Problem Identification

Automobile Emissions: A New Form of Energy Consumption

For centuries, fossil fuels have been our main source of energy. Everything we do– from cooking, to heating our homes, to transportation, uses some sort of fossil fuel. These fossil fuels include oil, natural gas, and coal. Each one of these resources has a certain contribution to negatively impacting the environment, and each one of these resources can and should be replaced by renewable energy. There are many problems that we face today in which these fossil fuels are used. I will be focusing on the use of fossil fuels in relation to powering our cars and how that is contributing to climate change and the issues of public health.

We must first identify the problem in order to understand what needs to be changed. Once the idea of gasoline-powered transport started to emerge, from that point on, we never looked back. Before fossil fuels surged on the market, automobiles were first introduced as steam-powered and battery-powered methods.[1] This low-emissions idea, however, was short-lived due to the lack of efficiency and power it provided. Thus, the turn to fossil-fueled automobiles took over, providing a cheaper and easier way to get from one place to another. Fossil fuels became a cheaper method of transportation because they were a new form of energy that was easy to acquire. There was little effort into building machines that would be potent enough to carry people from one place to another with ease without suffering the consequences of rough terrain. In the early 1900s, gas-powered cars were booming. They were easy to acquire and with the invention of the assembly line, growing with popular demand. As popularity of oil-driven cars grew, so did the demand for fossil fuels themselves to power these machines. In America, gasoline consumption soared from less than three billion gallons in 1919 to approximately fifteen billion in 1929, 46.5 billion in 1955, and more than 135 billion in 2002.[2] As these numbers continued to climb, reserves started to deplete. This in turn led to resource-driven wars and heightened prices, hindering our health by continued release of toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Today, automobiles are responsible for a big portion of the pollution released into the air which affects not only the climate, but human health as well. As a problem we are facing today, it is our duty as citizens to transform how we use our energy positively to lessen the environmental and health effects for the children of tomorrow.

Car emissions are detrimental to the environment and human health. As we continuously burn fossil fuels daily, we contribute to the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere which in turn affects our climate and the air we breathe. Although greenhouse gases are necessary for survival, humans contribute to the warming of the ozone. The earth already provides us with CO2, water vapor, methane, NOx, and ozone. But, with human created emissions, we increase the amount in the atmosphere at an alarming rate. The increased amount of GHG in the atmosphere has made such an impactful effect that the earth is warming by at least 1-degree F per year and will continue to do so unless we start to change the ways in which we use our energy. This warming affects farming, wildlife, sea levels, and natural landscapes.[3] Everything done on a day-to-day basis has a lasting effect on the Earth’s surface that may not be apparent immediately. However, we are aware of the long-term effects of gasoline-powered cars, but  we are not prioritizing the mitigation of them today.

Not only is the burning of fossil fuels dangerous, but the process in which we extract them can also be detrimental to the environment and health. Fracking, for example, is a method of extracting oil and gas from shale rocks deep beneath the earth’s surface. Fracking fluids are known to contain toxic materials, some of which are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.[4] This is not only an environmental issue, but a public health one as well. Workers associated with the extraction of fossil fuels and citizens going about their daily activities are exposed to toxins in the air due to extracted fuel. The extraction process associated with coal and oil are related to health problems such as lung disease, cancer, and asthma. These health complications can also be attributed to the inhalation of the chemicals released into the atmosphere from cars. Ideally, one should take into consideration the externalities associated with the extraction of these fossil fuels. The government keeps the prices of gas low, making renewable energy costs seem too high for competition.[5] As a consequence, we end up paying healthcare bills down the line because we want the lowest prices possible for what we put into our vehicles. Once the government allows companies to start taking responsibility for the prices of the actual product and the damages that come with them, we will have a leveled playing field in which renewable energy is more likely to be considered as a viable source to power vehicles as well as fuel other sources used on a daily basis.

Over the next three months, I will be using our working definition of what sustainability is and how we can use renewable resources around us to tackle the problem surrounding fuel consumption in America. I will explore different methods of technology and innovations that can be used in the place of fossil fuels. Within these different methods, we can compare and contrast the efficiency of fossil fuel alternatives and how we can give an equitable chance at survival to the environment and to people. As we make our way through the Anthropocene, we must think of ways in which we can lessen the effects on the environment. In the Anthropocene, we create things that we see useful for human kind at a given moment. What we fail to acknowledge, however, is how we will affect generations to come. For decades, we have used fossil-fueled cars because they were the easiest and the most feasible mode of transportation. We are just now, centuries later, realizing that we are contributing to climate change negatively and that we should start taking actions to try to mitigate or reverse the effects we have caused. As Andrew Revkin mentioned in his lecture, the Anthropocene is a geological age of our own making – a time in which a species is beginning to consider the long-term impact of its actions. Although we do not see the drastic changes happening to our country on a daily basis, evidence has shown time and time again we need to take a backcasting approach to solutions.

[1] Melosi, Martin V. “Automobile and the Environment in American History: Energy Use and the Internal Combustion Engine.” Automobile in American Life and Society. 2010. Accessed September 20, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Green, Jenny. “Effects of Car Pollutants on the Environment.” Sciencing. March 13, 2018. Accessed September 21, 2018.

[4] Niesenbaum, Richard A. “Chapter 6”. Sustainable Solutions: Problem Solving for Current and Future Generations. New York, NY: Oxford University, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Morrison, Allen. Latin America’s Trolleybuses. March 1, 2010. Accessed September 21, 2018.

[7] Lambert, Fred. “Tesla’s Upcoming ‘Supercharger V3’ Is the Last Piece of the EV Adoption Puzzle – and Means More ZEV Credits.” Electrek. December 28, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2018.


Tesla’s charging stations that will provide Tesla’s the ability to go farther as a ZEV.
Trolleybus in the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil. This is a Zero emission bus that runs on electrical lines throughout the city and has been around since 1949.