Will Nonrenewable Resources Last Forever On Earth?

Definition of Nonrenewable Resources

Will nonrenewable resources last forever on Earth?

Nonrenewable resources are natural resources that cannot be replenished, reproduced, grown or generated in a short period of time. Once depleted, these resources essentially become unavailable for use by humans and are considered “finite” in nature. According to Quizlet, the very definition of nonrenewable resources states that they are unable to be remade in a reasonable amount of time[1].

Some key examples of nonrenewable resources include:

  • Fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas
  • Metals like gold, silver, copper and uranium
  • Minerals like diamonds, limestone and gypsum

These resources take thousands to millions of years to form naturally. Extraction and use of nonrenewable resources removes them permanently from their natural state. While limited recycling and reuse is possible in some cases, overall supplies are finite and will eventually be exhausted if consumption continues unabated.

Current Reserves of Key Nonrenewables

The key nonrenewable energy resources that currently power much of the world are fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world’s proved oil reserves were estimated at 1.65 trillion barrels at the end of 2020 (source). For natural gas, global proved reserves stood at 7,576 trillion cubic feet at the end of 2019. The world’s total demonstrated coal reserves were estimated at 1,139 billion short tons in 2020.

For nuclear power, the current identified uranium resource is 5.9 million metric tons, with about 10% of that being high-cost resources. Additionally, the world’s reasonably assured thorium resources total 8.1 million metric tons (source). While substantial, all of these key nonrenewable reserves are finite and will eventually be depleted if consumption continues at current rates.

Consumption Rates

Global consumption rates for key nonrenewable resources like oil, natural gas, and coal continue to rise. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2019 the world consumed over 4.5 billion metric tons of oil (EIA, 2020). Natural gas consumption was over 4 trillion cubic meters globally, with the United States consuming over 31 trillion cubic feet in 2019 (EIA, 2023). Global coal consumption also remains high, with China, India, and the United States consuming over 70% of the world’s coal in recent years.

These fossil fuels remain the dominant sources of energy worldwide, accounting for over 80% of total energy consumption according to BP’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy. While renewable energy sources are growing, our reliance on nonrenewables for power generation, transportation, manufacturing, and other sectors keeps consumption at high levels.

New Discoveries and Improved Extraction

While existing reserves of nonrenewable resources like oil, natural gas, and coal are being depleted, new discoveries and improved extraction techniques have expanded reachable reserves. Fracking, which involves injecting liquid at high pressure to create fractures in shale rock formations that release trapped oil and gas, has allowed access to previously unreachable deposits (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0264999313005178). Deep sea drilling has also opened up offshore oil and gas reserves more than a mile beneath the ocean surface. In 2018, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic holds about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its yet-to-find oil, indicating substantial untapped nonrenewable resources in hard to access regions (https://www.altenergymag.com/article/2019/07/what-is-the-future-of-non-renewable-resources/31346).

While these advances have increased global nonrenewable reserves, extraction costs are typically higher than conventional reserves. Nonetheless, improvements in technology combined with rising energy prices may make more difficult to access reserves economically viable over time.

Impact of Prices and Technology

Prices and improvements in technology both have significant effects on nonrenewable resource reserves. As prices for nonrenewables rise, it spurs investment in new technologies to access harder-to-reach deposits as well as alternatives like renewables. According to a study by Schwerhoff, rising resource demand incentivises firms to invest in new technology to increase their economically extractable reserves. Prices can remain constant as improved extraction technologies increase available reserves.

Additionally, advances in clean technologies like solar, wind, and electric vehicles reduce demand growth for nonrenewables like oil and coal. As Mercure explains, reserves can expand with new discoveries and technological change. Overall, prices and technology are key factors affecting nonrenewable resource reserves, both by spurring new extraction methods and reducing demand growth through substitution.

Recycling and Reuse

Recycling nonrenewable resources like metals, plastics, and glass can help extend the lifespan of reserves by recovering materials for reuse. According to the NIH, non-renewable resource use increased from 59% in 1900 to 88% in 1945 as consumption rose dramatically (https://nems.nih.gov/environmental-programs/pages/benefits-of-recycling.aspx). Recycling reduces the need to extract new raw materials and provides a sustainable way to supply manufacturing industries.

However, recycling rates for many nonrenewables remain low. A National Geographic study found only 9% of plastic material worldwide is recycled, with the rest going to landfills or the environment (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment). Improving recycling infrastructure and public participation could significantly extend nonrenewable reserves. Overall, recycling offers an important strategy for reducing consumption and environmental damage, but major hurdles remain in increasing recycling rates globally.

Alternatives and Renewables

As nonrenewable resources continue to dwindle, renewable energy sources have emerged as a sustainable alternative for power generation. Renewable energy comes from naturally replenishing sources like sunlight, wind, water, plants, and geothermal heat. The most common types of renewable energy used today are:

Solar power – This converts energy from the sun into electricity through panels containing photovoltaic cells. Solar energy has seen tremendous growth recently, with global solar power capacity reaching 760 gigawatts in 2019, a 23% increase from the previous year https://time.com/6554327/global-renewable-energy-growth-record-high-iea/. Key benefits of solar include no emissions, unlimited supply from the sun, and modular systems that can power single homes to large utility grids.

Wind power – Wind turbines convert kinetic energy from air into mechanical power that generates electricity. Installed wind power capacity was over 650 gigawatts globally in 2019. Wind is increasingly affordable and competitive with fossil fuels. Downsides include variability, wildlife impacts, and geographic limitations.

Hydropower – Moving water produces kinetic energy that is captured by hydropower facilities to generate electricity. Hydropower supplies 16% of the world’s electricity. However, most major rivers are already being used for hydroelectricity so growth is limited.

Geothermal energy – This harnesses heat beneath the earth’s surface for heating buildings or generating clean electricity. Geothermal energy generates just 0.3% of global electricity but has major potential for growth.

Renewables like bioenergy, hydrogen, and marine energy are also emerging alternatives. Renewables are expected to supply 45% of U.S. electricity by 2032, triple the current share, showing the tremendous promise of alternatives to finite fossil fuels.

Projections and Models

Expert projections on how long nonrenewable resources will last vary, but most estimate key reserves will be significantly depleted by the end of this century.[1] Fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal are projected to run out between 2060 and 2100 at current consumption rates.[2] Metals face scarcity even sooner, with some projections estimating copper, zinc, and lead reserves could be exhausted within 50-60 years.[1]

However, experts emphasize that running out of reserves doesn’t mean these resources will be fully depleted. Extraction will become more difficult and expensive, leading to increased recycling and transitioning to renewable alternatives before complete exhaustion occurs.[1] New discoveries and improved technology could also extend nonrenewable lifespans beyond current projections.

Overall, while timelines vary, experts agree nonrenewables are finite and current consumption levels are unsustainable long-term without major changes in how we source and use energy and materials.

Environmental and Social Impact

The extraction and use of nonrenewable resources like oil, coal, and natural gas have led to large amounts of pollution and environmental damage over the past century. Burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that contribute to global climate change. Mining activities can lead to air and water pollution, destruction of landscapes, and harm to wildlife habitats. Oil spills have damaged fragile ocean ecosystems. According to this source, the global temperature rise is just one of the environmental impacts of non-renewable energies on the planet.

Competition over scarce nonrenewable resources has also caused geopolitical tensions and conflicts throughout history and today. As supplies dwindle, oil-rich regions have become flashpoints for intervention and war. According to research, the social, political, and economic consequences of dependence on nonrenewable energy sources could grow more severe in the future.

The environmental effects of nonrenewables disproportionately impact impoverished communities that lack resources to cope with the damage. Experts argue that switching to renewable energy sources whenever possible is crucial to mitigate climate change and promote global stability and justice.


In summary, nonrenewable resources do have finite reserves and will not last forever on Earth at current consumption rates. While new discoveries and improved extraction techniques are extending reserves, these resources are fundamentally limited and cannot be renewed on human timescales. Key nonrenewables like oil, natural gas, and coal are being rapidly depleted, with most models showing remaining global reserves lasting around 50-100 more years at current usage. Recycling and alternatives like renewables can help extend nonrenewable lifespans. However, projections indicate that supplies will dwindle this century unless consumption is reduced and recycling improved dramatically. The outlook is that nonrenewable resources are not sustainable long-term energy and material sources. More investment in renewable alternatives is crucial to prevent resource exhaustion and ensure future energy and material security. While the future is uncertain, what is clear is that nonrenewable resources are finite and society must adapt to more sustainable solutions.

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