Fossil fuels are killing the planet. So why don’t we stop using them?

John Woodside
Ditching fossil fuels is a key part of tackling climate change and keeping our planet fit for human life, but Bay Street and Big Oil are standing in the way. Artwork by Ata Ojani / Canada's National Observer

March 2, 2022

Climate change is already threatening everyone on the planet.

For everyone alive today, this is an inescapable truth. We are on a road to extinction. Until we bring greenhouse gas emissions down to zero everywhere in the world, the planet will continue to warm. The only question is, how long will we stay on this path?

The answer depends on whether — and how fast — we kick our fossil fuel habit. Because even as we collectively drive down this road, the fossil fuel industry has its foot on the gas. From driving a car, to cooking on a gas stove, to generating electricity from coal, burning fossil fuels is the leading contributor of global warming. That means phasing out these polluting sources of energy is essential to protecting a planet that’s fit for human life. Here’s why.


What are fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are basically dead plants and animals that decomposed over millions of years. Heat and pressure from the Earth transform those remains into fossil fuels, like coal, oil and natural gas, underground. To access these fuels requires drilling and mining that leads to lots of environmental destruction. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

When fossil fuels are burned, gases like carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere that add up over time and trap heat. This is why they’re called “greenhouse” gases — they act like a greenhouse over the Earth. The more greenhouse gases there are in the atmosphere, the hotter the planet gets.

Unlike renewable sources of energy, like wind or solar power, fossil fuels are in limited supply. Once burned, they’re gone forever. By definition, fossil fuels are unsustainable.


Ditching fossil fuels is a key part of tackling climate change and keeping our planet fit for human life, but Bay Street and Big Oil are standing in the way. Here's everything you need to know about #FossilFuels and #ClimateChange. Twitter

How do fossil fuels contribute to climate change?

Scientists know fossil fuels cause climate change because Earth’s hotter average temperatures started around the same time humans began burning them. In fact, since 1850, humans have sent more than 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — much of it from burning fossil fuels — pushing the global average temperature up 1.2 C.

The concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is measured in parts per million (ppm). For the past 800,000 years at least, that number ranged from about 200 to 300 ppm. Since humans began using fossil fuels, the concentration has rocketed past 400 ppm. Within a few generations, humans’ fossil-friendly ways have wrecked the planet.

Oil and gas companies know this is a bad look. To defend their reputations, these companies often promote their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions when they’re taking fossil fuels out of the ground. But that doesn’t help much, since most fossil fuel pollution happens when it’s ultimately burned by the end user — by putting gas in your car, for example, or using coal power to heat your home. The exact number varies year to year, but according to the Global Carbon Budget, carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels represented more than 90 per cent of total global emissions in 2021. That means even if oil and gas companies could bring pollution from digging up, transporting and refining fossil fuels down to zero, it wouldn’t matter: as long as we keep using them, the planet will keep getting hotter.

Overwhelmingly, fossil fuel companies that make goals to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — meaning all of their emissions from producing fossil fuels are offset by cutting down on emissions elsewhere — are only referring to the small fraction of greenhouse gas emissions they’re directly responsible for. What gets burned to heat your home or power your car does not factor into their targets, making these emission goals greenwashing from the planet’s point of view.


Why don’t we stop using fossil fuels?

We should, but Bay Street and Big Oil are getting in the way because there’s still profit to be made. Canada is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer and has the third-largest oil reserves on the planet behind only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The vast majority of our oil is sent to the United States, and over the past 30 years — roughly as long as Canada has been setting emission reduction targets — Canadian crude oil exports have exploded.

In 1990, crude oil exports were worth about $5.5 billion, or 3.6 per cent of total exports. By 2019, they represented 14.1 per cent and were valued at $84.3 billion. Canada produces lots of oil and gas because it’s valuable to the economy. Still, it’s a misconception that fossil fuels are vital to the Canadian economy.

Since 2000, oil and gas extraction has contributed, on average, just five per cent to the country’s GDP each year, according to Statistics Canada. Compare that with other sectors, like manufacturing or real estate, which make up more than 10 per cent each, and the country’s true economic identity comes into clearer focus. Like other developed countries, Canada’s economy is largely dominated by the service sector, representing about 70 per cent of GDP.

Even though the country is producing more oil and gas than ever, the writing is clearly on the wall for the industry — there’s no long-term future in fossil fuels. Still, many companies are doubling down on trying to find marginally cleaner ways to continue business as usual. Some are using emerging but questionable technologies like carbon capture to help greenwash their climate goals.

The world’s leading energy forecasting authority, the International Energy Agency, projects demand for different types of energy in its annual World Energy Outlook. Demand for coal, oil and natural gas varies, so it’s worth spelling them out separately, but the bottom line is demand has to fall for the world to limit global warming to 1.5 C.

In every scenario, the IEA expects global demand for coal to fall from 2025 to 2050. Similarly, demand for oil is predicted to drop, peaking by the mid-2030s at the latest.

Natural gas is a slightly different story. The IEA expects demand to grow over the next five years, but then its future is an open question, depending on what energy sources become available in regions heavily dependent on gas for electricity and industrial needs. However, if the planet is going to have a net-zero future, the IEA says, demand for natural gas will need to sharply decline after 2025. Scenarios that don’t aim for a climate-safe future could see natural gas use grow for decades.

Essentially, the IEA says the more a country’s transition to clean energy lines up with the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep global warming to 1.5 C, the faster and steeper the fossil fuel phaseout is.

In Canada, the biggest obstacle to phasing out fossil fuels is the companies and financial institutions still heavily invested in them. New fossil fuel investments, like the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline, the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the LNG Canada facility in B.C., are multibillion-dollar megaprojects designed to make a profit off the oilsands operations and gas fields that fossil fuel companies already own. These projects also collectively receive billions of dollars of public money while trampling Indigenous rights.

One problem is that making back the cost of these investments takes decades, meaning policy-makers have to choose between speeding up an energy transition that will give us a climate-safe future and having to write down fossil fuel investments or delay the transition to make more money from fossil fuels. This is what environmentalists refer to as carbon lock-in.

Currently, political leaders are attempting to scale up renewables and maximize fossil fuel revenue at the same time, but this is effectively climate denial: no matter how much we invest in clean energy, if we’re still polluting the atmosphere, we haven’t solved the problem.


Why does climate change even matter?

Climate change is already affecting every corner of society, and as the climate continues to break down, the problems get worse. Already, scientists believe the world is entering its sixth mass extinction ever because of fossil fuel-driven climate change.

To put that in perspective, the last time there was a mass extinction on Earth, an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. That’s the level of threat we’re facing.

To avoid this kind of destruction, countries around the world have promised to try to hold global warming to 1.5 C. That’s the goal of the Paris Agreement, and countries around the world picked that number because if we go over 1.5 C, we’re more likely to lock in significant damage.

We would have to contend with dramatic tipping points that are only just beginning to be understood, like melting permafrost that could send billions of tonnes of methane — an especially powerful greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. Crossing these tipping points could lock in extreme environmental damage and make fighting climate change much harder, which is why it’s so important to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions right away.

Even if we cross that threshold, though, it does not mean the world has “lost” and it’s time to give up — every fraction of a degree matters.

One common misconception is that reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 — which lots of countries are promising, including Canada — will hold global warming to 1.5 C. It won’t. Currently, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects the planet to cross the 1.5 C threshold in eight to 13 years.

That means to avoid climate catastrophe, we need to slash greenhouse gas emissions now. Planning for major emissions cuts in the 2040s on the road to net-zero is a plan to lock in warming that will wreck huge regions of the planet.

[Top image: Ditching fossil fuels is a key part of tackling climate change and keeping our planet fit for human life, but Bay Street and Big Oil are standing in the way. Artwork by Ata Ojani / Canada's National Observer]