The Ethical Case for Fossil Fuels


A growing number of industrialized countries are questioning the ethical use of fossil fuels, considering climate change is primarily due to greenhouse gas emissions. Many leaders are removing subsidies for fossil fuel companies, pushing against offshore drilling, and divesting from fossil fuel projects like pipelines and refineries. While this may seem like the right thing to do, many economically developed nations tend to forget about the rest of the world. Countries in the developing world rely on fossil fuels to generate economic growth. If these more economically developed countries fail to take the needs of the developing world into consideration, large swaths of the globe will fall into poverty. Clearlysuch an approach is not ethical. Developed countries must continue to develop renewable energy worldwide while simultaneously investing in fossil fuel projects abroad as the necessary infrastructure for renewable energy systems are designed, tested, and constructed – only then can the world move on from fossil fuels in a safe, effective, and ethical way.


In the United States and other developed nations, there is a tendency to prescribe solutions to problems facing humanity without considering the impacts such rules will have on the developing world. Nearly three decades ago, the global poverty rate – the portion of people living on less than $1.90 per day – stood at 36%. After many investments in the developing world from wealthier countries, the global poverty rate has dropped to 10% [1]. As investments in fossil fuel technologies are curbed to slow the rate of global climate change, those living in the developing world will be hurt the most. As a result, a new system must be created: one where the world continues to create technologies for a post-fossil fuel world while continuing to foster economic growth in the developing world by investing in fossil fuel technology. 

The term fossil fuel comes from the three types of fuels – coal, oil, and natural gas – derived from the fossilized remains of prehistoric plants and animals. After millions of years underground being crushed at high pressures, the properties of the dead organic matter change, essentially becoming fossilized sunlight. Due to the high carbon content, these fossil fuels are all materials with extremely high energy density. To release that energy, fossil fuels must be burned, releasing gaseous carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), and a large amount of heat. 

Consequences of Non-Renewables

Burning fossil fuels has global consequences. The average global surface temperature has been steadily increasing since the 1880s, coinciding with the start of the Industrial Revolution. Since record keeping began in 1960, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increased from 318ppm (parts per million) to 412.5ppm in 2021, according to data collected by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) [1]. Scientists understand that as fossil fuel use increased, the emission of gaseous CO2 began warming the atmosphere via a greenhouse effect. To curb emissions, renewable energy sources have been developed to provide electricity without any CO2 emissions. 

Fossil fuels are used in all aspects of modern life across the globe. A vast majority of the cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world consume fossil fuels. Most of the electricity that powers the world comes from coal-fired power plants. In the United States, 81% of the total energy produced comes from burning coal, oil, or natural gas. Oil-derived products appear in cosmetics, plastics, car tires, medicine, and more. The world heavily relies on fossil fuels to pursue a high quality of life. As the calls to divest from the fossil fuel industry increase, the world must not forget about the billions of people who rely on fossil fuels daily. The impact of such broad policies on the developing world must be taken into consideration.  

The developed world accounts for an outsized proportion of CO2 emissions. The United States accounts for creating around a quarter (25%) of the total CO2 emissions generated globally per year [2]. However, the entire continent of Africa – home to around 1.4 billion people – only generates 3% of total global CO2 emissions [3]. Therefore, the United States and other nations responsible for the bulk of CO2 emissions must lead the way in curbing carbon emissions.

Fossil Fuel Perceptions

In many developed nations, the public looks upon fossil fuels as a dirty source. Polling conducted by Pew Research found that 57% of Americans oppose the use of coal compared to 9% who oppose expanding solar power [4]. The disdain for the fossil fuel industry leads to policy that pushes against fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources. 

The economically developed world has the financial freedom and technological capacity to create massive infrastructure projects aimed towards converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The United States can spend billions of dollars investing in a wind farm while many countries in the developing world would never be able to afford such an endeavor. The Alta Wind Energy Center located in the Tehachapi Mountains near Mojave, California, operates 600 individual wind towers, creating just over 3200 gigawatts per hour (GW-h) of electricity annually. In total, the entire project cost almost $3 billion [5]. Worrying about the consequences of climate change is a luxury that only wealthier countries can afford.

In the rest of the world, fossil fuels are seen as necessary for economic advancement. Formerly, people used wood to cook, to provide heat, and for light where electricity was non-existent. As the use of fossil fuels has increased throughout the world, the rate of deforestation has decreased, keeping the forests of the world more intact [6]. Saving the forests provides a larger carbon sink to offset the carbon generated by human activities. Furthermore, burning fossil fuels for cooking and heating is more efficient than burning wood. The burning of biomass – the technical name for organic matter used as fuel – releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than coal and other fossil fuels [7]. Per pound, wood releases 50% more CO2 than the same amount of coal [8]. In sub-Saharan Africa, 81% of households rely on woodburning stoves for energy [9].  Biomass burning for fuel throughout Africa and Asia accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions [9]. Developing countries that are highly dependent on biomass for energy use will see less pollution by black carbon (fine particulate matter emitted due to incomplete combustion) through an increased use of fossil fuels.

Fuel Investments Abroad

More developed nations must fight for the rights of individuals living in the developing world who cannot fight for themselves. The World Bank along with the European Union announced in early 2021 that no country in the EU would finance any fossil fuel investment. The announcement immediately halted any funding for overseas fossil fuel projects, primarily in developing countries. In total, over $11 trillion dollars has been diverted from countries around the world [10]. This has robbed the developing world of significant funding that could have been used to invest in energy production, infrastructure development, and job creation. At the most recent United Nations annual climate change conference (COP26), 34 countries, including the United States, agreed to stop financing international fossil fuel projects. Such action only exacerbates the economic disparities between the developed and developing worlds by continuing to funnel money away from fossil fuel investments. 

Most of the now-defunded projects were sprinkled across resource-rich countries in South America, Asia, and Africa. The United States Export Import Bank (EXIM) provides loans to projects across the world for the sole purpose of providing U.S. manufactured goods to projects, creating domestic jobs, and supporting domestic businesses. The EXIM provides billions of dollars to projects annually including fossil fuel projects in the developing world. Under the new rules proposed by COP26, the EXIM will no longer fund fossil fuel projects. As a result, fossil fuel projects like the Area 1 Mozambique LNG facility – a liquified natural gas refinery located in Mozambique – will no longer receive funding. Previously, the EXIM promised up to $1.5 billion for the project which is expected to cost $20 billion in total and begin production in 2024 [11]. The project has been halted indefinitely due to the economic impacts of COVID-19 and threats posed by Islamic extremist insurgency in the area. These external pressures, coupled with the broken promises of future investment, leave Mozambique with 65 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This gas could have been used to power growing cities in Western Africa, but instead lies untouched and sacrifices thousands of potential jobs in the Mozambique energy industry [11].

The African continent contains some of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil, generating about half as much CO2. Theoretically, if the continent suddenly tripled their electricity consumption overnight, with all new consumption coming from natural gas plants, the global carbon emissions would only increase by 0.62% [12]. Why should the world curtail investments that better the lives of hundreds of millions of people for the sake of a small fraction of global pollution? The developed world, primarily the United States, European Union, India, Russia, and China – the countries that create the most CO2 pollution – should focus on curtailing pollution at home rather than abroad. If each of the aforementioned countries cut emissions levels by only 1%, global CO2 emissions would fall by 0.57%. The countries that are focused on stopping fossil fuel development abroad must focus instead on bringing their own levels of emissions down. Doing so would support the fight against climate change more effectively than curtailing fossil fuel production and consumption in the developing world. 

The problem is that the world can eliminate fossil fuel use and harm current generations or continue the use of fossil fuels and potentially harm future generations. Wealthy nations can switch to using renewable energy technologies to create electricity and drive electric cars. However, in the rest of the world, those items are luxuries that cannot be supported by existing infrastructure. In Haiti, there is no way for the “tap tap” trucks – the Haitian version of a yellow cab – to switch to electric cars when only 40% of the country has access to electricity [13]. Such facts must be considered when divesting from fossil fuel investments that would otherwise benefit the lives of those living in the developing world.

Ethical Issue in Divesting

The fossil fuel dilemma first must be analyzed using environmental ethics. Environmental ethics state that nature (animals, plants, landscapes, etc.) must be given the same rights as human beings. The environmental ethics approach considers the interests of the following two parties: all creatures (people, animals, and nature) that live on Earth today and all the creatures that live on Earth in the future. 

If the world continues to consume fossil fuels unabated, the atmosphere will become filled with greenhouse gasses. The increased concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will result in numerous adverse effects on the planet. Primarily, the planet will lose biodiversity. As biodiversity in nature decreases, unique plants and animals will be lost to extinction. Furthermore, increased greenhouse gasses cause an increase in intensity of natural disasters such as fires, hurricanes, and flooding, all of which will damage the natural environment. 

The melting glaciers contributing to sea level rise put all humans at risk. Increasing global temperatures are altering weather patterns, creating stronger storms that occur more frequently. The World Health Organization expects an additional 250,000 people per year to die because of storms, food shortages, and extreme weather events due to climate change between now and 2050 [14]. In light of the consequences, the solution does not appear to be obvious. Should the world prioritize the lives of future people impacted by climate change, or prioritize the quality of life for billions of people in the developing world today? The environmental ethics approach does not lead to a clear solution. 

Considering the extreme example, what happens to the global climate if all fossil fuel use is immediately stopped? All the CO2 already in the atmosphere will remain there until natural processes, such as photosynthesis from plants and algae, remove it from the air. This is a process that takes thousands of years. Applying the brakes while driving a car, the vehicle does not immediately stop. Climate behaves similarly. It takes forty years for the effects of human actions to impact the climate, dubbed the “40-year lag” by climate scientists [15]. If humanity stopped all greenhouse emitting activities in twenty years, a more realistic target, sixty years would elapse before the benefits of the actions were realized. Since few countries run on 100 percent renewable energy, the lives of people all over the world would be affected for four decades after the cessation. This could put social progress and civil rights at risk and increase the threat of global unrest. 

Utilitarianism determines the moral or right decision based upon which outcome creates the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. The same two groups will be analyzed, the creatures of today and the creatures of the future. If fossil fuels continue to be used, the global climate will face consequences, adversely impacting the people of the future. On the other hand, if all fossil fuel use is curtailed in a short time frame, only some people will thrive while the rest will struggle due to wealth and resource inequality. Neither result leads to the overall happiness of either population; therefore, the approach does not lead to a clear answer and another ethical framework must be utilized to bring a possible answer into focus. 

The common good ethical framework seeks to create conditions that are overall advantageous to both groups provided that some sacrifices are made for the sake of betterment in the larger community. Using the common good approach, the following question can be addressed: How can humanity today balance the needs of the developing world and the needs of posterity? For the people living in the developed world today, the push to eliminate fossil fuels, while justly motivated, must be balanced against the right of those living in the developing world to create better lives by progressing out of poverty.  Under the common good approach, the best solution would be a scenario in which the use of fossil fuels in wealthy countries will be curtailed significantly, primarily because wealthier countries produce an outsized share of CO2 emissions. At the same time, the developing world could continue to use fossil fuels to maintain and improve their quality of life.

Looking Forward

The world must be careful as a future without fossil fuels begins to become a reality. In the developed world, investments must be made towards creating a better system for replacing fossil fuels domestically. Since fewer CO2 emissions come from the developing world, more economically developed nations must continue to invest in fossil fuel technologies to ensure that the developing world can prosper economically. Global emissions from developed countries can be limited by constructing new nuclear power plants, wind farms, and solar fields. Simultaneously, investments in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure within developing countries can allow those plans to come to fruition. When the developing world can rise out of the cycle of systemic poverty, the world can completely divest from fossil fuels in a safe way that will not harm the livelihoods of billions.

By Benjamin Martin, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Benjamin was a junior studying Mechanical Engineering. Outside of the classroom, Benjamin could be found working with the Rocket Propulsion Lab and researching metallic glasses under Dr. Paulo Branicio. After USC, Benjamin plans on pursuing a career in the aerospace industry.


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Links for Further Reading