Pollution Caused by Fossil Fuels

by Chris Dinesen Rogers; Updated September 26, 2017
Winter in the city

Fossil fuels include common sources of energy such as coal and natural gas. These fuel sources developed thousands--sometimes millions--of years ago, depending upon the type. The energy output varies with the material, with peat producing the least amount of energy and the lowest amount of carbon. The pollution resulting from fossil fuels is caused by the toxic emissions they release. Fossil fuel combustion releases carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, methane and other emissions in the air. Although some of these chemicals are naturally occurring, the high concentrations cause pollution and its effects.



Although some emissions from fossil fuels have been reduced, total emissions increased in the United States from 1990 through 2007. The trend threatens to continue as populations grow, causing an increased dependency on fossil fuels, according to the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.


coal industry

The primary sources of pollution caused by fossil fuels are industry and vehicle exhaust. Coal production is a lucrative and important source of revenue for the United States and other coal-producing countries. In 2008, U.S. coal production topped 1 million tons, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The potential for development exists within 38 states. The pollution caused by fossil fuels depends upon the type of coal burned. Anthracite coals, for instance, contain high levels of sulfur. Sulfur dioxide is a primary component of acid rain.

Environmental Effects

Aquamarine iceberg with penguins

One of the more serious consequences of pollution caused by fossil fuels is global warming or climate change. Fossil fuel combustion introduces the so-called greenhouse gases into the air. Scientists believe that carbon and other emissions in the atmosphere created ground level ozone. This layer traps heat at the Earth's surface, causing land and water temperatures to rise. These temperature increases in turn cause sea levels to rise due to melting ice caps. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), rising ocean waters cause shorelines to erode at a rate of up to 3 feet a year.

Other Effects

Smokestack, Becker MN

Fossil fuel combustion directly impacts the air, causing widespread pollution. However, chemical reactions in the atmosphere can also lead to harmful effects on land and in water resources. Acid rain, for example, is the product of a chemical reaction involving sulfur dioxide and atmospheric moisture. The resulting acidic precipitation contaminates aquatic environments and pollutes soils.


Wind turbines in a rapeseed field

Reduction in fossil fuel emissions can lessen or even prevent the impacts of the resulting pollution. Through stricter regulations and enforcement, positive results have already occurred. Sulfur dioxide emissions are more than 70 percent lower based on EPA data from 1980 to 2008. As a result, the environmental effects of acid rain have abated. Since fossil fuels are composed primarily of carbon, other ways, such as development of alternative sources of energy, offer more practical solutions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

About the Author

Chris Dinesen Rogers has been online marketing for more than eight years. She has grown her own art business through SEO and social media and is a consultant specializing in SEO and website development. Her past work experience includes teaching pre-nursing students beginning biology, human anatomy and physiology. Rogers's more than 10 years in conservation makes her equally at home in the outdoors.

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