Two centuries ago, humans harnessed the Earth’s energy directly. Wind power was used to sail ships, sunlight was used to grow crops, and manual labor did the rest. Then, in a sudden burst of technological innovation, the Industrial Revolution automated and mechanized production. Giant mechanical looms spun out cloth hundreds of times faster than any human could manually, and trains allowed people and cargo to move about more efficiently than anyone had dreamed possible. These new technologies called for higher and more concentrated quantities of energy, so humanity began to dig, drill, and mine for fossil fuels to power their new machines and light up the world.

The world now requires more energy than ever before. Many things in modern life, from high-speed telecommunications to trans-continental jets, require enormous amounts of energy. Nearly 80% of the energy produced in the U.S. is powered by fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

Pollution & Environmental Impacts

Burning fossil fuels for energy releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Carbon traps heat in the atmosphere, thus leading to climate change. In fact, fossil fuels are the highest contributor to climate change by far. The practices of extracting and burning fossil fuels heavily pollute the environment as well. For example, coal mining operations lead to toxic runoff in streams, rivers, and lakes; fracking can contaminate drinking water; and oil spills during transport can put entire ecosystems in danger.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to fossil fuels that do much less harm while still producing the all-important energy the world needs. Often described as “green” technologies, these alternatives are the key to decreasing dependence on oil, gas, and coal. Take hydroelectric power for example. China produces enough hydroelectricity to power the entire United Kingdom for two years. Hydroelectric power, combined with other renewable energy sources including solar, geothermal, and wind, may very well drive a cleaner economy in the future.

Impacts on Humans & Societies

The pollution and climate change that result from fossil fuel use are extremely damaging to human and animal health. Toxic air pollution from burning fossil fuels is linked to lung cancer and is responsible for 4.5 million deaths each year worldwide. The global economy is also impacted — researchers estimate global losses relating to fossil fuel air pollution at $2.9 trillion each year. Severe weather events are becoming more common, forcing 21.4 million people to move each year in search of more livable conditions. Such mass migrations are creating new political, social, and economic challenges as nations struggle to accommodate the influx or outflux of large groups of people.

Providing Energy Access Worldwide

While heavy energy use and over-dependence on fossil fuels in some areas of the world endanger humanity and the environment, another energy-related challenge is how to provide energy to the hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries who currently lack energy access. Without modern energy sources, there are the challenges of heating/cooling, refrigeration, nighttime lighting, and more. In addition, relying on solid sources for fuel – like firewood, dung, or food waste – contributes to indoor air pollution and deforestation.

Global energy consumption is expected to increase by almost 50% by 2050, with a disproportionate increase in demand from the low-income nations of the world as they access the energy they desperately need. However, if energy continues to come from fossil fuels, this increased demand will stress the Earth’s environment and human societies even further.