natural resources of our planet to fuel the production of most of our goods and services. Whether it is fossil fuels that we are extracting from the earth’s ground to fuel our energy needs, different metals and precious materials that we mine, crops that we grow on our land or marine resources, it is evident that a whole range of economic activities depends on our planet’s natural wealth.
While humans have always used our Earth’s resources, the rate at which those are being consumed was increased rapidly since the Industrial Revolution. In 1961, the entire planet used just over slightly more than half of Earth’s biocapacity but today we overshoot our planet’s yearly resource capacity within eight months. In other words, humans use resources equivalent to one-and-a-half Earths to meet our needs¹,². In fact, if we all lived like US citizens, we would need five Earths.
If we are not able to start consuming differently, we will need the resources of two planets to meet our demands by the early 2030’s.
This of course poses a real problem because our planet’s resources are limited and consuming them at a rate of 44% faster than what nature can regenerate and reabsorb is not sustainable¹. To better manage our resource consumption, experts and policy-makers are trying to encourage circular economy models which rely using resources in the most efficient way as well as types of eco-innovation.
Very often, emphasis is given to using what are considered “renewable” resources, rather than “non-renewable”. Renewable resources are seen as a better option since as the name suggests, they can be naturally renewed, and therefore are not depleted. This is in contrast to non-renewable resources for which our planet has a limited reserve and can therefore run out. So you might think that renewable resources are “good” and sustainable, and non-renewable resources “bad” and unsustainable. But the reality is not as black and white.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the interesting facts about renewable and non-renewable resources.
Renewability is relative
The first thing to point out that more often than not, when we talk about renewable versus non-renewable resources, most of us mean energy resources. This usually means juxtaposing non-renewable energy sources such as coal, natural gas or oil with renewable energy resources such as solar or wind. However, the distinction of renewable versus non-renewable applies to all natural resources.
Renewability is an important concept but not a pre-determined one. In other words, renewability of resources depends on whether or not these resources can be replenished within time frames that are meaningful to humans³. Take the example of fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and oil were made through natural processes over millions of years. The rate at which they are being replenished is very slow – so slow, that given the rate of our consumption of them, they are considered non-renewable resources. In contrast, resources such as wind are considered renewable since whether we capture wind power through wind turbines does not have an impact on whether or not the wind will continue to blow.
Having said that some resources can be renewable depending on the way that humans consume them and whether efforts to replenish them are made. The typical case is timber: timber is a natural product which can be used in construction as well as a myriad other uses. It is a sustainable product that is also renewable since trees can be replanted and within the medium-term replenished. To ensure that our use of timber industry respects the limits of renewability, governments have taken several steps such as putting forward legislation for tracking whether the timber has been legally sourced and provide third-party certification schemes such as FSC or PEFC. If timber complies with legislation and is certified, then it is considered renewable. However, illegal logging can be very destructive to ecosystems across our planet.
Non-renewable doesn’t mean unsustainable
Non-renewable resources though are not by definition unsustainable either – a lot can be determined from how those resources are used. For example, it is clear that there is a finite amount of some precious metals. However, in some cases industry has set up collection and recycling systems to ensure that metals can be reused and alleviate resource scarcity pressures. This is why industry has coined such materials as “permanent” to indicate that they can be recycled and re-used multiple times without diminishing their properties. A great example is aluminium which is a durable and endlessly recyclable. Reflecting this reality is the fact that 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today⁴. The re-use or recycling of permanent materials such as metals provides a further advantage, namely the fact that very often financing the collection and recycling of these materials is much more sustainable compared to extracting new raw materials.
It is however not just sustainability concerns that arise from the unregulated use of non-renewable resources. in many developing countries, the extraction of finite or non-renewable resources can lead to conflicts as well as the exploitation of local populations. A prime example is the extraction of diamonds which led to the proliferation of the issue of “blood diamonds” when these precious stones mined in African war zones, often by forced labour were also used to fund armed rebel movements. In 2003, the diamond industry established the Kimberley Process, an international certification system designed to reassure consumers that the diamonds they bought were conflict-free⁵.