense, and although the scale of the problem is hard to wrap our heads around, we’re to blame and without a successful rally for change, the decline we’ve wrought is set only to accelerate.

Air Pollution

Accessing the energy stored in fossil fuels is a dirty business. Perhaps in a thousand years we’ll look back on burning fossil fuels the same way we view surgeons performing amputation without anesthetic, but for the time being it’s the only method we have. For the moment, our only option is to set the medium on fire and do our best to harness the energy produced.

Part of the trouble with going about accessing the energy stored in fossil fuels and their derivatives is that burning them creates more than just energy. Common byproducts include sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and microscopic particulate matter. 

It will come as no surprise that air quality in general takes a significant dive in the vicinity of burning fossil fuels. This was a huge problem historically before the inclusion of filtration systems and their like, but even now big industry struggles to contain their noxious byproducts.

Even with modern filtration systems and strictly enforced pollution rules, the impacts of air pollution on health are incredibly high. Many deaths are attributed directly to impurities found in the air from burning fossil fuels every year, a statistic that’s impossible to ignore.

Volatile Pricing

The trade of fossil fuels is a war in and of itself. While it’s hardly unheard of for countries to go to war over natural resources, the price fossil fuels are bought and sold constitutes a different kind of fight. Civilizations rise and fall based on trade, and with products like coal and natural gas, their trade quickly becomes political.

This means that their prices can fluctuate wildly based on nothing other than political climate. For example, in 2022 the Nord Stream gas pipeline was destroyed. Russia blames the US and the UK, claiming political sabotage.

It’s impossible to know from an observer’s point of view what happened, other than that a pipeline was blown up for murky political reasons. It’s safe to assume that money was the reason behind this development in one way or another, and how targeting the supply of fossil fuels to an enemy country might be strategically viable.

Either way, fossil fuels are volatile in more ways than one, a fact that should be taken into consideration when weighing their pros and cons.

Water Contamination

Some methods of fossil fuel extraction require an enormous amount of water. In the case of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a chemical water and sand solution is injected with great pressure to expand cracks in the earth’s crust that may contain valuable resources. If exceptional care isn’t taken, the industrial-strength chemicals used can enter the water table.

Once they’re in there, there’s no telling where they’ll end up. Contaminated water can potentially find its way onto agricultural land, destroying or contaminating crops and poisoning animals. The contaminated water is easily swept under the rug, as the runoff spills into the depths of the earth itself. It doesn’t take a genius to wonder about the environmental impact this type of negligence might have in the long term.

Studies of fracking operations also suggest it’s not uncommon for gas and oil extraction operations to irreversibly destroy plant habitats and are often directly responsible for species decline, migratory disruptions, and land degradation in general.

It seems crazy that these operations are done in the full knowledge of their environmental outcomes, and we must remind ourselves of two unfortunate facts. The necessity of fuel is a constant and exists whether the world we live in is healthy or not. Money is just as potent a driving force as the power we wrest from fossil fuels, and is often seductive enough a prospect to allow ourselves a little environmental catastrophe for its acquisition.

The Pros and Cons of Fossil Fuels

The pros and cons of fossil fuels mentioned in this article are by no means an exhaustive list. The truth of the matter is that the problem is probably even more complex than we assume, and we can only hope that as technology continues to advance, it’ll be potent enough to help us erase the mistakes we’ve made along the way.

If you’ve got anything to add or think you’d make a good guest on A Climate Change with Matt Matern or know someone who would, we’d love to hear from you! Please don’t hesitate to contact us today.


Help Us Combat Climate Change by Subscribing to our Newsletter!