Coal, oil, and natural gas are fossil fuels. They're called that because they're made up of long-dead organic matter extracted from underground - the word 'fossil' originally meant 'dug up'. Because they are made by processes taking tens to hundreds of millions of years, they are non-renewable.  

We rely heavily on fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transport. They are the world's primary energy source: almost 75% of emissions from human activities in the last 20 years came from fossil fuels.* 

Why is this a problem?    

Fossil fuels are dirty, and not in the Jason Derulo ft. 2 Chainz kinda way. Burning coal emits other gases, metals and particulates that cause acid rain, smog, respiratory diseases, and other health problems. Grim.   

Dirty fuels make dirty accidents. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill was an industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and considered the petroleum industry's largest marine oil spill: over half a million barrels oozed into the ocean. Accidents can happen close to home as well. Did you know 55 years ago, an oil supertanker crashed off the coast, spilling over 100,000 tonnes of crude oil into the English Channel? Huge damage was done to marine life; an estimated 15,000 sea birds were killed. 

Beyond our health and that of wildlife, burning and use of these fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The more carbon in the atmosphere, the faster and more severe we feel the effects of climate change. 

Are you sure? 

More than 99% of scientists are sure and so are the UN IPCC: global warming is unequivocally driven by human activity. (This activity is led by fossil fuel companies). 

But do you know who else was sure? Big fossil fuel companies like oil giant Exxon. Journalists found that research presented to Exxon bosses in 1977 (45 years ago!) showed burning oil would cause climate change. Instead of taking action, they splurged millions on adverts and 3rd party ambassadors to hide the true impact of fossil fuels.  

How did this work? 

While Exxon couldn't undo the scientific studies that were being published, they could plant confusion and push a narrative saying that the research was undecided. Coal story, bro. If scientists disagreed and the science wasn't clear, then how could people or politicians act on it?

By clouding research with misinformation, Exxon and fossil fuel companies confused the public and stalled any action that might have been taken in the past four decades to decrease dependence on coal, oil and gas.   

Aren't we all using renewable energy now? 

Even though renewable tech has boomed in recent years, fossil fuels still dominate global energy production. The annual increase in global energy use is greater than the increase in renewable energy. This means fossil fuel use will grow unless we drastically cut energy use or dramatically increase renewable energy production.  

Can't we try to offset or capture these emissions? 

Possibly - but the technology and funding needed for offsetting and capturing carbon at the scale we need simply isn't here yet. So we need to reduce emissions, and seek nature-based solutions as much as possible before relying on offsetting. Check out our Net-Zero post for more. 

What can I do?   

Don't feel bad that you're in a system that uses fossil fuels (no one can avoid it!). You can be part of the shift to healthier, cleaner and more renewable energy sources. The good news is you don't have to dig deep to find ways to bring change: 

  • Move your money - your banks or pension may be investing your money in fossil fuels and without you knowing! Compare banks and pension providers to find one that matches your values.  
  • Support other forms of energy generation: join a local group and maybe you can crowdfund your own community-owned renewable energy source, or ask your local council to put heat pumps under parks. 
  • No diggity: The US and UK governments do invest in clean energy, but still spent significantly more funding fossil fuels since the start of 2020. Write to your MP to ask why taxpayers' money is being used to prop up fossil fuels. 

Want to cut more jargon? 

What is greenwashing and why does it matter, what actually is a carbon footprint? Check out our series of 'Cut the Jargon & The Carbon' definitions.  

OTHER CLIMATE DEFINITIONS 

Keen to try a new climate action?  

Check out our list of the 12 most impactful actions you can take for the environment and your community. Let’s #MakeOurMove together 

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