There is no question that the harnessing of carbon-based fossil fuels has enabled the Earth’s dominant species, homo sapiens, not just to inherit the Earth, but to master it in ways unimaginable even a few centuries ago. Without plentiful supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas, there is no way that the Earth could have managed to support the almost 8 billion people who now live on this small planet.
Not that all of them are in great shape. But up until a few decades ago, prospects for the populations of most countries, at least those not involved in armed conflict, were pretty good. Harnessing the world’s plentiful sources of fossil fuel energy made that happen.
When fossil fuels are burned—either to generate electricity or to power all the forms of transport that keep the global economy moving—we are essentially burning trees, plants, and other forms of biomass that died and decayed hundreds of millions of years ago.
Compressed and compacted into coal, or transformed by heat and pressure into carbon-rich petroleum, all the carbon in those trees and plants, and all the other chemical elements naturally found in biomass, like sulfur, are released into the atmosphere as gases when the fuel is burned. Carbon dioxide is the principal product from this combustion, but other gases (like sulfur dioxide) and volatile compounds (such as benzene) are also driven into the air by the heat of combustion. Since combustion requires air, which is mostly nitrogen, nitrogen oxide gases are also present in the exhaust fumes of automobiles and the smokestack gases from power plants.
But combustion is never perfect. There is always smoke.
Composed of minute particles of carbon, ash, and traces of other elements found in the carbon fuel, what is called particulate matter or just plain particulates is dangerous stuff. When breathed in, it gets into the lungs and causes a host of respiratory problems—particularly for children.
In the pages linked to this one, we will examine the pollution caused by the combustion of fossil fuels in more detail, as well as the other environmental impacts (and the catastrophic accidents) that are unavoidable when fossil fuels are the main source of energy.