Sustainable Development and the Use of Nonrenewable Resources
F.W. Wellmer and M. Kosinowski

In July, Newsweek International published a cover story titled: “Are the Oceans Dying? Ninety Percent of the Big Fish Are Gone. Scientists Are Struggling to Make Sense of the Fallout.” Based on an article in the scientific journal Nature that was widely quoted in many daily global newspapers and spurred further debate about sustainable development, the story questioned whether overfishing would spell the death of the oceans.

Precision farming and sustainability: Guided by GPS and a computer onboard a tractor with detailed information on soil properties, a farmer can optimally dose the amount of fertilizers. This economical approach can extend the availability of phosphorus, a nonrenewable nutrient. Photo courtesy of BGR.

Overfishing obviously contradicts the basic postulate of sustainable development and intergenerational fairness — both aimed at protecting the needs of current and future generations and fundamental to the United Nations Brundtland Report (named after the former Norwegian Prime Minister who headed the commission).

In terms of sustainable development, the situation today is no different from how it was centuries ago in Central Europe, where the consequences of uncontrolled deforestation had been apparent for a long time. For example, the medieval German town of Nuremberg had a significant copper smelting industry fed by ores and concentrates supplied by Czech and Slovak mines, until a shortage of firewood forced the entire smelting industry to shut down from 1456 to 1461 and move 200 kilometers north to the Thuringian Forest.

Nearly 300 years later, miner Oberberghauptmann Johann-Carl von Carlowitz published the first practical guidelines for sustainable development, Sylvicultura oeconomica, in 1713. Von Carlowitz headed the mining authority of the famous silver-mining district in Freiberg, Saxony. In addition to mining and smelting operations, he was also responsible for forestry, which produced the timber vital for mine safety and the huge amounts of charcoal for silver smelting. His status in the Kingdom of Saxony was further enhanced by the importance of silver as a monetary metal. Von Carlowitz was the first to define the key to sustainable forestry: The amount of wood cut should not exceed its growth rate.

The rule established for renewable resources in the Brundtland Report mirrors that concept: To ensure intergenerational fairness, harvesting must not exceed growth. The difficulty always is to gain broad international acceptance for such rules. As graphically illustrated by today’s fishing quotas, acceptance in practice requires drastic economic and social change, which is precisely what the interested parties object to, and why they fail to embrace the long-term approach on which intergenerational fairness is based.

Practice has shown us how difficult it is to establish intergenerational fairness for renewable resources, and developing such a concept for nonrenewable resources is even more challenging. To many people, sustainable development and the exploitation of nonrenewable resources is a contradiction in itself because limited resources are consumed. However, a closer examination of the paradox yields some surprising results. With human ingenuity and enough time, we as a society can find the necessary solutions for sustaining development on Earth.

Understanding cycles

The concept of a “cycle economy” was developed from the organic cycle: Organic material decomposes to ultimately generate new organisms. This process may be transferred to many nonrenewable resources, especially metals. Metals are not so much consumed as used for a specific purpose for a limited period of time. Copper, lead and steel may be recycled many times — often with little reduction in quality or, in the case of alloys in particular, with somewhat lower quality after primary or secondary recycling.

Thus, it is too shortsighted to focus just on the extraction of nonrenewable resources from the solid Earth, the so-called geosphere, and their transfer to the global industrialized civilization, the so-called technosphere. According to the concept of sustainable development, the equation has to take into account all the resources of the geosphere and the technosphere.

Metal recycling rates in industrial countries vary between 30 and 55 percent of total annual metal demand and are on the increase. The larger the technosphere’s reserves of metal, the higher the potential for recycling. So why aren’t recycling levels even higher? Economic growth and metal product lifetimes are both limiting factors. The lifetime of most copper products, for example, is 30 to 50 years. Take 40 years as an average: Annual copper demand 40 years ago was 6.2 million metric tons compared to 18.7 million metric tons in 2000; so even if the total copper production from 1960 was now available as scrap, the technosphere would only cover one-third of current demand.

Unlike metals, other nonrenewable materials, such as the majority of plastics, can only be recycled with a substantial loss in quality. Other materials change in composition or can only be recycled as totally new materials. For example, cement in concrete can only be recycled as low value aggregate. Other natural resources in this category become highly dispersed, as with potash and phosphate fertilizers, or are irreversibly converted, as with fuels.

The need for natural resources

In many instances we do not need a resource itself — we need its function, or a physical or chemical property. We do not require one metric ton of copper, for example; we need its electrical conductivity for transmitting electric power or transferring messages via electric pulses in telephone wires. The latter function can also be fulfilled by glass fiber cables, by directional antennae or by mobile phones. And every technical solution has its own raw material profile. Until recently, silver was essential in photography, but today’s digital cameras require totally different raw materials. These are just two examples illustrating our need for properties, rather than specific resources.

There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: potassium and phosphorus. These essential plant nutrients cannot be replaced. They are as important as water, which is the most important natural resource. It’s not a problem for potassium, which, with seawater as an inexhaustible source, is basically a renewable resource. But for phosphorus, finding alternative sources is not so easy. Unlike potassium, phosphate has very low water solubility, so the solution needs to be sought elsewhere — maybe in improved fertilizing technology. Precision farming with better use of manure, sewage and other relevant waste, enables farmers to accurately dose the amount of phosphorus required for optimum plant growth (Geotimes, November 2003). In this case, economical use extends the availability of this essential plant nutrient.

Alternatives may be possible for the properties and functions of other resources because, in addition to all the resources in the geosphere and technosphere, we have a third resource: unlimited human ingenuity. The motor that drives the supply cycle and combines these resources to find new solutions for functions is the commodity price. If a commodity becomes scarce, prices rise in our market economies, promising rewards for those who find solutions quickly.

A good example is the 1978 cobalt shortage associated with the Shaba crisis in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), which was the world’s largest cobalt supplier. Prices skyrocketed. A few years before, the Club of Rome (a global think tank) had published its Limits to Growth report, which sensitized the political arena to raw material issues, and galvanized geological surveys and other institutions in every major industrial country to initiate studies into the sensitivity of national economies to commodity shortages. The conclusion was that chromium, cobalt and other steel alloy metals were very critical strategic commodities because they could not be substituted. Recycling options were reckoned to be limited, and in case of shortages, economic research institutes anticipated that large sectors of the economy would be affected. But when cobalt prices skyrocketed in 1978, the potential financial rewards led to the discovery of substitutes. Ferrites replaced cobalt in permanent magnets and totally changed the cobalt demand pattern.

New alternatives

Finding new solutions for specific functions is one way to compensate for scarce commodities or high prices. Another approach is to find ways of using materials more efficiently. LURGI, an engineering company based in Frankfurt, Germany, reported in 1991 that the Eiffel Tower could be built today with just 2,000 metric tons of steel instead of the 8,000 metric tons used in 1885.

Other solutions include improving recovery rates during extraction. Horizontal directional drilling, for example, boosts oil field recovery rates from 30 percent to more than 50 percent. An improvement of 1 percent in worldwide recovery rates equals one year’s global oil demand.

Yet another solution is to continuously discover new deposits to maintain the status quo between proven reserves and consumption. The ratio between reserves and consumption (R/C ratio) is frequently misinterpreted as the lifetime of reserves. This fallacy is highlighted by the status of zinc, copper and oil.

Since 1955, the R/C ratios for these commodities has fluctuated around 25 for zinc, 35 for copper and 40 for oil, despite increases in consumption between 1955 and today, respectively, from 3 million to 8 million metric tons zinc; 3 million to 12 million metric tons copper; and 770 million to 3.5 billion metric tons oil.

At any given time, the R/C ratios are only statistical snapshots of a dynamic system because reserves are as dynamic as annual consumption. Reserve figures change continuously; they are dependent on many factors, including exploration intensity, statistical size distribution of the deposits, commodity price ranges, production cost structures and technological changes. For example, offshore oil fields with water depths exceeding 200 meters were barely a resource before the oil crisis in 1973. Today, developed offshore oil fields sit in water depths of more than 2,000 meters.

Even the geological nature of a deposit affects R/C ratios. Commodities in stratified deposits like potash, chromite or bauxite can be easily calculated and extrapolated. They have high R/C ratios (greater than 100 and even up to 300), whereas commodities in lenticular deposits, like zinc, lead, gold or silver have R/C ratios less than 30.

The learning process

Energy consumption is one arena in which it is not possibly to simply solve the natural resource/sustainable development paradox by finding alternative solutions for functions. We rely on fossil fuels, but the reserves of fossil fuels are finite. If fossil fuels are converted into energy, they are truly consumed. Thus, the answer in this case lies in the potential of renewable energy, which exceeds present demand by an order of magnitude.

Although this potential is not currently economically feasible, renewable energy illustrates another important aspect in successfully solving the sustainable development paradox: We need enough time to move up the learning curve. This is the only sensible interpretation of R/C ratio history; low ratios of reserves to consumption reveal a higher need for innovation.

Developing new ideas and concepts in our technological world frequently requires time scales of around 20 years. A good example is the development of wind turbines for generating electricity in Germany. In 1983, the German Ministry of Research and Development hoped to make a quantum jump in renewable electricity generation and developed a large 3-megawatt wind turbine. It collapsed only a few weeks after commissioning. The wind turbine had been constructed by the giant aerospace industry. This disastrous first attempt was followed by new small- to medium-sized enterprises, which initially developed smaller wind turbines that worked well. It took 20 years of climbing up the learning curve before 3-megawatt-sized units were successfully built. And today, 5-megawatt wind turbines are under construction.

Learning to move up the learning curve: In Germany, it has taken 20 years for the successful construction of 3-megawatt wind turbines for generating electricity. Photo courtesy of BGR.

The critical point about finding new-function solutions for nonrenewable resources is that there is not a resource problem, but a matter of having industrial structures that give us enough time to climb up the learning curve and achieve the desired solutions. The suspected oxymoron between the use of nonrenewable resources and the requirements of sustainable development can be solved by wisely using the three realms of resources available to us: resources from the geosphere, resources from the technosphere and human ingenuity.

The Anthropocene

The epochs of the Tertiary and Quaternary periods, such as the youngest epoch the Holocene, have the ending -cene derived from the Greek word kainós for “recent.” Because humankind has become a truly geological element, the term Anthropocene has been created for the time in which we are living. Certainly humankind today has the same impact as nature. Mass movements in mining, construction and other operations have been estimated to be nearly equivalent to the volume of geological mass movements associated with erosion or the formation of new crust via seafloor spreading (approximately 35 billion cubic meters per year).

Unlike nature, where mass movements are unplanned and random and can be especially destructive (volcanic eruptions or landslides), humankind can plan its mass movements and minimize its impact. Although it cannot be denied that humankind has sometimes wreaked havoc at mining locations in the past, society has also rapidly moved up the learning curve to minimize such impacts. Mines today are treated as borrowed land, where a commodity is taken out before restoring and returning the site to agricultural, forestry or industrial use.

Humankind’s impact in the Anthropocene is far more critical when it comes to water and soil. Salination, the “mining” of fossil water in arid and semiarid areas for drinking and irrigation, and increased soil erosion due to deforestation and population growth are all critical elements for the renewable resource food. Providing food to a growing world population is a far more pressing problem than any nonrenewable resource. So the true resource paradox is not the sustainable development of nonrenewable resources, but rather that the vital elements in the Anthropocene are renewable resources.

Wellmer and Kosinowski are president and vice president respectively of the German Federal Geological Survey BGR and the Lower Saxony State Geological Survey in Hannover, Germany. Both come from the natural resources industry, Wellmer from the base metal and Kosinowski from the hydrocarbon industry. Wellmer teaches raw materials policy and economic geology at the Technical University Berlin, and Kosinowski teaches hydrocarbon geology at the University of Göttingen. E-mail: or

"Precision Agriculture: Changing the Face of Farming," Geotimes, November 2003

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