he discourse about energy transitioning away from fossil fuels is difficult and anxiety-inducing all across the world. The understanding that global depletion and eventual extinction of fossil fuels are unavoidable, with the consequences surrounded by seemingly insurmountable uncertainty, is a major source of anxiety for many.
But, then, why should the depletion of fossil fuels be such a problem? It is simply due to the world’s existing overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels as the primary source of energy for global industry and economy.
Shell’s Director of Integrated Gas and New Energies, Maarten Wetselaar, made news in 2018 when he boldly asserted, “If we stopped producing oil and gas tomorrow, we would have an economic disaster. There would be starvation and a world war.” Wetselaar’s statement mirrors the sentiments of major world oil-producing enterprises and economies, such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, and China.
Several important questions remain unanswered. How did we come to rely on fossil fuels so heavily? What is it about fossil fuels that has made them such a popular choice as a primary energy source? What about fossil fuel reserves around the world? Is it true that they are on their way out? What other arguments are there for the need for alternate energy sources besides the threat of depletion/extinction? What is the most likely future for fossil fuels? Is it possible that fossil fuels will be phased out entirely? Are there legitimate concerns about the depletion of fossil fuels? What are the responses of the world’s main economies to the overall dynamics?
It is vital to establish precise meanings and a historical context before delving into these concerns. The word “fuel” refers to a substance that is utilized to generate energy. Fuel is a term that refers to a source of energy. Fossil fuel is a form of fuel that has been exploited by man to provide energy. Food, water, wind, sunlight, heat, electricity, and nuclear power are some of the other sources of energy that man has relied on (and continues to rely on).
Energy has always been important to man in fueling his activities and enterprises throughout history. The earliest known source of energy is solar energy, which has been with man from the beginning of time. The sun’s energy gave light and heat, which man used in numerous ways. The discovery of fire also offered greater heat and light, as well as aiding in the preparation of food, which served as a type of fuel for man. Man found wind as a potential source of energy after using sun energy.
Sails were used to transport people across oceans by harnessing the wind. Wind has also proven effective in agriculture, particularly in windmills, which harness the wind to turn grinding wheels. The steam engine did not come into being until the late 1600s. The steam engine was powered by coal (a fossil fuel) that was used to heat water and create steam. Coal was the most common fuel over the next 300 years, until the early half of the twentieth century (1900s). Coal has been found to be useful in transportation (steam locomotives), light and heat production, and industrial manufacture. Oil and natural gas became the dominant fuel sources in the early 1900s. Alternative energy sources such as geothermal and biomass have recently risen in popularity, following in the footsteps of electricity and nuclear energy.
It is worth noting that industry’s hallmarks, production and manufacture, rely on energy. Shifts in energy sources have fueled industrial revolutions throughout history. For example, new energy sources such as coal, the steam engine, electricity, petroleum, and the internal combustion engine propelled the first industrial revolution. Newer discoveries, innovations, and technologies, which include investigations of new energy sources, have constantly fuelled subsequent industrial revolutions.
Transitions in energy sources are closely linked to this. Man has transitioned from one energy source to another throughout history, with the most convenient, efficient, and profitable energy source serving as the mainstay of industry.
Fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, have dominated all other energy sources since their inception. This is the result of a variety of causes. First and foremost, oil and natural gas can be found underground in many parts of the globe. Second, crude oil is diverse; unlike its natural fellows, crude oil contains a variety of sub-elements that may be extracted and refined into a variety of energy sources.
Third, it has a broader range of applications and convertibility; unlike some of its natural counterparts, such as wind energy, oil and natural gas are more convertible to diverse energy sources.
Fourth, technological progress; advances in technology are progressively being channeled into oil and gas production, opening up new vistas and paths that continue to improve production efficiency and optimization. Fracking, for example, is a method that greatly improves extraction efficiency.
A fifth reason is political maneuvering; oil promises massive economic rewards and has been proven to propel entire economies into affluence. Leading world economies have perfected the use of “oil power” in the global economic landscape because they are aware of this fact.
Energy transition is not a new concept in human history, as previously stated. Understanding this truth is the first step towards de-mystifying the fears and doubts that have arisen in response to the growing calls for a fossil-fuel-free future. We will think and strategize differently if we understand that a transition is unavoidable.
In addition, a number of factors have prompted the move away from fossil fuels. One of them is the amount of crude oil reserves that are accessible and explorable around the world. Oil is finite and non-renewable, in contrast to other natural kinds of energy. Total, the world’s largest oil company, forecasts that subterranean fossil fuels can last another 90 years for oil and 140 years for gas output at current levels of use. While 90–140 years may seem like a long time, it is undeniably a finite amount of time. Increasing demand, brought on by the world’s population increase, is linked to oil’s finiteness.
Medical advancements, the establishment of democratic political systems, and global economic breakthroughs have all been accompanied by rising global population, wealth, and the rise of the upper middle class. As a result, energy consumption is skyrocketing as more people gain access to energy, yet fossil resources are finite and thus unable to meet the expanding demand.
Subsequently, the necessity for alternate energy sources is unavoidable. Another source of concern is the harmful effects of fossil fuel combustion on the environment. Climate change, global warming, oil spills, and environmental degradation are all linked to the exploitation and use of fossil fuels, prompting calls from a variety of sources for a shift to more environmentally friendly energy sources. With all of these worries, there appears to be a paradoxical scenario with fossil fuels: while they provide enormous benefits, they also appear to contain the seeds of their own downfall.
But there is more to the story than that. Efforts are always being made to find more environmentally friendly ways to extract and produce oil and gas. For example, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is known to be environmentally friendly in addition to being more efficient in extraction.
Alternative energy sources are also being developed in a big way. Electric vehicles, for example, are a significant step in this direction. With the advent of new technologies in solar panel production and an increase in solar panel purchases for industrial, city, and residential usage, solar energy is gaining renewed attention. The use of nuclear and biothermal energy is also growing.
It should be noted that some of the world’s present oil producers are also at the forefront of the quest for and development of renewable and environmentally friendly alternative energy sources. Another difficulty for emerging countries is to avoid falling behind by succumbing to the myopia of oil production’s restricted scope, and instead to begin pursuing, exploring, and developing alternate energy sources proactively.
With this in mind, the global response to the potential extinction or replacement of fossil fuels should be one of awareness, acceptance, and positive action, rather than one of dread. We recognize that the energy transition is not new and that it is unavoidable; this should allow us to maneuver it and motivate us to prepare sensibly. Fossil fuels are unlikely to go extinct entirely (coal, for example, is still plentiful despite being replaced as the primary source of energy). Furthermore, its replacement was not necessitated by depletion but rather by the discovery of a more effective substitute, oil). Moreover, given their demonstrated efficiency, economic rewards, and significant investments, there is a good likelihood that oil and natural gas will not be totally replaced in the foreseeable future. A complementary structure, in which the faults of fossil fuels are supplemented and compensated by renewable and cleaner energy sources, appears to be more probable.
All fears should be set aside (eliminated) and instead, visionary leadership should be implored as a guide towards preparing for and mastering the world’s inevitable changes and dynamism. This is how we can move forward and make great progress towards global development.