In this guide, we consider whether we will run out of resources on Earth, and what will happen if we do.
Below, we outline:
– How much resources are left on Earth
– Whether we are running out of resources right now
– Whether we might run out of resources in the future
– Factors that might impact whether we will have enough resources in the future
– What might happen if we run out of resources
Firstly, What Are Some Examples Of Important Resources On Earth?
– Freshwater (& Drinking Water)
– Agricultural and Arable Land
– Agricultural Topsoil
– Clean (and Breathable) Air
– Fossil Fuels & Other Raw Materials Used For Energy Generation, Fuel & Heating
– Minerals, Ores, & Mined Resources (Such As Metals)
In this guide, we mention essential resources without a substitute or alternative resource. They may be important to keep track of.
That same guide also cites a report that outlines specific resources and industries that might be important to track due to potential consequences if they experience scarcity or depletion
Examples include fossil fuels, fresh water, fertilizers, food, motor cars, and ores and minerals
Analysing Each Individual Resource Separately
Analysing Each Resource Separately
Some reports indicate that general resource consumption and usage trends are an issue.
For example, theguardian.com indicates: ‘… we could reach a point by the year 2050 where overconsumption/over exploitation of resources and environmental degradation are severe problems’
But, this might be considered too generalised of a statement. It doesn’t provide specifics about the remaining reserves or supplies of an individual resource.
When assessing remaining resources, rather than asking generally ‘how much resources are left’, it might be more accurate to ask how much of a specific resource is left.
Analysing a specific resource, over a specific period of time, in a specific geographic place (i.e. a town, city or country), might give a more reliable answer.
Guides For Individual Resources
With this in mind, we’ve put together individual guides on the remaining resources for some of the major resources on Earth:
In these guides we’ve outlined things such as:
– The remaining resources and reserves, and reserve trends over time
– Potentially undiscovered resources
– Unconventional resources (for oil and natural gas)
– Which countries have the largest reserves
– Total production, and production trends over time
– Which countries produce the most
– Total demand & consumption
– Whether we are running out of each resource in the short term, and what factors might impact our ability to extract and use resources in the medium to long term
– When we might run out of each resource
– What might happen if we start running out of each resource
– Recent reports on shortages for each resource
– How we might manage each resource more sustainably
– Potential substitutes for each resource
How Much Resources Do We Have Left On Earth?
You can refer to the guides linked above for data on the remaining amount of specific resources.
Different Examples Of Expressing How Much Resources Are Left
The amount of remaining resources can be measured in different ways. As two examples:
– For Freshwater
The amount of freshwater in freshwater sources like lakes and rivers, and storage areas like dams can be measured in volume, and so can the volume of water that is generated from technology like desalination plants.
Some governments or water providers in some cities provide live data on water reserve and water capacity volumes
– For Mined Resources
Mined resources may have discovered and undiscovered resources, as well as proven reserves (resources that can be extracted in an economically feasible way with today’s technology)
A Note On Assessing How Much Resources Are Left
Some resources are much easier to measure and track than others.
For example, it’s easy to see how much freshwater a city might have in a dam, and how much of that water is being used each year.
On the other hand, it can be much harder to see exactly how much of a specific ore or mineral there is in the ground until geological examination has been completed, and even then, the reliability of the information has limits.
Are We Running Out Of Resources Right Now?
You can refer to the guides linked above for specific information on whether we might be running out of specific resources.
There might be a number of ways to determine if we are running out of specific resources.
Reserves being at very low levels, shortages, supply deficits, and other indicators might be some of the signs a resource is running out.
There can be a range of variables that can impact running out of resources though, which we identify in the guides for individual resources.
What Resources On Earth Are We Running Out Of The Quickest?
The following are some of the resources that have been identified by other publications as resources we are running out of the quickest, or that are under the most pressure.
It’s worth noting though that you’d have to check the criteria by which they made this assessment – it might be different criteria to what another publication uses.
Phosphorus (estimated 50 to 100 years supply left)
Rare Earth Elements
Will We Run Out Of Resources In The Future?
You can refer to the guides linked above for a potential answer on whether we will run out of resources in the future.
Each type of resource has different variables that might impact them running out.
As just on example, some of the factors that can impact our ability to extract and use mined resources into the future can include, but aren’t limited to:
– Annual demand and consumption
– Annual production
– Investment in production, and increasing production capacity
Countries can invest in production to increase production capacity to meet demand, however, there may sometimes be limitations
– Investment in exploration and discovering currently undiscovered resources
– Whether or not unconventional resources are used for production
– Whether proven reserves are increasing, decreasing, or staying stable over the medium to long term
– Renewal rates
Water for example doesn’t renew at the same rate around the world – it can depend on factors like rainfall and climate
Ideally, renewal rates are at a level that is equal or greater than consumption rates
– The development and introduction of new extraction processes and technology
Which allows previously inaccessible, or previously economically unfeasible resources to be extracted
– Other technology that may change or augment supply
For example, some cities have access to desalination plants right now to generate fresh water.
And, an example of a potential future technology advancement that could augment supply capacity in another industry could be technology advancements to do with nuclear energy
Blockchain and AI are two types of technology that are claimed by some sources to help improve the efficient use of some resources in different ways as they keep developing, but, they may also come with negative impacts on sustainability and different tradeoffs
– The availability of alternative and substitute methods for production
– Prices of resources
The higher the prices, the more resources that can be extracted at a higher extraction cost)
Why We Might Never Run Out Of Some Resources
What Happens If We Run Out Of Resources?
Running out of any resource may impact things such as:
– The availability of that resource for the key things we use it for across society
Some resources are more critical than others.
For some critical resources like freshwater, the impact could have more serious consequences.
We use it for drinking water, washing and bathing, cooking, household activities, agriculture and producing food, and in the water footprint of every product that gets manufactured.
Running out of freshwater specifically has environmental, social and economic consequences. With each resource, there are a different set of social, economic and environmental consequences to consider if a resource becomes more scarce, or if production/extraction costs increase (in the event resources are more costly to extract/mine).
– The price of that resource as it becomes more scarce, and consequently, the affordability of the things we use that resource for
The price of resources increasing as reserves are depleted is something we mentioned in our guide about why we may not run out of mined resources anytime soon.
A Difference Between Economic Supply Deficits & Shortages, & Resources Physically Running Out
This is something we explained in our guide about why we may not run out of mined resources anytime soon.
Some notes not included in that guide about non-mined resources also include:
Short Term/Temporary vs Longer Term/Chronic Shortages
It’s worth noting that with some resources like freshwater, there can be a temporary shortage from year to year due a lack of rainfall, in some regions where rainfall is critical to water supplies.
Temporary shortages are different to long term chronic shortages or supply deficits.
Some resources like food are distributed equally around the world for their own specific reasons.
In the case of food, regions with poor food security have limited or no access to adequate food supplies
Potential Ways To Address Resource Depletion & Scarcity
There’s no one answer to this issue – it depends on the individual resource.
But, some general options might be:
– Changing resource consumption behavior (to use less, or use resources more efficiently)
– Recovering, reusing or recycling resources
– Considering the use of substitutes and alternatives to certain resources
Such as the substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy where practical and feasible
– For mined resources, further exploration and discovery may help increase the pool of available resources that can eventually be converted into proven reserves
– Develop new technology and processes that allow access to, and better economic feasibility in extracting some resources
Such as resources that aren’t physically accessible with today’s technology or processes, or that aren’t economically feasible to extract
– Considering augmenting/increasing supply levels where possible
Such as desalination which produces freshwater
– Consider the use on unconventional resources for some resources such as oil and natural gas
– Preventing the degradation of the environment, and conserving wildlife, biodiversity, plant life and ecosystems
These things help sustain natural resources and the things we need to live and produce the things we need to live
Additionally, degradation or loss of some resources like agricultural land or topsoil reach a point where they are difficult to, or impossible to restore. undark.org notes that ‘… apart from invasion, over extension of an empire and natural climate change, in cases where societies depleted forests, fisheries, freshwater, or topsoil, the consequences were dire’
– Research is being done as to how we can better make use of the ocean, and even space to increase our supply of available resources
Sustainability Concepts That Relate To Resource Scarcity
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides
2. https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zg34nbk/revision/3 (resources in the UK specifically)