Lightbulbs in a row, emitting soft yellow light

The Anthropocene is marked by intensive human energy consumption

Today we see the effects of intensive human energy consumption world-wide

The material culture of the Anthropocene is based on the burning of fossil fuels. — Think about it! Which of your daily activities do not, in one way or another, involve the burning of fossil fuels? Mobility and transport are based on it. Using your car to go to work in the morning is an obvious case: burning fossil fuel is what your engine does. Public transport does not necessarily solve the problem as long as, for example, most of the electricity needed to run the railway, trams and the metro still originates from the burning of fossil fuels. Mobility and transport are by no means the only sectors involved in most people’s everyday activities. Construction is another. And just like mobility it is energy-intensive and, hence, releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. The built infrastructure that emerges from construction uses heat and electricity. That is what we all do at home or in our workplaces. By and large that energy is also generated from the burning of fossil fuels.

More than thirty years after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded in 1988 and after the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the global energy regime continues to rely on the burning of fossil fuels. In the course of the 20th century, we can see shifts in primary energy consumption from one resource to another becoming (temporarily) dominant: from coal, to oil, to gas. Renewables are still lagging a long way behind. They have come nowhere near to replacing fossil fuels. This means that energy consumption world-wide continues to produce enormous amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. Equally, air pollution continues to threaten the health of millions of people. This dual effect is the source of further ambiguity. Greenhouse gases are warming the planet while air pollution has a cooling effect (aerosols block some of the incoming sunlight). However, the latter does not fully compensate for the first. Because aerosols are heavier and more quickly washed out from the air than carbon dioxide, the anthropogenic greenhouse effect will continue to increase even after we stop burning fossil fuels entirely. This problem will only increase with time lost. The sustainable energy transformation is more urgent than ever, and climate change demands that most of the fossil reserves will need to be left underground. Our energy regimes require decarbonization. This will also decouple Anthropocene material culture(s) from fossil fuels.

Franz Mauelshagen


Researchers: Ulrich Brand, Anna Echterhölter, Thilo Hofmann, Ronald Pöppl, Peter Schweitzer

Further Reading