The most polluting of all the fossil fuels—and the one that drove the Industrial Revolution—is coal. Coal is a fossil fuel formed when increased pressure, temperature, and moisture act upon masses of plant matter that have become compacted beneath marshes and lakes. These masses harden into the black or brownish black rock that we call coal. Coal exists as a layer of sedimentary rock in the earth and must be extracted by mining, which traditionally consists of driving shafts into the ground to dig it up. Coal was the first of all fossil fuels to be used extensively. People actually burned coal for thermal energy long before the Industrial Revolution. Early in history (770 to 453 b.c.e.), China, in response to deforestation and a wood shortage, began burning coal. The Chinese used coal in place of wood as a fuel for cooking and domestic heating, as well as for the thermal energy needed to forge metals to make tools. England in the 16th century turned to coal to fulfill the same needs when its population had doubled between 1530 and 1700 and wood became scarce. Many of England's early industries, including glassworks, potteries, and breweries, were powered by coal.
However, it was the coal steam engine of the late 1700s that launched an entirely new and revolutionary consumption of coal. Aside from leading to a proliferation of factories that depended on it for daily production, the coal steam engine was the driving force behind a boom in railway transportation. Railways for steam-powered trains that both were powered by and transported coal sprang up across America and Europe. In 1781 the horse-drawn carriage was the standard means of passenger travel worldwide; within 100 years the coal-powered steam train filled this role. And whereas in 1800 most energy was consumed for domestic purposes, by the end of that century the coal-powered steam engine had created an industrial energy sector whose level of production and manufacturing surpassed anything that had preceded it. Steamships that ran on the coal-powered steam engine also became pervasive; the first steamship companies emerged between 1836 and 1840, and by 1850 they were consuming about 60 tons of coal per day.
With this rise in coal as a major source of energy there also arose a set of energy-related issues more familiar in nature to those the world experiences today. For example, the environmental impact of energy no longer simply equated with deforestation and soil erosion, but with serious air pollution. This is because coal is a solid, combustible substance consisting primarily of carbon, with sulfur and other impurities mixed in. When it and other fossil fuels are burned for energy, the gas carbon dioxide, or CO2, is released, along with other gases. Carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless gas that is also emitted whenever humans and animals breathe, forests are burned, or land is cleared and vegetation left to decompose. The atmosphere also consists of carbon dioxide, plus nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and other gases in trace amounts. And plants absorb carbon dioxide in a process called photosynthesis, which helps to keep them alive. Yet despite all of this, carbon dioxide, of all the gases emitted when fossil fuels are burned, is generally considered to be one of the most harmful to the environment. This is because carbon dioxide collects high up in the atmosphere and reduces the amount of heat from the Sun that the Earth can radiate back into space. Retaining this additional fraction of the Sun's heat can cause the Earth's temperature to rise gradually. So, coal's primarily carbon makeup has given it a reputation as the fossil fuel that is most threatening to the environment. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere has risen sharply since the late 1800s, when the coal-driven Industrial Revolution swept through both Europe and the United States. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates say that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today is actually about 30 percent greater than it was in the 1860s, when coal's use for energy was well established and when oil, yet another fossil fuel, was just beginning to be exploited.6 And, according to the EIA, the world's total carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are projected to reach 40,045 million metric tons by 2025, about a 47 percent increase over 1990 levels.7 In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), announced that, over the previous 100 years, temperatures had increased between 0.4°C and 0.8°C, with the warmest temperatures all occurring within the preceding 15 years.8
During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the increased burning of coal caused air pollution around the industrial centers where workers and factories were clustered. As the British novelist Charles Dickens wrote famously in a description of industrial London in his 1850s novel Bleak House: "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green gaits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city."9
Even though its pollution factor is high, however, coal is the cheapest and most plentiful fossil fuel on Earth. During the 1800s, a half-ton of coal could produce as much energy as two tons of wood at half the cost. Even today, when consumption of coal is projected to slow, the burning of coal products is still expected to be great enough to contribute 5,353 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution to the Earth's atmosphere through the year 2025, according to the EIA. The EIA also reported that coal accounted for 2,142 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States alone in 2005. Mining for coal, too, has been criticized by environmentalists for its impact on the environment.
During the Industrial Revolution, England was the most prolific coal producer in the world. It exported one-third of its coal output and kept many parts of the world dependent on it for coal to fuel their own energy activities. For the first time countries had to pay for their energy in a way unknown to them when their energy was derived mostly from renewable sources. Such countries, in their dependency on England for their energy needs, were experiencing one of the energy-related issues that is of great concern to the United States and other countries today: dependency on a foreign country for energy resources. From 1850 to 1914 the presence of coal reserves within a country became a determining factor in whether that country experienced industrial growth. Two countries, however, had major coal reserves and were able to catch up to England's industrial output by 1914. These countries were Germany and the United States. In 1913 Germany produced 195 million tons of coal and exported 45 million tons; in the same year the United States exported 25 million tons of the 500 million tons it produced.10 Between 1885 and 1950 in the United States, in fact, coal was the most widely used fuel. More countries soon followed England's lead during the Industrial Revolution and boosted both their mining and consumption of coal. As industries, and entire countries, began to depend on coal for their progress and prosperity, and as air pollution from coal increased, more energy-related issues began to rise to the surface, especially energy's impact on the economy and the environment. In the stage of energy history that followed the Industrial Revolution, the environment, in particular, would become a main focus, as well as one of many energy-related concerns that now have heightened significance in the modern world.
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