Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms.
The age of the organisms and their resulting fossil fuels is typically millions of years, and sometimes exceeds 650 million years.
Fossil fuels contain high percentages of carbon and include coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
They range from volatile materials with low carbon:hydrogen ratios like methane, to liquid petroleum to nonvolatile materials composed of almost pure carbon, like anthracite coal.
Methane can be found in hydrocarbon fields, alone, associated with oil, or in the form of methane clathrates. The theory that fossil fuels formed from the fossilized remains of dead plants by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust over millions of years (see biogenic theory) was first introduced by Georg Agricola in 1556 and later by Mikhail Lomonosov in the 18th century.
The Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2007 the primary sources of energy consisted of petroleum 36.0%, coal 27.4%, natural gas 23.0%, amounting to an 86.4% share for fossil fuels in primary energy consumption in the world.
Non-fossil sources in 2006 included hydroelectric 6.3%, nuclear 8.5%, and others (geothermal, solar, tidal, wind, wood, waste) amounting to 0.9%.
World energy consumption was growing about 2.3% per year.
Although fossil fuels are continually being formed via natural processes, they are generally considered to be non-renewable resources because they take millions of years to form and the known viable reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being made.
The use of fossil fuels raises serious environmental concerns. The burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tonnes (21.3 gigatonnes) of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, but it is estimated that natural processes can only absorb about half of that amount, so there is a net increase of 10.65 billion tonnes of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year (one tonne of atmospheric carbon is equivalent to 44/12 or 3.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide).
Carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gases that enhances radiative forcing and contributes to global warming, causing the Earth’s average surface temperature to rise in response, which the vast majority of climate scientists agree will cause major adverse effects. A global movement towards the generation of renewable energy is therefore under way to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.