Fossil fuels – what you need to know about them

Fossil fuels - what you need to know about them

Fossil fuels are bad for the environment and cause many other problems. Here you can read the most important facts about petroleum and Co. as well as alternatives.

The world as we know it today would not have existed without fossil fuels. They made that possible Industrial revolution in the 19th century. They drove today’s economic growth and contributed significantly to man-made climate change.

The fossil fuels originated from forests and microorganisms that existed in earlier geological ages. They have become coal, natural gas and oil over the centuries.

Nowadays we burn fossil fuels to generate energy from them. This releases the carbon that the plants absorbed and stored millions of years ago from the atmosphere. It combines with oxygen and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is created – better known by the chemical abbreviation CO2. This CO2 contributes significantly climate Change at.

How fossil fuels are made

Fossils are ancient witnesses.
(Photo: CC0 / pixabay / ID 2211438)

Fossil fuels include:

Fossil fuels are created when plants and microorganisms decompose – without air to come into contact. Because in the air they decompose to earth, like that for example compost the case is.

  • Coal and peat: The knowledge magazine explains that plant residues in the swamp first created peat, then lignite and finally hard coal. The deposits in Europe are roughly old. Peat and lignite are younger than hard coal and are higher up, just below the surface of the earth today. This explains why lignite can be mined in the surface mine. Hard coal deposits, on the other hand, can often only be reached by tunnels that run several kilometers deep into the earth’s interior. 
  • mineral oil and natural gas: According to both fossil fuels from plankton formed in the water. Similar to the plants in the swamp, the plankton sank into the sea floor and became one there sludge. The increasing pressure of the layers of earth and the rising temperatures from inside the earth had an effect on the mud. So eventually it became petroleum. The gases, mostly marsh gas, separated from the organic remains – this is how natural gas was created. 

By the way: Few countries today use peat as a fuel – an example is. There, too, environmentalists see peat as an energy source.

Fossil fuels: coal problems

Fossil fuels: Coal mining is history in Germany.
(Photo: CC0 / pixabay / markusspiske)

It is not just the carbon in fossil fuels that is a health and environmental problem. Conveying, transport and processing also pose problems.

Coal: In Germany used to be funded primarily in the Ruhr and Saarland hard coal. In the meantime, this fossil fuel is no longer mined in Germany. China and the USA are the largest producers worldwide.

  • safety: Mining is not current in all countries safety standards. The trade magazine speaks of around 1,000 deaths in one year in Chinese mines. For comparison: 54 fatal accidents occurred in the USA in the same period.
  • Luftverschutzung: states that on the smog Around 22,000 people die prematurely every year from coal-fired power plants in Europe alone.
  • consequential damages: The last coal mine in the Ruhr region closed its doors in 2018. The knowledge magazine explains that consequential damage is still occurring. Soils have already dropped by 14 and 25 meters above disused mines. This is dangerous, because: Anything above that can sink in – for example houses, streets or rivers. Spectrum warns that rivers could change their direction and turn the Ruhr area into a lake district. To prevent this from happening, pumps must continue to regulate the water in shutdown shafts – permanently. In order to cover the costs for this, the former of the German coal mining industry RAG has to provide around 300 million euros each year.
  • transport: Greenpeace reports that Germany purchases hard coal from other countries in order to generate energy from it. To the CO2 emissions, which are produced during the combustion, come additionally the greenhouse gases, which come during the Transports arise.

Brown coal: Germany also produces lignite as a fossil fuel, mainly in central Germany.

  • acid rain: Lignite contains a higher proportion of sulfur than hard coal. As a result, the combustion not only releases carbon dioxide, but also sulfur oxide, for example for the acid rain responsible for.
  • resettlements: The open pit must be whole Villages and landscapes soft. The city reports that for the planned dismantling in Gartzweiler, a total of about 7,600 inhabitants have to give up their houses.
  • restoration: After dismantling remain huge crater back in the ground. The mining companies work with scientists to restore the site to landscapes. According to this, it would take around 40 years to fill the opencast mine in Gartzweiler with water and turn it into a lake.

With a view to the climate targets, the question arises whether planned lignite areas such as in Hambacher Forest are still useful. That reports that by at the latest 2038 all coal-fired power plants are to be shut down.

Problems with fossil fuels: petroleum and natural gas

Oil rigs produce fossil fuels and contaminate the sea floor.
(Photo: CC0 / pixabay / Bru-nO)

Extracting the fossil fuels of oil and natural gas is problematic for various reasons.

oil: The largest production facilities are in Saudi Arabia, followed by Russia and the USA.

  • Oil contaminates the soil: Crude oil seeps into the ground as soon as it is extracted. It also drips through leaky pipelines. Oil tankers also repeatedly crash and cause accidents at sea. reports that the North Sea seabed is contaminated by oil rigs. In Siberia, entire areas are covered with oil. It seeps into the drinking water and destroys habitats.
  • Reserves almost exhausted: According to the Federal Agency for Civic Education (), the reserves available at short notice should last for around 50 years. 
  • Fracking: The US is increasingly only able to achieve the production volume through special production methods such as fracking. The oil is pressed out of the sandy soil with the help of chemicals and pressure. This can loudly lead to earthquakes and contaminate drinking water.

natural gas: The USA and Russia in particular produce natural gas. Germany also has smaller deposits in northern Germany, but they are not enough to meet the demand.

  • Combustion of natural gas: The best of all fossil fuels in a CO2 emissions comparison. As a so-called bridge energy, it should therefore close the gap until renewable energies can meet the energy requirements.
  • methane: However, according to Cornell University, the effect of methane is underestimated. The Federal Environment Agency explains that methane as a greenhouse gas 20 to 25 times as aggressive how carbon dioxide is. However, it decays mathematically after only 12.4 years in the atmosphere, while CO2 remains effective for up to 1,000 years. In addition, methane is problematic because it escapes during extraction. Cornell University researchers found that methane in the atmosphere has increased since 2008.

What we use fossil fuels for

Fossil fuels have long transport routes.
(Photo: CC0 / pixabay / isakarakus)

For example, the energy for:

  • the electricity from the socket,
  • the district heating for heaters and
  • the fuel of vehicles, planes and ships.

We still use fossil fuels such as crude oil, coal and natural gas on a large scale: according to data from, they cover a large part of the world’s energy requirements. The situation is similar in Germany as well: According to the Federal Environment Agency, 34 percent of German energy consumption in 2018 was covered by oil. Natural gas was 24 percent.

Fossil fuels and the climate

That calculated that the energy consumption of fossil fuels for 85 percent responsible for greenhouse gas emissions in Germany.

  • Around half of them cause power plants, that produce electricity from coal or natural gas.
  • In second place, with a share of 20 percent, follows transport sector.

To the global warming to stop, CO2 emissions would have to decrease further worldwide. Germany has set itself the goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020.

However, this is only the first step to the agreed climate goals to be observed: At the 2015 World Climate Conference in Paris, the international community agreed to contribute to global warming two degrees and keep under it. is skeptical about current developments and reports that global warming of over four degrees it is likely if the world population does not consistently implement the goals set.

Fossil fuels: how quickly can we replace them??

In the World Energy Report, the (IEA) provides longer-term forecasts for the world’s energy supply. In 2017, the researchers expected that by 2040 renewable energy How solar and wind power will cover around 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs. Coal should become increasingly dispensable, however natural gas according to the forecast, people will continue to use it as an electricity supplier. The increasing energy consumption of countries like China and India is to be covered by green energy.

Germany is already pursuing specific goals in this direction: The government plans to purchase 40 to 45 percent green electricity in five years at the latest. This reports that in 2018 around 33 percent of Germany’s electricity needs came from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.

However, these forecasts only relate to the electricity requirement – energy for heaters or for non-electronic vehicles are not included. These mostly use the fossil raw material oil: According to 2016, 60 percent of the oil consumed worldwide was used for means of transport such as airplanes, ships and cars. In order to replace fossil fuels such as oil as drive energy, we would have to change our transport system and, for example, expand public transport.

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