Fossil fuels are hundreds of millions of years old, but in the last 200 years consumption has increased rapidly, leaving fossil fuel reserves depleted and climate change seriously impacted. Reserves are becoming harder to locate, and resources won’t last forever.
Fossil fuels, as the name suggests, are very old. North Sea oil deposits are around 150 million years old, whilst much of Britain’s coal began to form over 300 million years ago. Although humans probably used fossil fuels in ancient times, as far back as the Iron Age, it was the Industrial Revolution that led to their wide-scale extraction.
And in the very short period of time since then – just over 200 years – we’ve consumed an incredible amount of them, leaving fossil fuels all but gone and the climate seriously impacted.
Fossil fuels are an incredibly dense form of energy, and they took millions of years to become so. And when they’re gone, they’re gone pretty much forever.
So how long will fossil fuels last? Global fossil fuel consumption is on the rise, and new reserves are becoming harder to find. Those that are discovered are significantly smaller than the ones that have been found in the past. Oil reserves are a good example: 16 of the 20 largest oil fields in the world have reached peak level production – they’re simply too small to keep up with global demand.
In order to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5°C, we need to leave up to 80% of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground – but globally, our reliance on fossil fuels is increasing. Here’s how long current fossil fuel reserves could last:
Globally, we currently consume the equivalent of over 11 billion tonnes of oil from fossil fuels every year. Crude oil reserves are vanishing at a rate of more than 4 billion tonnes a year – so if we carry on as we are, our known oil deposits could run out in just over 53 years.
If we increase gas production to fill the energy gap left by oil, our known gas reserves only give us just 52 years left.
Although it’s often claimed that we have enough coal to last hundreds of years, this doesn’t take into account the need for increased production if we run out of oil and gas.
Are there any advantages to using fossil fuels? Well, yes and no. Fossil fuels have allowed us to advance at an incredible rate; much faster than if we had continued to rely on the burning of wood or other older methods of energy generation. But, looking forwards, while there are some benefits to fossil fuel production, the adverse effects on the environment and overall public health far outweigh them. Many governments and businesses around the world continue to place short-term gains from investing in fossil fuels above the longer term benefits of renewable energy.
We need to shift to renewable energy, and thankfully renewable technology now have the capacity to provide us with much of our energy needs; we just need to deploy it and be smart about how we utilise it to ease ourselves off fossil fuels. We also need to consider the people working in the fossil fuel industry and help them transition into the renewable energy industry. Like any complex problem, there isn’t a single and simple solution. But, with the future of our children at stake, this is a problem worth thinking hard about and making some long term focused decisions on.