Fossil Fuels: Contribution and Impact


23 Mar 2015 15 Dec 2017

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Discuss the contribution of fossil fuel to modern human society and the environmental impact

The importance of Fossil Fuels to human society cannot be overemphasized. Public services such as buses, train system, general heating system and electricity are being powered with fossil fuels. Due to the high global demand of fossil fuels, they form the major part of the economy of producing countries and the world in general. However the impact of fossil fuel to the environment has been an issue of great concern. Considering the visible contributions of fossil fuels to modern human society, the environmental implications pose a dilemma to the world leaders. It is crucial that the hazards posed by fossil fuels to the environment be tactfully minimized while taking into account its positive contributions to civilization. The first section of this essay will discuss in a general context the different contributions that fossil fuel had made to the modern human world. It will further discuss the contributions and environmental implications of coal, oil and natural gas. The final section in the form of conclusion will summarize in a general term the contributions and environmental implications fossil fuels on modern human society. Comparing the trends in the rate at which each type of fossil fuel is being consumed in a global scenario will show the impact of the continuous increase in the rate of fossil fuels consumption will have on future environment. The environmental implication of fossil fuels as discussed in this essay is with respect to pollution and climate change.

Energy is fundamental to the quality of our lives. In fact most human activities depend on the regular and uninterrupted supply of energy. This makes fossil fuels essential to modern human society, (Baker, 2008).The issues concerning the facts of the global energy consumption can be related to fossil fuels because; they serve as primary source of energy globally. According to Chow, et al. (2003), the global energy use exceeds 370 (EJ) and fossil fuels contribute about 80% of this quantity of energy. This implies that fossil fuels contribute two third of global energy. Fossil fuels are made up of namely: coal, oil and natural gas. They were formed in the outer layer of the earth from the remains of plants and animals over hundreds of millions of years age (Encarta World English Dictionary, 2005). This implies that fossil fuels are almost non-renewable because its formation process takes a long period and this period is long enough for the world to run out of fossil fuel reserves. Fossil fuels contribution is noticeable considering how the quantity of energy in a country affects both their economy and social life. In the world today the industrial, transportation, public service and residential sectors are been powered mainly by fossil fuel. Therefore, these different sectors where fossil fuels are majorly consumed underscore their important contributions to modern human society.

One of the key uses of fossil fuels is to generate electricity. Coal is one of the major fuel sources for electricity generation. The relative low cost of coal and its abundance added to the fact that it does not require the upkeep of pipelines and security issues while transporting coal is an advantage over other sources of fossil fuels for generating electricity. Coal fuels the economy of countries, for example: China has about 30% of the world's coal reserves and uses coal as their major energy supply, (OECD, 1998). China's industrial power which allow for economic growth depends virtually on coal (IEA, 2005). However China's dependence on coal has led to the country's emitting about 39% of the total global CO2 emission. Burning coal produce useful by-product that are been used in the industrial sector mainly in steel plants and cement works, (Rohde, 1998). However, the environmental issues being raised by the global consumption of coal is of major concern. The toxins emitted from the combustion of coal and the waste from it mining process result in climate change and making the soil unproductive for agriculture, (OECD, 1983). Coal in comparison with the two other types of fossil fuels has more environmental impacts. According to the OECD'S publication on coal and environmental protection states during exploration of coal to its end use coal has environmental implications:

“During mining, treatment, transport and storage the sources of environmental concern can be summarized as subsidence, land use, liquid and solid waste, dust, noise, vibration and deterioration of surface and subsurface natural water systems. The major sources of pollution during combustion are air emissions of SOx, NOx and particulates, and solid waste materials.” (OECD, 1998)

Source: BP coal consumption table, 2008. From:

Figure 1 above shows the increase in the rate of consumption of coal. There was a slight decrease in 1998 and 1999. This might be as a result of a reduction in consumption of coal in different countries. However, generally the rate of increase between years is not very much but if this increase rate is consistent over a period of time the quantity of coal consumed will be astronomical which implies that the environmental issues posed by coal will likewise be on the increase.

In recent times, technological development and with some regulatory organizations that manages mining activities, the environmental issues are minimized. A careful comparison of the contributions of coal to the human society and its environmental implications makes the issue of coal controversial, (IEA, 1998). While the environmental implications posed by coal mining and usage are of concern, its contribution to modern human society requires that the action to be taken should be balanced with regards to its economical, energy and environmental impact.

Oil like coal has contributed to modern human society in quite a number of ways. Unlike coal, it is easier and cleaner to burn and have a wider range of application. It is consumed the most among coal and natural gas. In fact the increase in demand of oil results in a lucrative international oil market. Therefore this lucrative oil market is an advantage to the oil producing countries because when either the rate of global demand, price or both increases these countries' economy will be benefited. The major contribution of oil to modern human society is evident in the industrial and transportation sector. Most machines used in the industries make use of refined oil product. In the transportation sector aircraft and automobiles are examples of machines that make use of refined oil product. In addition, plastic and detergent are byproducts of oil. However, just like the other types of fossil fuels, the processes of exploration, refining, transporting and consumption of oil have an environmental implication.

Firstly during exploration of oil, loss of drilling mud will result in escape of oil, (OECD, 1973). In an event where oil escapes, the case will be that the soil and/or the sea will be polluted. This will lead to loss of productive land for agriculture and possibly, extinction of the aquatic habitants in the surrounding sea. In addition to loss of drilling mud is the seismic technique for exploration. As a result of the loud and low frequency output, this technique endangers marine lives during offshore exploration, (Kennesaw State University, 2009).

Another environmental issues associated with the process of refining oil is the methods which the refinery chooses to dispose oil waste. These wastes are sometime after being treated with a supposedly less harmful chemical is emptied into the sea. This chemically treated waste with time get to the point it becomes poisonous to aquatic life, (OECD, 1971). Also some gases are being emitted during refining and this leads to air pollution which harmful to both humans and animals. These gases can cause cancer and other diseases to humans if inhaled.

Oil spill is the major issue with oil transportation. According to the article: Environmental science activities for the 21st century published by Kennesaw State University:

“Oil spill during transportation of oil account for an estimated 44 million gallons being dumped into the world's water system, with 29 million gallons of this coming in the form of oil tanker spills”.

Natural gas is an important source of energy for reducing pollution and maintaining a clean and healthier environment compared to coal and oil. In addition to being a domestically abundant and secure source of energy, the use of natural gas also offers a number of environmental benefits over other sources of energy, mainly other types of fossil fuels, (BP, 2006). The different uses of natural gas in modern human society make it an essential part of human life. Natural gas domestic uses are part of the many social impact it has on human society. Natural gas is convenient and it is being piped straight to the consumer's facility which in contrast, oil must be trucked to the customer's location, and truck deliveries are to liable to weather conditions. Natural gas is reliable, (BP, 2006). Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel. Because the combustion process for natural gas is almost perfect, very few byproducts are emitted into the atmosphere as pollutants. The blue flame seen when natural gas is ignited is a sign of perfect combustion. Natural gas is mainly used for domestic, commercial, industrial and power generation purposes.

Firstly, the residential applications of natural gas are the most commonly known use of natural gas. It can be used for cooking, washing and drying, water warming, heating and air conditioning. Domestic appliances are increasingly improved in order to use natural gas more economically and safely. Operating costs of natural gas equipment are generally lower than those of oil and coal. It is mainly used commercially by food service providers, hotels, healthcare facilities and in office buildings. Also natural gas commercial applications include cooling (space conditioning and refrigeration), cooking or heating.

Secondly, Natural gas is used as an input to manufacture pulp and paper, metals, chemicals, stone, clay, glass, and to process certain foods. Gas is also used to treat waste materials, for incineration, drying, dehumidification, heating and cooling, and cogeneration. In addition electric utilities and independent power producers are increasingly using natural gas to provide energy for their power plants. In general, natural gas fuelled power plants have lower capital costs, are built faster, work more efficiently and emit less pollution than other fossil fuel power plants, (IEA, 1998). Technological improvements in design, efficiency and operation of combined cycle gas turbines and co-generation processes are favoring the use of natural gas in power generation. Natural gas in a joint- electricity generation produces power and heat that is useful for industries as well as commercial users. This cogeneration reduces pollution emission considerably.

Although the combustion of natural gas produces very little NOx, this chemical is however a toxic agents that results to acidic compounds and when combined with water and result in acid rain. Also, the length of the complex and extensive systems of pipelines in which natural gas are being transported through are in thousands of kilometers. Considering that natural gas in the pipe is in a condensate state, in the case of material defects and pipe corrosion to ground erosion natural gas will be exposed to the environment and in effect will pollute the air. Also, the technique of extracting natural gas is one of its disadvantages which are because of the creation of cavities in the ground during extraction. If natural gas is been inhaled in large amounts is harmful to humans.

The gas is extracted from a natural gas field. The pressure exerted by the gas helps support the layers of soil above the gas field. When the gas is extracted, the soil pressure increases and cavities are created in the ground. These cavities can sometimes cause the ground to sink and the productive land for agriculture might be lost. Another environmental implication of natural gas is that the gas is toxic and can be poisonous. If the fields from which it was extracted were not treated, it can be toxic. The principle greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides. Methane being the principle component of natural gas makes it a matter of concern with regards to greenhouse emission that results to climate change. Methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. In fact, it has an ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, (, 2004).

Source: Chow, J. et al (2003). Energy resources and global development., vol.: 302.

In conclusion the different contributions of fossil fuels to the modern human society are very noticeable. The chart above shows the global fossil fuels consumption by sectorial end use. The contributions of fossil fuels are made evident in the different sectors mentioned above. Form this essay, it can be suggested that the global fossil fuels consumption be reduced and more regulation that will effectively minimize the environmental implications of fossil fuels. it will be helpful if manufacturers consider environmental factors when producing machines and appliances that is being powered by fossil fuels. Moreover, resolving the global dilemma presented by fossil fuels will require a collective effort of every human.


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