The end of fossil fuels

Fossil fuels, as the name suggests, are very old. North Sea oil deposits are around 150 million years old, whilst much of Britain’s coal began to form over 300 million years ago. Although humans probably used fossil fuels in ancient times, as far back as the Iron Age, it was the Industrial Revolution that led to their wide-scale extraction.

And in the very short period of time since then – just over 200 years – we’ve consumed an incredible amount of them, leaving fossil fuels all but gone and the climate seriously impacted.

Fossil fuels are an incredibly dense form of energy, and they took millions of years to become so. And when they’re gone, they’re gone pretty much forever.

It’s only a matter of time

There are three different types of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal. Clearly, our reserves of these are finite - it's a matter of when they run out - not if.

So when will our fossil fuels run out?

The rate at which the world consumes fossil fuels is not standing still, it is increasing as the world's population increases, and as living standards rise in parts of the world that, until recently, had consumed very little energy.  Fossil fuels will therefore run out earlier.      

Graph showing future energy reserves for coal, gas and oil

Graph showing future energy reserves for coal, gas and oil

When will oil run out?

Globally, we currently consume the equivalent of over 11 billion tonnes of oil in fossil fuels every year. Crude oil reserves are vanishing at the rate of 4 billion tonnes a year (1) – if we carry on at this rate without any increase for our growing population or aspirations, our known oil deposits will last until 2052. There really isn’t a lot of oil left.

When will gas run out?

We’ll still have gas and coal left by the time oil runs out in 2052. But if we increase gas production to fill the energy gap left by oil, then those reserves will only give us an additional eight years, taking us to 2060.

When will coal run out?

It’s often claimed that we have enough coal to last hundreds of years. But if we step up production to fill the gap left through depleting our oil and gas reserves, the coal deposits we know about will run out in 2088. And let’s not even think of the carbon dioxide emissions from burning all that coal.

So will we run out of fossil fuels?

Does 2088 mark the point that we run out of fossil fuels? The simple answer is no. Some new reserves will be found which will help fossil fuels last longer, but they won’t last forever. New reserves of fossil fuels are becoming harder to find, and those that are being discovered are significantly smaller than the ones that have been found in the past.

Take oil, for example - we’re probably already on a downward slope. Sixteen of the world’s twenty largest oil fields have already reached their peak level of production (‘peak oil’ is the point at which they are producing their largest annual oil yield), whilst the golden age of oil field discovery was nearly 50 years ago.

There’s no denying it – we will run out of oil and other fossil fuels at some point.

But instead of panicking, instead of asking how much oil is left and fretting about how long fossil fuels will last, we simply need to embrace the alternatives – and there are much, much better alternatives to fossil fuels out there.

Renewable energy sources offer us another way, a way to avoid this (fossil-fueled) energy time bomb, but we must we start now. As the Saudi Oil Minister said in the 1970s, “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.”

We’re getting to the end of the oil age very quickly; the curtain is about to fall on the fossil fuel era.

We can get all the energy we need from the wind, from the sun, and the sea. The technology is advanced, and the renewable energy revolution has already taken off around the world.

In Europe alone, renewable energy sources made up nearly nine-tenths of new power added to Europe’s grids in 2016 – and 2017 is following the same path. We need to do more, and act more quickly. Governments and energy companies around the world need to better support renewable energy – and stop pursuing fossil fuels.

And people need to switch to green energy – and boycott energy companies that don’t offer it. Switching to green energy is the single biggest thing we can do to fight climate change – and it sends a message to governments and energy companies that fossil fuels are no longer wanted.

References

1. All fossil fuel reserve and consumption data from CIA World Factbook.

Al Gore

"As more and more people understand what's at stake, they become a part of the solution, and share both in the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crises."

Al Gore