Credit: Eelco Bohtlingk via Unsplash

Thought experiment: Fossil(less) fuels

By Michelle Osborne

Is a world devoid of fossil fuels a possibility? What would it look like, and how could it happen?

Climate change is no longer just a muffled cry from the minority: everywhere you look, warnings are plastered all over our media. You can’t not be aware of the severity of our situation, and we all have our own responses: protesting, blaming multinational corporations, becoming vegan, or simply just ignoring it. A range of issues have fed into the heating of the earth, but perhaps the damaging one is the burning of fossil fuels. Almost everything we do relies upon them; they’ve been ingrained so much into our lives for centuries now that it would be almost impossible to have a day where we didn’t burn them at all. But let us try and imagine what that could be like…

Our world would be incomparably different, that’s for sure. Coal and petroleum have been used in small amounts for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that they truly began to be exploited. Most famously, the steam engine (invented by the University of Glasgow’s own James Watt) became the main driver – pardon the pun – of industry over this period. It allowed for the mass transportation of people, and goods, across long distances. If we never had fossil fuels at all, it seems unlikely that the steam engine would have ever been invented. Perhaps then we would never have experienced the rapid growth of society and advancements in technology that this era brought with it. Whilst we are now aware of the negative effects fossil fuels have had on our Earth, we would be wise, I believe, not to wish for their eradication from our past. They shaped the society we live in today, and we have no way of understanding where we would be without them. 

“Whilst we are now aware of the negative effects fossil fuels have had on our Earth, we would be wise not to wish for their eradication from our past.”

Rather than hoping for their complete elimination from the passage of time, we should instead imagine a world where humanity has collectively agreed to stop using fossil fuels. (Hopefully, this reality is not too far away, with the staging of global conferences like Glasgow’s upcoming COP26.) In this alternate reality, we would have no underlying fear of our actions destroying the planet, and our quality of health would surely only increase, with levels of anxiety – climate-related or otherwise – falling in response. When these benefits are on show, it all sounds pretty peachy. 

The environment would fare extremely well: if various gases were not unleashed into the air en masse, the quality of the atmosphere would vastly improve, catalysing a chain of events that would bring us temperature stability, less extreme weather, and reduced habitat disruption. Nature would finally be free from humanity’s suffocation.

And then on turning to humanity: well, as mentioned above, the effects on our health would be wonderful. At a basic level, air pollution plays into breathing difficulties, which can in turn be linked to lung disease. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) emphasises that climate change’s effects on health are far bigger than this. Climate change threatens our access to safe drinking water, sufficient food, and safe shelter. Lower socioeconomic countries with weak infrastructures are more vulnerable to these issues anyway, so the benefits that the removal of fossil fuels would confer to them would be immeasurable. Removal of fossil fuels would ideally decrease the world’s inequality gap, whilst also increasing everybody’s general health. Win-win.

“Removal of fossil fuels would ideally decrease the world’s inequality gap, whilst also increasing everybody’s general health.”

Before we could reap these benefits, however, we would have to consider what we would have to sacrifice. Travel, electricity, and manufacturing (to name but a few) heavily rely on the burning of fossil fuels. Are these things viable in a fossil fuel-less world?

Renewable electricity sources are obviously not a new concept. Traditional coal power plants are already being replaced by wind turbines in the UK to help the shift, but the biggest issue for renewable energies is making them more efficient. Nuclear energy is the most obvious replacement of fossil fuels; it does not affect the environment as much if regulated correctly. However, as we know from Fukushima and Chernobyl, if nuclear power plants have issues, they can destroy the nearby environment. Luckily, plenty of electric alternatives can save the day, so we won’t have to be turning out our lights any time soon.

Travel is a big issue in our current climate debate, and in a fossil fuel-less world, would we be able to retain long-haul flights? The simplest solution would be agreeing to short-haul only, but this would also be a setback in human progress – we should be able to travel around the world, if we’re being idealistic. So instead, let us consider newer technologies, such as the solar panel plane, as a means to achieve this. Small solar panel-powered planes have managed to fly around the world and developments are being made to expand their reach, and sooner than we think, we may be flying in commercial planes powered by the sun.

“…in a fossil fuel-less world, would we be able to retain long-haul flights?”

But politically, ensuring global wellbeing and cohesiveness in a fossil fuel-less world may be the largest obstacle. Since the industrial revolution, manufacturing has been powered by the burning of fossil fuels. In our fossil fuel-less world, the manufacturing process would run into power, transport, and material issues, especially given that many plastics rely on the burning of these fuels. It cannot be ignored that we live in a capitalist world that prioritises production and economical reward, and whilst I would like to believe we could put this aside, many governments certainly appear more concerned with continuing manufacturing and production than protecting the Earth. This can be seen with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Japan trying to alter the IPCC report to make climate change appear less urgent: it is clear they are trying to protect finance fuelled by fossil fuels.

But sadly, other human issues including overpopulation, capitalism, and exploitation mean that eradicating fossil fuels won’t immediately end our climate issues. Fossil fuels are certainly the cause of rapid climate change, but the fight against changing climates would not end here. Humanity is too intent on starving the Earth of its natural fuel for short-term gain, intensely ignoring how this is leading to its long-term pain. Unfortunately, until politics and practicalities productively intersect, a fossil fuel-less world will remain a fantasy.


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Kit Webster

My recently-published book, Capitalism is Past Its Sell-By Date – From Incredible Success To Enabling Environmental and Resource Unsustainability, explores some of the issues raised in your article and may be of interest.