Nonrenewable Resources Definition

Nonrenewable Resources

Investopedia / Zoe Hansen

What Are Nonrenewable Resources?

The term nonrenewable resource refers to a natural substance that is not replenished with the speed at which it is consumed. As such, a nonrenewable resource is a finite resource. Humans constantly draw on the reserves of these substances while the formation of new supplies takes eons. Examples of nonrenewable resources include fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal. The opposite of a nonrenewable resource is a renewable resource. The supplies of these resources replenish naturally or can be sustained.

Key Takeaways

  • A nonrenewable resource is a substance that is used up more quickly than it can replace itself.
  • The supply of a nonrenewable resource is finite, which means it cannot easily be replenished
  • Nonrenewable resources are extracted directly from the Earth.
  • Most fossil fuels, minerals, and metal ores are nonrenewable resources.
  • The opposite of nonrenewable resources is renewable ones, whose supplies are abundant and are considered sustainable.

Understanding Nonrenewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources come directly from the earth. This can be directly from the ground or a mine. The reserves of these substances took billions of years to form, and it will take billions of years to replace the supplies used. As such, the supplies of nonrenewable resources are finite and cannot be replaced. Humans extract these resources in gas, liquid, or solid form and then convert them to suit their needs.

Crude oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium are nonrenewable resources. These are all processed into products that can be used commercially. For instance, the fossil fuel industry extracts crude oil from the ground and converts it to gasoline. Fossil fuel liquids also are refined into petrochemical products that are used as ingredients in the manufacture of literally hundreds of products from plastics and polyurethane to solvents.

Some types of groundwater are considered nonrenewable resources if the aquifer is unable to be replenished at the same rate at which it's drained.

Most societies are heavily dependent on nonrenewable resources, especially for energy. It's estimated that about 80% of all of the world's energy is consumed using fossil fuels. Not only does this put a huge strain on the available supply but it also has a major impact on the environment. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which leads to climate change.

In economic terms, nonrenewables are resources of financial or economic value that cannot be readily replaced at the speed with which they are being consumed.

Nonrenewable Resources vs. Renewable Resources

Nonrenewable resources are contrasted with renewable ones. The supplies of renewable resources are abundant and endless, which makes them easy to find and easy to replace. Unlike nonrenewable ones, renewable resources are generally sustainable. While the former can be depleted, the latter can't.

The sun, wind, and water are the most common examples of renewable resources. Others include lumber (which can be replenished through planting), the earth's heat (geothermal), and biomass.

The call to use renewable resources, especially as energy sources, is becoming more common. That's because our dependence on and consumption of nonrenewable resources is causing a rapid decline in supplies and leading to climate change. Clean energy sources include solar energy and turbines that are powered by wind. These easily replenish themselves and don't have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Nonrenewable Resources  Renewable Resources
Oil Sun 
Natural Gas Wind
Coal Water
Nuclear Energy Geothermal and Biomass
Metals and Minerals* Metals and Minerals*

What about metals and minerals that come from the earth, such as gold, silver, and iron? These may be nonrenewable or renewable resources, depending on who you ask. They can fall into the former category because they are extracted from the Earth. But some people consider them renewable and sustainable because they are abundant and can be used and recycled.

Fossil Fuels and Nonrenewable Resources

Fossil fuels are all nonrenewable. But not all nonrenewables are fossil fuels. Crude oil, natural gas, and coal are all considered fossil fuels, but uranium is not. Rather, it is a heavy metal that is extracted as a solid and then converted by nuclear power plants into a fuel source.

All of these nonrenewable resources have proved historically to be valuable energy sources that are inexpensive to extract. Storage, conversion, and shipping are easy and cheap.

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.

Renewable Growth

Following the basic rule 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, their prices will hit a point that end users cannot afford, forcing a move toward alternative energy sources.

Concern over the impact of fossil fuel use on the environment and its contribution to climate change continues to grow. The first international agreement on fighting climate change was the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997. In 2015, 196 different parties adopted the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change. By signing, the parties agreed to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The alternatives to fossil fuels require ample lead time to be put into place. That process has begun slowly. Wind power generated about 6.3% of American electrical power in 2017 and was the source of about 8.4% in 2020. About 1.6% of American electricity was supplied by solar power as of the end of 2018. That figure rose to 2.3% in 2020.

In the U.S., plug-in electric vehicles had a market share of a bit over 2% in 2018. As many as 6.6 million electric cars were sold in the world in 2021. That figure represented about 9% of the global market.

What Defines a Nonrenewable Resource?

Nonrenewable resources are derived from the Earth— in a finite supply that can take billions of years to replenish. Historically, many nonrenewables have been relatively cheap to extract. But as their supply continues to diminish, the cost of this extraction may rise in price, leading customers to use alternative sources, such as solar and wind energy.

What Are the Different Types of Nonrenewable Resources?

Among the most common examples of natural resources are crude oil, coal, uranium, and mineral sources such as gold. One subset of nonrenewable resources includes crude oil and natural gas. Both of these substances are made out of organic carbon material, depending on the form it takes after heating and compressing over time. Another form of nonrenewables is minerals, which include gold, silver, and iron. Unlike crude oil and natural gas, these are quite difficult and expensive to extract. Meanwhile, different types of groundwater are nonrenewables when they do not replenish at their draining speed.

How Do Nonrenewables Differ From Renewable Resources?

Since nonrenewables, by definition, will diminish in supply over time, the law of supply and demand suggests that their price will continue to rise. Renewables, by contrast, have an infinite supply. However, at the same time, the cost and time required to establish them will be lengthy. More recently, demand for renewables has grown in tandem with governmental incentives, with many of their costs decreasing over time. Solar energy is one prime example of this trend.

How Do Nonrenewable Resources Affect Climate Change?

Humans depend heavily on fossil fuels like crude oil, natural gas, and coal to supply energy. Burning these commodities release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is the primary greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more gases build up. This warms up the climate and causes shifts in the atmosphere, in the water, and on the land.

What Are Some Examples of Renewable Resources?

Renewable resources are those whose supplies are abundant and can be easily replenished. Unlike nonrenewable resources, they are considered to be sustainable. Examples of renewable resources are the sun, wind, water, heat from the Earth, and biomass.

The Bottom Line

Fossil fuels are normally the first thing most people think of when they hear the word nonrenewable resources. Collectively, these are resources that come from the earth. They are extracted and converted for human consumption, usually as energy sources. What sets them apart from renewable resources is that their supplies are finite and they aren't considered sustainable because of the damage they do to the environment.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. National Geographic. "Nonrenewable Resources."

  2. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "What is the Kyoto Protocol?"

  3. United Nations Climate Change. "The Paris Agreement."

  4. U.S. Department of Energy. "Wind Market Reports: 2021 Edition."

  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States."

  6. Solstice. "Solar Energy Statistics: 44 Numbers That Define U.S. Solar."

  7. Pew Research Center. "Europe Leads the Way in New Electric Vehicle Sales."

  8. IEC. "Electric cars fend off supply challenges to more than double global sales."

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