What if there were no fossil fuels?


The Industrial Revolution was largely powered by coal. Wood and charcoal were used as fuel, and to smelt iron. But even before then, in the 16th Century, wood was already becoming scarce in Britain when the population was still under 10 million.

Trees are slow to replace and take up a lot of land area. Wood also has only half the energy density of coal, so you need to burn more of it. Political power probably would have shifted towards Russia, Canada and South America with their huge areas of forested land.

Without coal and oil, early chemists would have faced the much more challenging proposition of synthesising long-chain hydrocarbons from ethanol or vegetable oil. Plastics and synthetic rubber would not be developed until much later and would probably have been too expensive to use for toys and disposable packaging.

Worse, natural gas is an essential ingredient for the production of ammonia fertilisers. Without them, the world would need four times as much agricultural land to produce the same amount of food, which would sharply limit population growth.

Electrical power would still be perfectly possible; wind turbines and hydroelectric dams were already in use in the 19th Century and could have been developed to fulfil all our needs. But electronics without plastic for insulation would be very challenging.

Computers, if they existed, would be large and primitive.

Atmospheric CO2 would still be at pre-industrial levels, but smog and soot would be an even bigger problem as vast amounts of wood were burned for heat, cooking and industry. This could even lead to climate cooling, by blocking the sunlight from reaching the surface. The limited land area might result in more wars for territorial control, but they would be fought with muskets and cannons since petrochemicals are also a vital ingredient of high explosives.

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Asked by: Andy Newell, Knaresborough, Yorkshire

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