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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 in that their use is not sustainable because their formation takes billions of years.

BREAKING DOWN '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. Usually, nonrenewable resources are 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. Also, nuclear materials such as uranium are nonrenewable resources.

Global Impacts of Using Nonrenewable Resources

It is widely understood that the burning of 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, and it must be handled properly. 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 (for example, 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 can also be damaging. Following the basic premise of supply and demand, as nonrenewable resources become scarcer, the cost to obtain them will continue to rise. 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. However, many of these alternative sources require ample time to be put into place, which means their development should begin as early as possible in order to enable a smooth transition to sustainable energy.

The 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.

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