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Crossing the line: Earth’s planetary boundaries have been destabilized by oil, gas, and coal

Written by Mongabay Published on   12 mins read

Fossil fuels, crucial in industrial progress, now imperil all planetary boundaries, intensifying climate crisis and ecological threats.
  • It’s well known that the fossil fuel industry made the industrial age possible and raised much of humanity’s living standard, while also causing the current climate crisis. Less known is how oil, gas, and coal are destabilizing other vital Earth operating systems—impacting every biome. This is part one of a three-part exclusive Mongabay miniseries.
  • Scientists warned this year that, of the nine identified planetary boundaries, humanity has now overshot safe levels for six—climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change, novel entities (pollution), biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and freshwater change.
  • Fossil fuels, petroleum-based agrochemicals, and petrochemicals (including plastics) are now significantly contributing to the destabilization of all nine planetary boundaries, based on the review of numerous scientific studies and on the views expressed by dozens of researchers interviewed by Mongabay for this article.
  • According to multiple experts, if humanity doesn’t find alternative energy sources and phase out fossil fuels, agrochemicals and petrochemicals, then their production will continue driving the climate crisis—polluting the atmosphere, water, and land—creating deoxygenated kill zones in the world’s oceans—and poisoning wildlife and people.

When it comes to fossil fuel emission-driven climate change, 2023 has been a hell of a year. Latin American countries were hit by an astounding mid-winter heat wave, Antarctica set a stunning sea ice melt record, the world’s oceans were battered by extreme marine heat waves, and stifling heat domes formed over the US. All this comes as scientists confirm 2023 as “virtually certain” to be the hottest year in 125,000 years.

But those events, and many, many others—as extreme and unnerving as they feel—are not Earth’s only looming environmental threat.

Researchers recently assessed humanity’s actions and found that we’ve pushed Earth beyond six of nine “safe operating limits,” breaching hazardous thresholds for climate change, biodiversity loss, land system change, freshwater change, nitrogen pollution, and chemical pollution (technically known as novel entities). Stress on two other planetary boundaries—atmospheric aerosol emissions and ocean acidification—is also worsening, but these two, and stratospheric ozone depletion, remain within safe limits, for now.

The severe destabilization of even one natural Earth operating system could prove devastating for life as we know it, say scientists, with the transgression of six of the nine boundaries setting off alarm bells in the scientific community.

This year’s extraordinary climate change-driven events, along with the evidence of five other serious boundary breaches, prompted Mongabay to ask a question: We know fossil fuel production is the primary driver of the climate crisis, but how much are the oil, natural gas and coal industries contributing to destabilizing the other eight planetary boundaries?

In talking to experts and reviewing studies, Mongabay found that the fossil fuel, petroleum-based agrochemical and petrochemical industries are likely sowing seeds of instability across the entirety of the planetary boundaries framework. We report these connections in this story and two to follow.

For Katherine Richardson, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and first author on the recent planetary boundaries update, it’s clear that fossil fuels impact not just one, but many of the boundaries, particularly the “core” two: climate and biodiversity.

“All of the other seven planetary boundaries are operating through one of those,” she said. Historically, “we thought fossil fuels were a completely inexhaustible source of energy and didn’t realize the externalities that were associated with them.”

Those harmful externalities—if not rapidly brought under control—could drive irreversible change and present an existential threat to our world.

Breaking boundaries: Climate change

We begin with the best-known planetary boundary transgression, the climate chaos linked to the production and burning of oil, natural gas, and coal.

Extreme events in 2023 carry the clear fingerprints of the industry on climate change: fires in Canada, heat waves in South Asia, Africa, and Europe, and Latin America’s drought, with this year now on track to be the hottest on record.

“We are continually seeing an increase in extreme weather impacts, and we are continually seeing a role of climate change in the extremes that are causing them,” said Joyce Kimutai, a climate scientist with the World Weather Attribution Consortium.

Those extremes are driven by soaring global temperatures, and “it’s the fossil fuel industry through greenhouse gas emissions that are causing that warming,” she said.

Fossil fuel burning has admittedly done much good for humanity, powering the juggernaut of modern economies. But it has also contributed the lion’s share of the 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming in the industrial era, with hydrocarbon combustion responsible for 80% of CO2 emissions. Heat-trapping carbon—and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide—released into Earth’s atmosphere have disrupted Earth’s carbon cycle with dire consequences.

“The industry has known for decades that fundamentally the use of fossil fuels is unsustainable for the planet,” said Benjamin Franta, senior research fellow and head of the Climate Litigation Lab at the University of Oxford. “This history of delaying the movement away from fossil fuels has come with an irreversible cost, and now we’re seeing those costs.”

In 2022, fossil fuel burning released an estimated 36.6 billion tons of CO2, increasing atmospheric CO2 to 417.06 parts per million. Despite warnings from scientists and the United Nations on the urgent need to slash fossil fuel use, subsidies by the world’s nations to the oil, gas, and coal industries have risen, hitting a new record in 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Researchers warn that continued emissions, and failure to curb them, is setting humanity on a collision course with 2.5°C (4.5°F) of warming by the end of the century.

Peter Thorne, a climate scientist at Maynooth University in Ireland and one of many co-authors on the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report, noted that while the impacts of the 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming already experienced is alarming, one and a half degrees “will be much worse,” and two degrees “unimaginably worse.”

A 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) rise is considered a “critical threshold” with the potential to amplify the climate effects we’ve already witnessed, bringing far more extreme heat waves, fires, droughts, storms, sea level rise and risks to human lives.

Last year, an international group of researchers published the “Lancet Countdown,” a report detailing how climate change is putting human “health at the mercy of fossil fuels,” endangering vulnerable communities, increasing disease and driving economic losses. Already this year, extreme weather events did enormous harm to people’s lives and livelihoods, said Marina Romanello, executive director of the “Lancet Countdown.” “What we’re seeing is things are getting even worse.”

The fossil fuel industry is the main driver of an unfolding global crisis impacting the most vulnerable people in rich and poor countries alike, she adds. “It has unfortunately shown us that the rapidly accelerating health risks we’ve been recording through our scientific studies are increasing very quickly.”

Experts and international bodies continue underscoring the urgent need to phase out fossil fuel use and prohibit their expansion. The International Energy Agency, for example, recently stated that fossil fuel demand must fall by a quarter by 2030 to keep narrow hopes open of staying within a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase.

“It’s what the IPCC has been hammering home in this assessment report cycle—it’s never too late to act,” said Thorne. Climate change is a “force multiplier,” he added, exacerbating other environmental challenges—acting like a domino to destabilize other planetary boundaries. “If we don’t get our act together on climate change, it just makes it that much harder to stay within safe boundaries for the planet as a whole.”

An oil refinery at twilight. Methane emissions linked to oil and gas activities are a cause for concern among scientists. This shorter-lived greenhouse gas is considered around 87 times more potent than CO2. Large amounts—around one-third of all emissions from human sources—are connected to fossil fuel activities, but these are thought to be underestimates, according to research.  Existing technology could cut these methane emissions drastically by up to 75%. Photo by Devon Chandler (Pixabay).

The ‘deadly trio’: Fossil fuels put global oceans at risk

Life began in the world’s oceans. But now they are at serious risk. This year, a mass bleaching event unfolded in the Caribbean, though the total damage to coral reefs there won’t be known for up to six months, explained Derek Manzello, Coral Reef Watch coordinator at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This is the most severe heat stress event in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea region on record, and it’s still ongoing,” Manzello added, noting that bleaching is also occurring in the eastern Pacific, Persian Gulf and Red Sea, making this a “really severe, near-global event.”

2023’s naturally occurring El Niño, coupled with fossil-fuel driven warming, is the likely trigger. “You’re taking that natural variability in ocean temperature and you’re adding that on top of the warming,” Manzello explained. “These El Niños are progressively getting worse and worse through time.”

Bleaching alone isn’t a death knell for corals, experts say, but can leave them vulnerable years later. However, bleaching isn’t the only ocean stressor at work now.

Other pressures such as ocean acidification—one of the nine planetary boundaries—are undermining marine resilience. Around one-quarter of CO2 emissions are absorbed by the world’s oceans, lowering ocean pH levels, leading to “acidification,” which represents a threat to marine organisms, particularly calcifiers, such as shellfish.

The ocean acidification planetary boundary still “lies at the margin of the safe operating space” but with continued fossil fuel burning it, too, could soon be breached—ocean pH has already fallen from around 8.16 to 8.07 and could fall to 8.01 by 2100.

Increasing acidification is just one of a “deadly trio” of ocean killers linked to fossil fuel burning and the petroleum-based agrochemistry industry. The other two are climate change (causing increases in overall ocean temperatures, along with intensified marine heat waves), and eutrophication of coastal waters (causing a loss of ocean oxygen endangering sea life).

Eutrophication is caused by both warming seas and a massive influx of agricultural runoff in the form of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers sourced from fossil fuels (we’ll say more about that in the next section of this story).

All three of these oceanic threats must be considered together, said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a research scientist with the Alfred-Wegener Institute and former co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, as they are interconnected and interact to destabilize marine ecosystems.

“When these three things come together, species can lose their capacity to adjust, to adapt, to acclimate,” he explains, adding that ultimately, these threats are all connected to human activities—primarily fossil fuel burning and agrochemical overuse.

This is of great concern for the ocean, experts say. “It’s no surprise that if you look into Earth’s history that mass extinction events, like the Permian-Triassic, [known as the Great Dying] were likely tied to the three drivers of warming, acidification and oxygen loss.” Pörtner said. The Permian extinction wiped out 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial life.

“Without global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the future for coral reefs is very dire,” Manzello said, emphasizing that degraded coral reefs not only undermine ocean health, but people’s livelihoods, food sources, economies, and exacerbates coastal flooding. “It’s a very severe situation we’re dealing with.”

‘Agrochemical products … fossil fuels in another form’

Having named the “deadly trio” of ocean threats—climate change, acidification and eutrophication—there’s still more that needs saying about oxygen loss: While caused partly by warming, eutrophication is greatly enhanced by a deluge of waste coming from the mainland (largely made up of agricultural runoff and wastewater), generating expansive estuarial algal blooms and red tides and choking the life from coastal waters.

Since the 1960s, low oxygen areas in the open ocean increased by 4.5 million square kilometers (approximately 1.7 million square miles), while more than 500 low-oxygen sites occurred in the world’s estuaries and coastal areas.

Synthetic fertilizer production revolutionized global agriculture, but that progress came at a high cost, experts say, with the global nitrogen and phosphorus pollution planetary boundary the first to be transgressed by humanity in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Some estimates find that as much as 80% of synthetic nitrogen applied to land is lost to the environment—adding to climate change via atmospheric nitrous oxide emissions, while also flowing to the oceans and depriving marine biodiversity of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone—a vast ebbing and flowing expanse of low oxygen—last peaked at 8,776 mi2 in 2017.

Again, the fingerprints of fossil fuels are evident here: About half the world’s fertilizers are currently derived from fossil fuel sources.

The creation of ammonia—the primary component of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer—is the source of 1-2% of global greenhouse gas atmospheric emissions (nearly equivalent to Germany’s annual release). Those fertilizers are heavily sourced from fossil fuels, such as coal and methane.

Vast amounts of fossil fuel energy go into producing nitrogen fertilizers, which are then often used inefficiently, exacerbating eutrophication, contributing to climate change and harming biodiversity, said Peter Kopittke, a professor in soil science at the University of Queensland.

In a 2022 report, the Center for International Environmental Law notes that the fossil fuel industry and agrochemicals industry are inherently linked. “The fossil fuel industry has an interest in keeping alive the industrial agricultural food system because they can sell agrochemical products that are fossil fuels in another form,” said Lisa Tostado, a CIEL agrochemicals and fossil fuel campaigner.

Diversify: The fossil fuel industry’s ‘Plan B’ for survival

The fossil fuel, agrochemical and petrochemical industries “are basically one and the same,” agrees Fredric Bauer, a professor at Lund University, where he researches fossil fuel and petrochemical connections.

That interdependence is intentional. As the promise of carbon emission regulation increases, along with the number of electric cars on the road, the demand for gasoline is expected to fall. But fossil fuel companies plan to stay in business and thrive by shifting their production into petrochemicals, he said.

“What we’re seeing is that as the future of fossil fuels is being contested, the industry is anticipating a slowdown in demand,” Bauer explains. “The industry is … seeing that the demand for chemicals and plastics seems to be insatiable in developed economies.”

Petrochemicals are expected to absorb as much as a third of oil demand by 2030, and nearly half by 2050, outstripping fossil fuel demand by trucks, aviation and shipping. Much of that is destined to produce synthetic fertilizers and, notably, plastics, according to the International Energy Association.

“To make sure that there’s a future for their fossil fuel reserves, they are planning to turn lots and lots of oil … into chemicals and plastics,” Bauer adds. The current global plastics crisis is directly linked to this fossil fuel industry strategy.

Bauer and his colleagues estimate that in 2020, the chemical industry was directly responsible for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and indirectly around 10%. But that is rising.

And the petrochemical industry’s impacts extend well beyond carbon emissions. “We see that there are impacts across several of the planetary boundaries,” Bauer said, including biogeochemical flows of nitrogen, freshwater use and novel entities.

Novel entities: Soaring plastics and chemical pollution

Plastics are the best known and most notorious pollutant emitted by the petrochemical industry today. Ubiquitous across the globe, they’re in the atmosphere, deep ocean trenches, freshwater, clouds, within the bodies of multiple terrestrial species and marine species, including ocean plankton, and inside our own bodies. Scientists are racing to learn the effects.

Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made out of fossil fuels, with global production set to double by 2040, then nearly triple by 2060. An estimated 13,000 chemicals are used in plastic manufacture and more than 3,200 are known to “have one or more hazardous properties of concern,” according to the UN Environmental Programme.

Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a Ph.D. candidate at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, underlines how at every stage—from extraction of raw materials, to production and disposal—plastics destabilize the nine planetary boundaries in various ways—threatening biodiversity, ecosystems and human health.

“Plastics as a group are one of the major novel entities that are driving planetary change,” she said. “There are pushes from producers within the fossil fuel industry to increase production, regardless of the unsustainable situation that we see today.”

Plastics are just one chemical group using fossil fuel as a feedstock, under an umbrella totaling perhaps hundreds of thousands of manufactured chemicals, additives and compounds entering the environment, with more marketed all the time. Together these are known as “novel entities.”

Scientists declared the novel entity planetary transgressed in January 2022 because the introduction of synthetic chemicals into our lives and environment is happening faster than researchers can evaluate their safety, leaving us flying blind into a petrochemical future.

“The nexus between climate change, chemical toxicity, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss is an existential threat today for a lot of communities around the world,” said University of Gothenburg professor Bethanie Carney Almroth.

“Industrial chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels are a huge source of novel entities,” and a “foundational source” of chemical pollution, agrees Michael Bertram, an ecotoxicologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Globally, there would be many thousands of different pathways that chemicals that originate from fossil fuels can enter the environment.”

A sobering fact: Rolling back the transgression of the novel entities planetary boundary is impossible based on current science, given the trillions of microplastic particles already in the environment, as well as the persistent nature of multiple classes of potentially toxic chemicals already released, according to Carney Almroth.

“We’re shifting into a new normal, and if we want that to be safer, we need to change what we’re extracting and producing,” she said. “We need to cap fossil fuels and phase down as fast as possible.”

In the 1930s, the DuPont company coined a slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” That platitude has proven prophetic, boosting the world’s wealth, living standards and human health for more than a century. But fossil fuels and petrochemicals have had deleterious effects not touted by producers. They’re destabilizing the climate—acidifying and deoxygenating the ocean—polluting air, water and land—and endangering ecosystems and human life.

This article first appeared on Mongabay and was originally written by Sean Mowbray, a Mongabay contributor. It has been republished here under the Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) Creative Commons license.


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