By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

A World Without Fossil Fuels

By Jeff Danner Posted September 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Our world is dominated by fossil fuels. They make our electricity, heat our homes, power our cars, and are changing our climate. As a student of both science and history, I sometimes wonder what the world would be like today if there were no fossil fuels; no coal, no petroleum, and no natural gas. One thing is for sure, the earth would be a far, far different place.

Let’s start our journey in the year 1750, human population is approximately 800 million, Europeans are sailing the world’s oceans, and it is 31 years before James Watt would have invented the steam engine if there were coal. The Americas have been depopulated by European based epidemic diseases and world’s oceans are teaming with fish. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is bouncing around in the 180 to 300 parts per million range – it’s over 400 parts per million now – as it had been for the previous half a million years, resulting in a favorable and stable climate.

Developing an entire counterfactual history of the world from 1750 forward could make for a rather interesting series of books and be fun to try. However, given that my target it to write a column that you can finish over a cup of coffee, I’ll restrict myself to providing you with a few examples of things I think would be very, very different if there were no fossil fuels.

No Communism

The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the 1800s, was powered by coal. Without coal and its brother-in-arms, the steam engine, there would not have been large factories in 19th century England. Without the factories, there would have not been the massive migration of workers from the country side into the squalid conditions in London that, in 1848, inspired Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto.

As a side note, coal mining in England in the 1800s was perhaps the most important period of geologic learning in our history. Without it, our knowledge of the history of the earth would have been significantly delayed.

The United States Would Only Extend from the Atlantic to the Appalachians

European colonists only became the majority ethnic group in their colonies in circumstances when the indigenous population was devastated by disease. In the case of the Americas it is estimated that Europeans killed up to 90% of the population. When there was a large resident population, such as was the case in India or South Africa, European managed to maintain control for a while, but with time the local population generally takes back over.

Without the Industrial Revolution driving up demand need for raw materials, colonization of the Americas would have been slower and involved fewer people. This would have allowed the American Indian Population west of the Appalachians, who had survived the small pox, typhoid and other epidemics, time to regroup and fend of western expansion of the Europeans, limiting the future United States to just the eastern seaboard.

As a side note, many scientists believe the cooling of the earth from 1550 to 1850, known at the Little Ice Age, was caused by a reduction of carbon dioxide in the air driven by reforestation in the Americas when the Indian farms and cities were deserted after the depopulating epidemics.

World Population Would be Three Billion

The supply of food calories we consume, either by eating plants or eating animals that eat plants, is dependent on the amount of fixable nitrogen in the soil. Mother Nature provides some of this fixable nitrogen through the action of fungi which live on the roots of certain plants such as clover or soy beans. Human beings add fixable nitrogen to the soil by making fertilizers from the Haber Bosch process which uses natural gas. Without natural gas to run the Haber Bosch process, the supply of fixable nitrogen, and thus then number of food calories, for the world would be only half of what is now. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that world population would be roughly half of its current level.

As a side note, a world with only 3.5 billion people would be far kinder to other species on earth, particularly fish.

There Would Not Be Air Conditioners

Air conditioners run on electricity. The vast, vast majority of our electricity is generated by burning coal or natural gas. Without these fossil fuels we would still have learned to generate electricity from hydroelectric plants, windmills, solar panels and, eventually, nuclear power. However, the output from these facilities, even when considered on a per capita basis, would provide far, far less electricity than we have today. Given this reduction in electricity supply, we would be far more particular about how we use it. Lights to read at night would still make sense, but gobbling up Giga Watts to cool the air would not make sense.

As a side note, without air conditioning perhaps we would spend more time outside and even know our neighbors.


I hope you enjoyed these speculations about how different the world would be if there were no fossils fuels. Someday the world will run out of fossil fuels. However, the situation at this point will be far different than if we had never had them at all. I’ll touch on that subject in a future column.

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