Fossil fuels are the biggest driver of climate change. Formed millions of years ago, fossil fuels were created from the remains of living organisms at the time, which were compressed and fossilised, leading to the creation of carbon fuel sources, including coal, oil and natural gas. It has been estimated that if we keep burning fossil fuels at current rates, all fossil fuels in the world will be depleted by 2060. However, a general consensus around estimates has not been universally agreed upon. We are depleting the world’s remaining carbon budget at a rapid pace, accelerating the effects of climate change. What is this and what do we need to do to stop it being completely used up?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that carbon dioxide emissions have remained trapped in the atmosphere for long periods of time, causing temperatures to rise. In 2018, fossil fuels and its industry accounted for 89% of global CO2 emissions.
Adopted in 2015 by almost every country in the world, the Paris Agreement set out to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature from increasing by over 1.5 degrees Celsius. To keep up the target set in the Paris Agreement, a carbon budget — a simple way of measuring further emissions that can enter the atmosphere — can be defined.
Since the beginning of 2018, the clock has been ticking on the remaining carbon budget to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, according to the 2018 special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Despite warnings of catastrophic climate change, over 120 Gt has been drawn down from the carbon budget as the world has been emitting over 40 Gt of CO2 per year. With each year that passes, the remaining carbon budget continues to decline. With the depleting carbon budget, current global policies on reducing CO2 emissions have not been working; we must ban fossil fuels.
As of December 2020, the Global Carbon Budget report stated that the world has 8% of carbon budget left. If the planet’s carbon emissions rise beyond this budget, global temperatures would rise beyond 1.5°C, leading to catastrophic changes.
Not only do fossil fuels contribute significantly to CO2 emissions, but the process of mining fossil fuels also requires infrastructure that results in land degradation, which destroys biodiversity, soil and landscapes. A ban on fossil fuels could also reduce the contamination of ocean ecosystems and allow both land and the oceans to recover.
Exposure to fine particulate matter PM 2.5 from burning fossil fuels was responsible for 8.7 million deaths globally in 2018 — killing more people a year than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. PM 2.5, airborne particles that are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, can be inhaled and penetrate deep into the lungs, entering the bloodstream, which could eventually cause damage to organs. While lives could be saved from reducing air pollution, healthcare costs would also be drastically reduced.
The world has already been able to mitigate severe global environmental threats. Over the course of 60 years, leaded gasoline was finally phased out and banned around the world. Following the ban in the United States, leaded gasoline levels plummeted drastically after 1996. Catastrophic levels of lead in humans and the environment eventually managed to plummet. The geometric mean blood lead level (BLL) of the US population dropped from 12.8 during 1976-1980 to 0.82 μg/dL, a decline of 93.6% in 2015-2016.
However, the demand for global energy is continuously on the rise. The Global Energy and CO2 Status Report in 2018 revealed that the demand for energy worldwide increased by 2.3% in the same year. To keep up with the demand for energy, 70% of global energy demand growth was met with fossil fuels, including natural gas, coal, and oil from 2017 to 2018. This led to the rise of energy-related carbon emissions by 1.7%.
The IPCC recommends bringing human-caused CO2 emissions to net-zero as soon as possible. Fortunately, renewable energy sources already exist, which provide viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Adequate substitutes, including solar and wind power, are cheaper alternatives and more environmentally friendly, which produce little to no CO2. Since the cost of battery storage has fallen by 90% in the past ten years, we already have cost-effective technologies for a complete ban on fossil fuels.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels have remained difficult, as these natural resources are abundant and inexpensive. With oil being the most sought-after commodity in the world and is priced in US dollars, the petrodollar — dollars that are paid to oil-producing countries for the resource, helped to continuously elevate the greenback as the global reserve currency in world trade.
The petrodollar has underpinned global economic relations, with many fiat currencies in the world pegged to the US dollar. If the world suddenly relied on all renewable energy as substitutes to fossil fuels, it could mean a massive shift of balance of trade between nations, and a birth of a new world order.
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