What Is a Nonrenewable Resource

A nonrenewable resource is a resource of economic value that cannot be readily replaced by natural means on a level equal to its consumption.

Most fossil fuels, such as oil, natural gas, and coal are considered nonrenewable resources, as their use is not sustainable because their formation takes billions of years.

Nonrenewable sources are the opposite of renewable sources. The latter are resources whose supply is infinite since it can be replaced naturally. Examples of renewable resources include solar power, wind power, timber, and water.

Understanding Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources come from the Earth and don't replenish easily in a short period of time. This is why they are also referred to as finite resources—their natural supplies aren't enough to keep up with demand and/or consumption. In fact, it would probably take millions of years to reach the levels they are at currently. They are released from the ground in gas, liquid, or solid form, and then converted for other uses—mainly as energy sources.

Examples of nonrenewable resources include crude oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium. These sources can be processed into different products that can be used commercially and personally. For example, the fossil fuel industry extracts crude oil from the ground and converts it to gasoline for use by consumers in their vehicles, and by corporations to use as fuel to transport their goods from manufacturing facilities to retail stores.

Fossil fuels are all nonrenewable. But not all nonrenewable resources are fossil fuels. Crude oil, natural gas, and coal are all considered fossil fuels, but uranium is not. Instead, it is extracted as a solid that is converted by nuclear power plants to be used as a fuel source. All of these nonrenewable resources are valuable energy sources that are inexpensive to extract. Storage, conversion, and shipping are easy and cheap.

Minerals and metals found in the earth are also considered nonrenewable resources. That's because they are formed by geological processes which take millions of years.

1:11

Nonrenewable Resource

Types of Nonrenewable Resources

Fuels created from nonrenewable resources are still the primary source of all the power generated in the world, due to their affordability and high energy content. Nonrenewable resources are usually formed from organic carbon material which, over the course of billions of years, is heated and compressed enough to change form into crude oil and natural gas. Crude oil and natural gas are then used to manufacture everyday forms of fuel, including gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, and propane.

The term nonrenewable resource also refers to minerals and metals from the earth, such as gold, silver, and iron, which are similarly formed as a long-term result of geological processes such as plate tectonics. These resources are often costly to mine, as they are usually deep within the Earth's crust. But they are much more abundant than fossil fuels.

Some types of groundwater are considered to be a nonrenewable resource if the aquifer is unable to be replenished at the same rate at which it's drained. Nuclear materials such as uranium are also considered nonrenewable resources.

Key Takeaways

  • A nonrenewable resource is one with a finite supply, so it cannot be readily replaced by natural means on a level equal to its consumption.
  • Most fossil fuels, minerals, and metal ores are considered nonrenewable resources.
  • Nonrenewable resources may be harmful to the environment and may be expensive as their supplies dwindle.
  • Renewable resources such as solar and wind power, timber, and water can easily be replaced because they have infinite supplies.

Global Impacts of Using Nonrenewable Resources

It is widely understood that burning fossil fuels has harmful consequences to the environment, and contributes to global warming and climate change. For this reason, many organizations have developed alternative energy sources that don't rely on these resources. There are also risks associated with nuclear material since its radioactive nature makes it toxic, so it must be handled properly.

Burning nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels can be harmful to the environment, and contribute climate change.

Climate change has been brought to the forefront of international talks in recent years, and the countries involved have made pledges to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions and pollution such as implementing a Pigovian tax on companies that directly pollute the environment. The first international agreement on fighting climate change was the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997.

Besides the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, the economic impact of nonrenewable resources is also damaging. Following the basic premise of supply and demand, the cost to obtain nonrenewable resources will continue to rise as they become scarcer. Supply for many of these fuels is in danger of running out completely. Eventually, the price will hit a point that end users cannot afford, forcing a move toward alternative energy sources. One caveat with these sources is that many require ample time to be put into place, so their development should begin as early as possible to enable a smooth transition to sustainable energy.

Protecting Nonrenewable Resources

Our consumption of resources is dependent on those whose supplies are finite. But there are ways we can protect these resources. As noted above, countries can adopt levies that tax companies that use resources that have a harmful impact on the environment. The higher the fines, the more likely it will be that companies begin to look for alternative energy sources.

One alternative to using nonrenewable resources is to use renewable resources, including such sources as solar and wind power or any source that is essentially unlimited in supply or reusable. Providing incentives to those who them by governments may make it easier for corporations and people to adopt renewable energy.

Another thing we can do is continue to develop and use technology such as hybrid and electric cars. Replacing regular vehicles with engines that use gasoline with clean technology, install solar panels, and make use of energy-efficient appliances and electronics may seem like a small step. But when done by a great number of people, it can have a significant impact both on the environment and on the available supply of nonrenewable resources.