Fossil energy

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Worldwide energy consumption by type of energy in 2015 (only commercially traded energy)
Electricity generation from fossil fuels and nuclear energy in Germany 2010–2014

Fossil energy is obtained from fuels that were created in geological prehistoric times from the decomposition products of dead plants and animals. These include lignite , hard coal , peat , natural gas and petroleum . These energy sources are called fossil fuels or fossil fuels (see also Fossil ). In contrast, biomass is obtained from wood and other modern organic waste and residues.

Fossil fuels are based on the carbon cycle and thus enable stored (solar) energy from bygone times to be used today. The technical development of fossil fuels, initially almost exclusively coal, enabled continuous economic growth since the industrial revolution . In 2005, 81% of the world's energy needs were met from fossil sources.

The energy content of the listed fossil fuels is based on the carbon content. When burning with oxygen, energy is released in the form of heat and oxides , always including carbon dioxide . Therefore, the burning of fossil fuels is "highly polluting" both locally and globally. Fossil fuels are the main source of man-made greenhouse gas emissions and thus global warming . Depending on the composition and purity of the fossil fuel, other chemical compounds such as nitrogen oxides and soot as well as differently fine dusts are also formed .

The opposite term to fossil energy is renewable energy . It is taken from energetic processes that are constantly renewed. Renewable energies primarily include the use of wind energy , solar radiation ( solar collectors and solar cells ) and water currents and the energetic utilization of biomass, but also the use of tides and geothermal energy .

Nuclear power is sometimes viewed as “fossil energy” because it is not renewable. But uranium ore , the raw material for the production of fuel rods for nuclear power plants, did not emerge from the decomposition products of dead plants and animals, but an inorganic mineralization.


Reserves and resources

The reserves of fossil fuels (fossil fuels) stored in the earth, which have been proven, are safely available and can be obtained economically with today's technology, are called energy reserves. Assuming constant energy demand and constant use, the currently known world energy reserves of crude oil and natural gas will last 43 or 66 years and coal for around 170 years. However, the International Energy Agency assumes that the global primary energy requirement will increase by 36% between 2008 and 2035, but only if energy policy measures such as increasing energy efficiency and expanding renewable energies are implemented. In a comparison scenario that manages without these measures, the increase in primary energy demand is higher. Factors for the availability of fossil fuels include: a .:

  • Size of the energy reserve
  • Effectiveness in the use of energy
  • Extent of consumption
  • Switch to renewable resources

In addition to the available energy reserves, there are proven and suspected reserves of energy sources (so-called energy resources), which, however, are currently not recoverable for technical and / or economic reasons.

The fossil fuel reserves will probably last a maximum of another 200 years. In the case of crude oil, the static range was only about 20 years in 1919 and has since increased to about 35 to 40 years, as new deposits and improved mining measures were added. In addition to the range, an important factor is the point in time at which production can no longer be increased but begins to decline ( global oil production maximum ). Since this changes the relationship between supply and demand, this can lead to sharply rising prices. The supply gap can be covered by lower consumption and alternatives such as renewable energies or nuclear energy .

Climatic effects and limits of use

Heat release and carbon dioxide emissions when burning one gram of fuel
fuel Heat gain ( kJ ) CO 2 (grams)
coal 32.8 3.66
petrol 47.8 3.08
Methane (natural gas) 55.6 2.74

The combustion of fossil fuels is the main source of the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the earth's atmosphere and thus man-made global warming . In order to avoid the serious consequences of global warming , the fossil energy reserves known today may only be partially used. If the two-degree target is to be achieved with a probability of more than 50%, between 2011 and 2050, based on data from the IPCC, a maximum of between 870 and 1,240 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon dioxide may be released. Converted to the reserves, this means that in the global context around 30% of the oil reserves, 50% of the natural gas reserves and more than 80% of the coal reserves may not be burned. If current emissions were maintained, the remaining carbon budget would be used up in 20-30 years. Since the beginning of industrialization until 2015, around 530 billion tons of carbon were released by fossil fuels, of which around half remained in the atmosphere and a good quarter each was absorbed by the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

A complete burning of the fossil energy resources, which are conservatively estimated at 5 trillion tons of carbon, would lead to an average warming of the Arctic by approx. 14.7 to 19.5 ° C and a global temperature increase of approx. 6.4 to 9.5 ° C which would have very strong negative effects on ecosystems , human health , agriculture, the economy, etc. If both conventional and unconventional resources were burned, the carbon dioxide concentration in the earth's atmosphere could rise to around 5000 ppm by the year 2400. Such a scenario would lead to a temperature increase to values ​​that have not occurred for at least 420 million years. In addition, the Antarctic ice sheet would almost completely melt, which would mean that the sea level would rise by around 58 m even without taking the Greenland ice sheet into account .

Fossil energy sources



Petroleum is a in the earth's crust intercalated, mainly composed of long-chain hydrocarbons existing homogeneous and lipophilic mixture. It emerged from dead microorganisms (mostly single-celled algae ), which were deposited on the seabed in oxygen-free water as sludge enriched with organic compounds . Because the environment is subject to drastic changes in geological periods , at some point the sedimentation of the algae sludge stopped and these were covered by other sediments.

The load pressure of the overlying sediment layers ensured that the mud was compacted into fine-grained sedimentary rock . Through continuous subsidence of the regional earth's crust - this made it possible for further layers to be deposited on the mud - the organic-rich rock got into increasingly deeper crustal areas. There were elevated temperatures due to the geothermal gradient . Under these conditions, the solid organic compounds in the rock were gradually converted into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons. Since these hydrocarbons are relatively mobile and also have a lower density than the surrounding rock, they migrated in permeable rock towards the surface of the earth. Where impermeable rock layers effectively hindered the ascent, they accumulated in the permeable rock and formed deposits, whereby the gaseous hydrocarbons (mainly methane ) usually accumulated as natural gas above the liquid petroleum.

With more than 17,000 components, untreated petroleum (crude oil) represents one of the most complex mixtures of organic compounds that occur naturally on earth. The possible uses of crude oil are very diverse: In addition to combustion for heating purposes and in traffic, it is the starting point for petrochemicals and thus one of the most important industrial raw materials.

natural gas

Natural gas was created in a similar way to oil and is often associated with it. It consists mainly of methane , but the exact composition varies. Due to the high methane content, natural gas is a powerful greenhouse gas when not burned. If processed, however, it burns cleaner and more environmentally friendly than other fossil fuels. However, extraction, transport and processing also contribute to the release of the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide . Natural gas is used in particular to generate heat and electricity and as a raw material in the chemical industry.


Coal (from the old German kolo = "coal") is a black or brownish-black, solid biogenic sedimentary rock that consists of more than 50 percent of its weight and more than 70 percent of its volume of carbon .

Coal is a source of energy and is used by humans as a fossil fuel. It arises from plant remains, which in the absence of air - z. B. at the bottom of swamps and moors - rotted and exposed to increased pressures and temperatures after being submerged in deeper areas of the upper crust of the earth.

Hard coal is considered to be of a higher quality because it is very dense and pure, i.e. it contains very few foreign substances. The calorific value of hard coal is correspondingly high. Like crude oil, hard coal is therefore also called black gold . Lignite , which is less compact and contains a greater proportion of sulfur , is of inferior quality ; their calorific value is significantly lower, which is why the combustion of lignite is the most carbon-dioxide-intensive type of electricity generation.

Coal was the first fossil fuel to be used on a large scale. Their intensive use began in England in the 16th century . However, until the middle of the 19th century, coal only provided a small fraction of the energy consumed in Europe. Then their relative share in the energy mix rose sharply until the middle of the 20th century, only to be pushed back a little later by oil and gas.


Peat is the first stage of coalification . It is created in the absence of air in near-surface and dry waters. It is easily combustible when dry. Therefore, it is often extracted in bogs , which ecologists are critical of. Peat was mainly used as fuel at the beginning of industrialization. Around 1880 peat was also used for firing in the iron and steel industry. Since the beginning of the 20th century, some countries, especially in Central Europe until the late 1970s, have operated larger peat power plants . Finland uses the highest proportion of peat as an energy source worldwide, at 51 percent, with this contributing 6–7 percent to the country's primary energy and 20 percent to greenhouse gas emissions.

Economic framework


In 2012, according to the Carbon Tracker think tank, with the collaboration of Nicholas Stern, around $ 674 billion was invested worldwide in the search for new fossil fuels , around 1% of global economic output.

Investments are increasingly shifting away from fossil fuels. The investment volume withdrawn from this sector (so-called divestment ) increased by a factor of 50 in 2015, according to the US consulting firm Arabella Advisors. Pension funds and private investors from the USA, Great Britain and Australia in particular are withdrawing. Investors point to the economic risks of using carbon and the increased competitiveness of renewable energies.

The Allianz Group, one of the world's largest insurers and one of the largest investors, announced in November 2015 that it would no longer invest in companies that generate more than 30 percent of their sales or their energy generation from coal.

Norway has decided to stop investing the money from its pension fund, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds, in coal companies. The insurance company Axa has parted with stakes in coal companies. Warren Buffett has left the Exxon oil company.

In 2015, US $ 329.3 billion was invested in renewable energies, 4 percent more than in the previous year, despite lower oil and gas prices and lower costs for renewable energies. In 2015, 30 percent more wind and solar power was installed than in 2014.

In March 2016, the Rockefeller family sold their shares in companies that do their fossil fuel business. This particularly affected shares in the Exxon Group. Shares in the coal and oil sands sector will also be parted quickly. Their own statement is: "It [makes] no sense [...] to continue investing in these companies while the global community drives the move away from fossil fuels."


In 2011, fossil energies were directly subsidized worldwide with 523 billion US dollars , while renewable energies were subsidized with around 100 billion dollars. The subsidies for fossil energies far exceed those for renewable energies (as of 2014). Including external costs , subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to US $ 4.9 trillion in 2013, or more than US $ 150 per tonne of carbon dioxide . For 2014, including the economic costs of environmental and health damage, subsidies are estimated at US $ 5.3 trillion.

According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels were subsidized with a total of around 500 billion dollars worldwide in 2010, which means that subsidies had increased by around 110 billion dollars compared to 2009 (external costs not taken into account). According to the IEA, these subsidies have a negative impact on the economic performance of the states. A targeted abolition of subsidies could have great economic and ecological advantages and significantly strengthen the energy security of the individual states. The chief economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol , assumes that the abolition of these subsidies by 2015 could save around 750 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year . Up to 2.6 billion tons of CO 2 emissions could possibly be avoided by the year 2035 , which would be around half of the savings that would be necessary to achieve the internationally compatible 2-degree target .

According to a study by the British Overseas Development Institute, the leading industrialized and emerging countries subsidize the exploration of oil reserves with 71 billion euros per year - and thus undermine their own climate policies.

Price development

According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), fuel imports worldwide amounted to 3,150 billion US dollars in 2014. This is particularly reflected in the trade balances of emerging and developing countries. In 2014 India spent around a quarter of its import spending on fossil fuels. In Pakistan the share was 30 percent, in China 14 percent and in Germany 9 percent.

Price development in Germany according to BDEW (Federal Association of Energy and Water Management) in euros / t SCU
year Import crude oil Imported natural gas Natural gas (industry) Natural gas (power plants) Third country coal (steam coal) Third country coal (coking coal)
1995 65 61 118 99 39 42
1996 82 59 120 103 38 44
1997 88 70 130 109 42 51
1998 60 62 124 103 37 50
1999 83 53 118 105 34 47
2000 156 93 158 129 42 51
2001 141 123 202 159 53 60
2002 130 105 182 151 45 ? ·
2003 133 111 200 167 40 53
2004 151 105 194 176 55 61
2005 211 142 226 206 65 91
2006 260 191 273 220 62 104
2007 260 180 260 209 68 94
2008 348 237 324 252 112 142
2009 218 198 301 239 79 151
2010 297 185 281 222 85 160
2011 400 230 327 256 106 ?
2012 441 263 356 260 93 ?

See also

Web links

  • Energy overview : Visual review of the extraction and consumption trends of the nations; Data from the BP Statistical Review 2009 . (German English)

Individual evidence

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  25. BNEF announces a new record for renewable energy investments in 2015 ( memento from March 25, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) January 14, 2016.
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