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A fossil fuel is a hydrocarbon-containing material formed naturally in the Earth's crust from the remains of dead plants and animals that is extracted and burned as a
fuel A fuel is any material that can be made to react with other substances so that it releases energy as thermal energy or to be used for work (physics), work. The concept was originally applied solely to those materials capable of releasing chem ...
. The main fossil fuels are
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, elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen ...
, oil, and
natural gas Natural gas (also called fossil gas or simply gas) is a naturally occurring mixture of gaseous hydrocarbons consisting primarily of methane in addition to various smaller amounts of other higher alkanes. Low levels of trace gases like carbon di ...
. Fossil fuels may be burned to provide heat for use directly (such as for cooking or heating), to power engines (such as
internal combustion engine An internal combustion engine (ICE or IC engine) is a heat engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer (usually air) in a combustion chamber that is an integral part of the working fluid flow circuit. In an internal combust ...
s in motor vehicles), or to generate electricity. Some fossil fuels are refined into derivatives such as
kerosene Kerosene, paraffin, or lamp oil is a combustibility, combustible hydrocarbon liquid which is derived from petroleum. It is widely used as a fuel in Aviation fuel, aviation as well as households. Its name derives from el, κηρός (''keros' ...
,
gasoline Gasoline (; ) or petrol (; ) (see ) is a transparent, petroleum-derived flammable liquid that is used primarily as a fuel in most Spark-ignition engine, spark-ignited internal combustion engines (also known as petrol engines). It consists ...
and propane before burning. The origin of fossil fuels is the anaerobic decomposition of buried dead
organism In biology, an organism () is any life, living system that functions as an individual entity. All organisms are composed of cells (cell theory). Organisms are classified by taxonomy (biology), taxonomy into groups such as Multicellular o ...
s, containing organic molecules created by
photosynthesis Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to Energy transformation, convert light energy into chemical energy that, through cellular respiration, can later be released to fuel the organism's activities. Some of this chemica ...
. The conversion from these materials to high-carbon fossil fuels typically require a geological process of millions of years. In 2019, 84% of primary energy consumption in the world and 64% of its electricity was from fossil fuels. The large-scale burning of fossil fuels causes serious
environmental damage Environmental degradation is the deterioration of the environment (biophysical), environment through depletion of resources such as quality of air, water and soil; the destruction of ecosystems; habitat destruction; the extinction of wildlife; an ...
. Over 80% of the
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide ( chemical formula ) is a chemical compound made up of molecules that each have one carbon Carbon () is a chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol C and atomic number 6. It is nonmetallic and tetravalence, tetraval ...
(CO2) generated by human activity comes from burning them: around 35 billion
tonne The tonne ( or ; symbol: t) is a unit of mass equal to 1000 kilograms. It is a International System of Units#Non-SI units accepted for use with SI, non-SI unit accepted for use with SI. It is also referred to as a metric ton to disting ...
s a year, compared to 4 billion from land development. Natural processes on Earth, mostly absorption by the ocean, can only remove a small part of this. Therefore, there is a net increase of many billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year. Although methane leaks are significant, the burning of fossil fuels is the main source of
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 greenhouse ...
emissions causing
global warming In common usage, climate change describes global warming—the ongoing increase in global average temperature—and its effects on Earth's climate system. Climate variability and change, Climate change in a broader sense also includes ...
and
ocean acidification Ocean acidification is the reduction in the pH value of the Earth’s ocean. Between 1751 and 2021, the average pH value of the ocean surface has decreased from approximately 8.25 to 8.14. The root cause of ocean acidification is carbon dioxide ...
. Additionally, most air pollution deaths are due to fossil fuel
particulates Particulates – also known as atmospheric aerosol particles, atmospheric particulate matter, particulate matter (PM) or suspended particulate matter (SPM) – are microscopic particles of solid or liquid matter suspension (chemistry), suspen ...
and noxious gases. It is estimated that this costs over 3% of the global
gross domestic product Gross domestic product (GDP) is a money, monetary Measurement in economics, measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced and sold (not resold) in a specific time period by countries. Due to its complex and subjec ...
and that
fossil fuel phase-out Fossil fuel phase-out is the gradual reduction of the use and production of fossil fuels to zero. It is part of the ongoing renewable energy transition. Current efforts in fossil fuel phase-out involve replacing fossil fuels with sustainabl ...
would save millions of lives each year. Recognition of the
climate crisis ''Climate crisis'' is a term describing global warming and climate change, and their Effects of climate change, impacts. The term and the alternative term ''climate emergency'' have been used to describe the threat of global warming to humanity (a ...
,
pollution Pollution is the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change. Pollution can take the form of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or energy (such as radioactivity, heat, sound, or light). Pollutants, the ...
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 sustainable energy. However, because the fossil-fuel industry is so heavily integrated in the global economy and heavily subsidized, this transition is expected to have significant economic impacts. Many stakeholders argue that this change needs to be a just transition and create policy that addresses the societal burdens created by the stranded assets of the fossil fuel industry. International policy, in the form of United Nations sustainable development goals for affordable and clean energy and climate action, as well as the Paris Climate Agreement, is designed to facilitate this transition at a global level. In 2021, the
International Energy Agency The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a Paris-based autonomous Intergovernmental organization, intergovernmental organisation, established in 1974, that provides policy recommendations, analysis and data on the entire global energy sector, wit ...
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 and meet international goals for
climate change mitigation Climate change mitigation is action to limit climate change by reducing Greenhouse gas emissions, emissions of greenhouse gases or Carbon sink, removing those gases from the atmosphere. The recent rise in global average temperature is mostly caus ...
.


Origin

The theory that fossil fuels formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants by exposure to heat and pressure in Earth's crust over millions of years was first introduced by Andreas Libavius "in his 1597 Alchemia lchymia and later by 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, in English translation in 1759. The ''
Oxford English Dictionary The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' (''OED'') is the first and foundational historical dictionary of the English language, published by Oxford University Press (OUP). It traces the historical development of the English language, providing a com ...
'' 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 (self-feeding) components of the plankton community and a key part of ocean and freshwater Aquatic ecosystem, ecosystems. The name comes from the Greek language, Greek words (), meaning 'plant', and (), m ...
and
zooplankton Zooplankton are the animal component of the planktonic community ("zoo" comes from the Greek word for ''animal''). Plankton are aquatic organisms that are unable to swim effectively against currents, and consequently drift or are carried along by ...
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. Over geological time this organic
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 are made up of interacting subatomic partic ...
, mixed with mud, became buried under further heavy layers of inorganic sediment. The resulting high temperature and
pressure Pressure (symbol: ''p'' or ''P'') is the force applied perpendicular to the surface of an object per unit area over which that force is distributed. Gauge pressure (also spelled ''gage'' pressure)The preferred spelling varies by country and e ...
caused the organic matter to chemically alter, first into a waxy material known as kerogen, which is found in
oil shale Oil shale is an organic-rich Granularity, fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen (a solid mixture of Organic compound, organic chemical compounds) from which liquid hydrocarbons can be produced. In addition to kerogen, general compos ...
s, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis. Despite these heat-driven transformations, the energy released in combustion is still photosynthetic in origin. Terrestrial plants tended to form coal and methane. Many of the coal fields date to the
Carboniferous The Carboniferous ( ) is a Period (geology), geologic period and System (stratigraphy), system of the Paleozoic that spans 60 million years from the end of the Devonian Period million years ago (Myr, Mya), to the beginning of the Permian Period, ...
period of
Earth's history The history of Earth concerns the development of planet A planet is a large, rounded Astronomical object, astronomical body that is neither a star nor its Stellar remnant, remnant. The best available theory of planet formation is the nebu ...
. Terrestrial plants also form type III kerogen, a source of 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 pace quick enough to keep up with consumption. An example is carbon-based fossil fuels. The original organic mat ...
because they take millions of years to form and known viable reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are generated.


Importance

Fossil fuels have been important to human development because they can be readily burned in the open atmosphere to produce heat. The use of
peat Peat (), also known as turf (), is an accumulation of partially Decomposition, decayed vegetation or organic matter. It is unique to natural areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, Moorland, moors, or muskegs. The peatland ecosystem covers and ...
as a domestic fuel predates recorded history. Coal was burned in some early furnaces for the
smelting Smelting is a process of applying heat to ore, 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 extracti ...
of metal ore, while semi-solid hydrocarbons from oil 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. This is usually done to make the deceased suitable for public or private viewing as part of the funeral ...
. Commercial exploitation of petroleum began in the 19th century. 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, lit=sun) is a chemical element with the symbol (chemistry), symbol He and atomic number 2. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert gas, inert, monatomic gas and the first in the noble gas gr ...

helium
.
Heavy crude oil Heavy 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 cru ...
, 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 viscosity, viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum. It may be found in natural deposits or may be a refined product, and is classed as a Pitch (resin), pitch. Before the ...

bitumen
is found mixed with sand and clay, began to become more important as sources of fossil fuel in the early 2000s. 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. Sedimentati ...

sedimentary
rocks containing kerogen, 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 sands, oil sand production. It may also refer to shale oil, an output from an oil shale pyrolysis. The properties of the synthetic crude de ...
when heated (). With additional processing, they can be employed instead of other established fossil fuels. During the 2010s and 2020s there was disinvestment 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 using vanes called windmill sail, sails or blades, specifically to mill (grinding), mill grain (gristmills), but the term is also extended to windpumps, wind turbines, and ...

windmill
s and
watermill A watermill or water mill is a mill that uses hydropower. It is a structure that uses a water wheel or water turbine to drive a mechanical process such as mill (grinding), milling (grinding), rolling, or hammering. Such processes are needed in ...

watermill
s provided the energy needed for work such as milling flour, or pumping water, while burning wood or
peat Peat (), also known as turf (), is an accumulation of partially Decomposition, decayed vegetation or organic matter. It is unique to natural areas called peatlands, bogs, mires, Moorland, moors, or muskegs. The peatland ecosystem covers and ...
provided domestic heat. The wide-scale use of fossil fuels, coal at first and petroleum later, in
steam engine A steam engine is a heat engine that performs mechanical work using steam as its working fluid. The steam engine uses the force produced by steam pressure to push a piston back and forth inside a Cylinder (locomotive), cylinder. This pus ...

steam engine
s enabled the
Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Great Britain, continental Europe, and the United States, that occurred during the period from around 1760 to about 1820–1840. This transition included going fr ...
. At the same time, using natural gas or
coal gas Coal gas is a flammable gaseous fuel made from coal and supplied to the user via a piped distribution system. It is produced when coal is heated strongly in the absence of air. Town gas is a more general term referring to manufactured gaseous ...

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 which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer (usually air) in a combustion chamber that is an integral part of the working fluid flow circuit. In an internal combust ...
and its use in
automobile A car or automobile is a motor vehicle with Wheel, wheels. Most definitions of ''cars'' say that they run primarily on roads, Car seat, seat one to eight people, have four wheels, and mainly transport private transport#Personal transport, pe ...

automobile
s and trucks greatly increased the demand for gasoline and
diesel oil Diesel fuel , also called diesel oil, is any liquid fuel Liquid fuels are combustible or energy-generating molecules that can be harnessed to create mechanical energy, usually producing kinetic energy; they also must take the shape of thei ...
, both made from fossil fuels. Other forms of transportation, railways and 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, finished goods, energy, or intermediate materials that are feedstock for future finished products. As feedst ...
for the
petrochemical industry The petrochemical industry is concerned with the production and trade of petrochemicals. A major part is constituted by the plastics industry, plastics (polymer) industry. It directly interfaces with the petroleum industry, especially the downstrea ...
.
Tar Tar is a dark brown or black viscosity, viscous liquid of hydrocarbons and free carbon, obtained from a wide variety of organic matter, organic materials through destructive distillation. Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat. ...

Tar
, a leftover of petroleum extraction, is used in the . The energy for the
Green Revolution The Green Revolution, also known as the Third Agricultural Revolution, was a period of technology transfer initiatives that saw greatly increased crop yields and agricultural production. These changes in agriculture began in developed countrie ...

Green Revolution
was provided by fossil fuels in the form of
fertilizer A fertilizer (American English) or fertiliser (British English; American and British English spelling differences#-ise, -ize (-isation, -ization), see spelling differences) is any material of natural or synthetic origin that is applied to soil ...

fertilizer
s (natural gas),
pesticide Pesticides are substances that are meant to control pests. This includes herbicide, insecticide, nematicide, molluscicide, piscicide, avicide, rodenticide, bactericide, insect repellent, animal repellent, microbicide, fungicide, ...
s (oil), and hydrocarbon-fueled
irrigation Irrigation (also referred to as watering) is the practice of applying controlled amounts of water to land to help grow Crop, crops, Landscape plant, landscape plants, and Lawn, lawns. Irrigation has been a key aspect of agriculture for over 5,00 ...

irrigation
. The development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has significantly supported global
population growth Population growth is the increase in the number of people in a population or dispersed group. Actual global human population growth amounts to around 83 million annually, or 1.1% per year. The World population, global population has grown from 1 b ...
; it has been estimated that almost half of the Earth's population are currently fed as a result of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use. According to head of a fertilizers commodity price agency, "50% of the world's food relies on fertilisers."


Environmental effects

The burning of fossil fuels has a number of negative
externalities In economics, an externality or external cost is an indirect cost or benefit to an uninvolved third party that arises as an effect of another party's (or parties') activity. Externalities can be considered as unpriced goods involved in either co ...
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 In common usage, climate change describes global warming—the ongoing increase in global average temperature—and its effects on Earth's climate system. Climate variability and change, Climate change in a broader sense also includes ...
. Burning coal, and to a lesser extent oil and its derivatives, contribute to atmospheric particulate matter, smog and acid rain. 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 Climate change and ecosystems, negatively impacting ecosystems. This includes contributing to the extinction of species and reducing people's ability to produce food, thus adding to the problem of world hunger. Continued rises in global temperatures will lead to further adverse effects of global warming, effects on both ecosystems and people, with the World Health Organization having stated climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. Combustion of fossil fuels generates sulfuric acid, sulfuric and nitric acids, which fall to Earth as acid rain, impacting both natural areas and the built environment. Monuments and sculptures made from marble and limestone are particularly vulnerable, as the acids dissolve calcium carbonate. Fossil fuels also contain radioactive materials, mainly uranium and thorium, which are released into the atmosphere. In 2000, about 12,000 tonnes 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. Burning coal also generates large amounts of bottom ash and fly ash. These materials are used in a wide variety of applications (see Fly ash#Reuse, Fly ash reuse), 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 methods, particularly mountaintop removal and strip mining, have negative environmental impacts, and offshore oil drilling poses a hazard to aquatic organisms. Fossil fuel wells can contribute to methane release via fugitive gas emissions. Oil refineries also have negative environmental impacts, including air and water pollution. Coal is sometimes transported by 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. Environmental regulation uses a variety of approaches to limit these emissions; for example, rules against releasing waste products like fly ash into the atmosphere. In December 2020, the United Nations released a report saying that despite the need to reduce greenhouse emissions, various governments are ":wikt:double down, doubling down" on fossil fuels, in some cases diverting over 50% of their COVID-19 recovery Stimulus (economics), stimulus funding to fossil fuel production rather than to alternative energy. The UN secretary general 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's plan for the US to join other large emitters like China and the EU in adopting targets to reach net zero 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 particles of solid or liquid matter suspension (chemistry), suspen ...
and other 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. Global air pollution deaths due to fossil fuels in 2018 have been estimated at over 8 million people, nearly 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. 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


Industrial sector

In 2019, Saudi Aramco 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 from fossil fuels in 2018 has been estimated to cost US$2.9 trillion, or 3.3% of the global
gross domestic product Gross domestic product (GDP) is a money, monetary Measurement in economics, measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced and sold (not resold) in a specific time period by countries. Due to its complex and subjec ...
(GDP).


Subsidies


Lobbying activities


See also

* Abiogenic petroleum origin – a proposal that petroleum is not a fossil fuel * Bioremediation * Carbon bubble * Eco-economic decoupling * Environmental impact of the energy industry * Fossil Fools Day * Fossil Fuel Beta * Hydraulic fracturing * Liquefied petroleum gas * Low-carbon power * Peak coal * Peak gas * Phase-out of fossil fuel vehicles * Shale gas


Notes


References


Further reading

* Barrett, Ross; Worden, Daniel (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,