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HOMEDiscover MHIClose ties with the EarthIssue Energy and Environmental IssuesHistory of EnergyHistory of Fossil Fuel Usage since the Industrial Revolution

History of Fossil Fuel Usage since the Industrial Revolution

Why did fossil fuels become so popular?

The world's energy demand was modest prior to the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel usage has been increasing in step with economic growth. Accordingly, there is a proportional relationship between energy demand and economic growth.

Note: In the "Comprehensive Energy Statistics," the statistical method for numerical values was changed from fiscal 1990 onward.

Source: Based on Comprehensive Energy Statistics, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, and Department of National Accounts, Cabinet Office, Government of Japan

Reference: 2009 Annual Report on Energy

Ever since the Industrial Revolution took off in the 18th century, vast quantities of fossil fuels have been used to power the economy and deliver unprecedented affluence to huge numbers of people. As we all know, fossil fuels are organic matter made from the remains of flora and fauna subjected to immense pressure and heat deep within the Earth over millions of years. Petroleum, coal, and natural gas are major fossil fuels.
During the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels seemed to be the ideal energy source. Steam locomotives, the quintessential machines of the Industrial Revolution, used coal as a fuel source from early on to compensate for a lack of firewood and charcoal. Not only was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of coal available from easily exploited seams near the surface, but it could be used in its natural form. Japanese governments in the Meiji era (1868-1912), realizing that the use of coal was synonymous with industrialization, encouraged the development of coal mines.

Since the modest beginnings of the oil industry in the mid-19th century, petroleum has risen to global prominence. Initially, kerosene, used for lighting and heating, was the principal product derived from petroleum. However, the development of drilling technology for oil wells in mid-19th century America put the petroleum industry on a new footing, leading to mass-consumption of petroleum as a highly versatile fuel powering transportation in the form of automobiles, ships, airplanes and so on, applied to generate electricity, used for heating and to provide hot water supplies.
The usage of fossil fuels has been increasing in step with economic growth. Fossil fuels were prerequisites for the birth of a new industrial civilization that transformed our world.

Increasing consumption of primary energy

Fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, natural energy, such as hydropower and solar power, and nuclear power are collectively referred to as primary energy. World consumption of primary energy greatly increased from 3.8 billion tonnes of oil equivalent in 1965 to 11.1 billion tonnes of oil equivalent in 2007.
However, this increase was far from being uniform throughout the world. Whereas members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) accounted for 69% of world energy consumption in 1965, the figure had decreased to 50% by 2007. This decrease was attributable to the slowing of the growth of energy consumption of developed countries because of low population growth, changes in the structure of industry, and progress in energy-saving technology.
On the other hand, developing countries (non-OECD members) have come to account for a greater proportion of global energy consumption. Energy consumption in China and other Asian countries is expected to continue increasing rapidly owing to high economic growth, rising populations and ongoing industrialization. Consumption is also increasing rapidly in certain countries in the Middle East.

World consumption of primary energy greatly increased from 3,800 Mtoe in 1965 to 11,100 Mtoe in 2007.

Note: Toe is an abbreviation of "tonne of oil equivalent." One toe is the amount of energy released by burning one tonne of oil.

Source: Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2008

Reference: 2009 Annual Report on Energy

Japan's dependence on fossil fuels

Japan is one of the biggest consumers of energy. Japan's energy consumption is the fourth largest following the United States, China and Russia, accounting for approximately 5% of world energy consumption. Types of primary energy consumed vary greatly among countries. 84% of Japan's primary energy consumption is fossil fuel (oil, coal, and natural gas). Of this, oil accounts for 44%; a figure second to that of South Korea.
Japan has minimal energy resources. Japan's dependence on imports of energy from overseas (excluding nuclear power) is 96%, the highest among developed countries.

Figure: Primary energy sources of major countries

Note: The total of these percentages does not equal 100 because figures are rounded off.

Source: BP, Statistical Review of World Energy 2008

Reference: Basics of Energy

Greenhouse gases increase in proportion to fossil fuel consumption

The Earth maintains a constant ambient temperature by releasing the heat from its surface (infrared ray) through the atmosphere into space. However, as a result of industrialization, if heat-absorbing gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs), continue to increase, it is widely thought that the temperature in the atmosphere will rise, causing a greenhouse effect. Global warming is a focus of great concern because of its potentially huge adverse impact on humankind and the environment, including the disruption of ecosystems and inundation of coastal areas because of rising sea levels.

Greenhouse gas emissions in Japan gradually increased from 1993 to 1995. The annual amount of greenhouse gas emissions has been virtually unchanged since 1995. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 was higher than that in the base year (1990) of the Kyoto Protocol.

Notes: For energy conversion, industrial, transport and private sectors, the amount of CO2 produced by burning of fossil fuels
1:CO2 in line with generation of electricity and heat are distributed to final demand sectors (indirect emissions) according to each consumption.
2:The total amount of CO2 other than that produced by burning fossil fuels in the energy conversion, industrial, transport and public sectors and the 5 gases

Source: GHG Inventory Office

Reference: 2009 Annual Report on Energy


  1. Energy conversion sector: Power generation, oil refinery, etc. The sector that converts primary energy, such as petroleum and coal, into final energy
  2. Private sector: The sector comprises the residential sector (households) and the commercial sector (businesses that do not belong to the industrial or transport sector, such as retailers and service providers.).
  3. 5 gases: The greenhouse gases whose reduction is mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, excluding CO2. They are methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).

Atmospheric CO2 concentration started to increase at the time of the Industrial Revolution and has been increasing rapidly since 1900. This increase is in proportion to the usage of fossil fuels. Therefore, reducing consumption of fossil fuels in order to reduce CO2 emissions has become a crucial countermeasure for global warming. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and various other international activities to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases are underway.
In 2008, 10 years after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan's total greenhouse gas emissions amounted to 1,286 million tonnes, of which over 90% was CO2 emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. CO2 emissions in 2008 were 6.2% lower than the figure for 2007, partly owing to the global financial crisis, but 1.9% higher than the figure for the base year specified by the Kyoto Protocol (1990 for CO2).