I get the feeling that there is such a strong backlash against fossil fuels that there is an irrational movement to purge them completely. Maybe because people are transferring their worries about climate change to all aspects of fossil fuel use.

For example the preference of bio-plastics over fossil fuel plastics, without considering the environmental impact of each.

Using fossil fuel to make plastics does not necessarily produce more CO2 than production of bio-plastics.

We already use vast amounts of former rainforest land for the production of natural latex, but I can't imagine any environmental campaign to encourage use of synthetic rubber.

Should we use fossil fuels wherever their end use would have less environmental impact than the alternatives?

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    You need to be clear what "less environmental impact" means, I think. And note that bioplastics have as their source carbon from the air, while at least some fossil carbon going into plastics is likely to end up as new carbon in the air. That is the crucial difference.
    – Móż
    Nov 22, 2016 at 21:20

1 Answer 1


Yes, we should leave the larger part of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Scientists have calculated that if we want to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees C (which was agreed upon in the Paris climate agreement), then we cannot use more than 1/3 of all currently known reserves.

...globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 °C. (source)

Fossil fuels that are in the ground are usually stored safely there and do not contribute to global warming. But once you take them out their stored carbon content is almost always added to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gas emissions at one time or another. Your statement that

Using fossil fuel to make plastics does not necessarily produce more CO2 than production of bio-plastics

is only true in theory. It only holds for plastics that are stored safely at the end of their lifetime. In practice however large amounts of fossil-fuel-based waste plastics are incinerated and when that happens they add CO2 to the atmosphere. When bio-plastics are incinerated they also add CO2, but the difference here is that the biomass that was used to create the plastic has taken CO2 out of the atmosphere when it was growing. That's why bio-plastics are carbon neutral (if you neglect the emissions from their manufacturing process).

I do agree that we should 'use fossil fuels wherever their end use would have less environmental impact than the alternatives', but there are very few uses of fossil fuels for which there isn't a more environmentally-friendly alternative. The only thing I can think of right now is jet fuel, but according to this question they are working on that, and of course reduction (less flying) would be even better from an environmental point of view.

There is more information in this Guardian article: Leave fossil fuels buried to prevent climate change, study urges

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    With jet fuel, the only alternatives I'm aware of are biofuel (which is often worse than fossil fuel), and not flying. The latter is obviously both preferable and necessary.
    – Móż
    Nov 22, 2016 at 21:22
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    Considering that conventional plastics use probably less than 1% of fossil fuels, I think they are a better alternative to bio-plastics. Destroying more rainforest to grew feedstock for bio-plastics is not a price worth paying in my opinion. If fossil fuel was to be restricted to anything apart from electricity generation and vehicle fuel (jet fuel allowed), then I think it would be well within the safe limit of the Paris Climate Agreement. Nov 22, 2016 at 22:31
  • @Móż There is promising work being done to make jet fuel from algae farming. Hopefully one day will out compete palm oil. Nov 22, 2016 at 22:35

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