How Fossil Fuels Took Over The World

Today, over 80% of our energy is produced from fossil fuels, however, this has not always been the case. So when did we become so dependent on fossil fuels and why did it happen?

Fossil fuel flashback – Rewind some 450 years to Britain in the 16th century. Elizabeth I was queen,1 Shakespeare had just been born,2 and beer was still a breakfast drink.3 The population of Britain was just over four million people, sixteen times smaller than it is today.4 However, despite this figure, the country was suffering from overpopulation, and the nation’s key natural resource, firewood, was depleted, as almost every tree in the country had been chopped to the ground.5 To keep the general population warm and happy, the nation needed to find a solution, and what better solution than coal, which burned brighter and hotter than wood ever could. Soon, mines opened all over the country, with workers digging up thousands of tonnes of coal each year.6

What the deforestation in 16th century England may have looked like.

Fast-forward some 350 years to the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution is at its peak, and Britain is booming.7 A population of around 30 million is now amply supported across the island and Britain has expanded,8 colonising approximately a quarter of the earth’s total land area.9 All this development is fuelled by coal, which provides Britain with rapid transport by means of steam trains and boats, as well as a variety of machines that are able to mass-produce goods.10 This provided Britain with a huge advantage over the rest of the world.

Now fast-forward to the 21st century. Up to three-quarters of the world’s population use cell phones,11 over 3 billion people use the internet,12 and around 3.5 billion spend their evenings in front of a TV.13 In this world, the planet consumes approximately 155 million GWh of energy each year, the equivalent of 95 billion barrels of oil.14 Over 80% of that total comes from fossil fuels, which results in a massive 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere each year.15 That’s the equivalent weight of over 145 million Boeing 747 passenger planes,16 enough to cover a country the size of Germany twice over.17

Yet, despite all these emissions and plenty of alternative energy sources available, we are still wedded to fossil fuels. There must be something good about them, or why else would we use them on such a large scale? To understand why we love fossil fuels so much, and what role they can play in our future, we will look at each one individually. This includes their advantages and disadvantages, how much they cost, and whether there is any way we can stop them from emitting so much carbon dioxide. Let’s start by taking a look at coal.

Image Credits

Title image taken by Claudia Otte and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

Image of deforestation taken by Mopic and reproduced under license from Shutterstock.

General Notes

For the total landmass of the UK, a figure of 248,532 square kilometres has been used. The figure has been sourced from UK Office for National Statistics – 'The UK and Its Countries: Facts and Figures' –

Barrels of oil equivalent based on 1628.2 kWh of energy being contained within each barrel. Data sourced from Unit Juggler – 'Converter: Barrel of Oil Equivalent to Kilowatt-Hour' –

Article Endnotes

  1. The Official Website of the British Monarchy – ‘Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603)’ –
  2. Schoenbaum, Samuel – ‘William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life’ – Page 24 to 26.
  3. Historic Foodways – ‘Beer for Breakfast’ –
  4. Data based on a 2014 UK population of 64.5 million and an Elizabethan UK population of 4 million. 2014 UK population sourced from The World Bank – ‘World Development Indicators – United Kingdom’ – Elizabethan population sourced from Briscoe, Alexandra – ‘Poverty in Elizabethan England’ –
  5. Galloway, Robert Lindsay – ‘A History of Coal Mining in Great Britain’ – Pages 19 to 23.
  6. Galloway, Robert Lindsay – ‘A History of Coal Mining in Great Britain’ – Pages 28 to 31.
  7. Manolopoulou, Artemis – ‘The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain’ –
  8. GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth – ‘England and Wales Through Time | Population Statistics | Total Population’ –
  9. The National Archives UK – ‘Events of 1901’ –
  10. Fernihough, Alan and O’Rourke, Kevin Hjortshøj – ‘Coal and the European Industrial Revolution’ – Pages 3 to 5.
  11. The World Bank – ‘Mobile Phone Access Reaches Three Quarters of Planet’s Population’ –
  12. Based on 2015 data sourced from Internet Live Stats – ‘Internet Users’ –
  13. Based on 1.4 billion homes with a television and an average of 2.63 people per household. Homes with televisions sourced from The International Telecommunication Union – ‘Measuring the Information Society’ – Page 162. Number of people per household based on United States data from 2009 to 2013 and sourced from United States Census Bureau – ‘Quick Facts: United States’ –
  14. Based on 2012 data sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ –
  15. Carbon emissions sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights’ – Page 54. Fossil fuel use sourced from International Energy Agency – ‘World: Balances for 2012’ –
  16. Data based on a full 747-8 weighing 220,128 kilograms. Sourced from Boeing Commercial Airplanes – ‘747-8: Airplane Characteristics for Airport Planning’ – Page 14.
  17. Based on a Boeing 747-8 having a length of 76.25 meters and a width of 68.4 meters, 144.2 million Boeings taking up an area of 751,874 square kilometres and Germany occupying around 348,540 square kilometres of land. Boeing 747-8 dimensions sourced from Boeing Commercial Airplanes – ‘747-8: Airplane Characteristics for Airport Planning’ – Pages 9 to 10. Norway’s land area sourced from The World Bank – ‘Land Area (SQ. KM)’ –

For further information about any of the above sources, please visit the ZERO EMISSION WORLD Works Cited page.

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