Human society is built on the consumption of natural resources like fresh water, coal, oil, gas, and so on. Unfortunately, these resources are not available in infinite quantities and will run out at some point in the future. And a few of these resources might be on their last legs in our lifetime.
Coal is one of the most consumed natural resources. Fortunately, the Earth has plenty of coal left, about 1.1 trillion tons according to estimates. According to the World Coal Association, we have 150 years until coal runs out. As an alternative, some scientists have proposed the use of geothermal energy. Since coal is mostly used to turn water into steam and then into electricity, extracting heat from the Earth directly might help in generating electricity without the use of coal or water.
According to the British Petroleum Statistical Review, oil reserves stood at 1.69 trillion barrels as of 2017. If global oil consumption remains steady, it gives us about 50 years until we run out of oil. Since oil is essentially the backbone of modern transportation, the depletion of oil will be a catastrophic event unless we find an alternative fuel. Some have suggested converting fossil fuel vehicles into electric ones. But since electricity is largely generated through coal in much of the world, electric vehicles would essentially speed up coal consumption.
When it comes to natural gas, the situation is somewhat similar to oil. The British Petroleum Statistical Review estimates that we have about 52.6 years of gas available for use. An often suggested alternative to gas is nuclear power. But given the potential risk of accidents, the widespread use of nuclear plants seems less likely.
Moving to resources that are critical to our sustenance, the situation of fresh water availability is nearing a critical stage. Though the planet is full of water, fresh water only accounts for about 2.5 percent. To make matters worse, 70 percent of freshwater is trapped in snow and ice. According to the International Resource Panel, almost half the world’s population might struggle with getting fresh water by 2030. The only solution in such a situation would be to set up desalination plants near the coasts and convert ocean water to fresh water. The drawback is that the process uses a lot of energy and would not be viable for large populations.
Phosphorus is critical to the growth of plants. Without phosphorus, we wouldn’t be able to produce enough food through agriculture. According to the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative, we only have about 50 to 100 years of phosphorous left on the planet. As an alternative, we could use beef bones, which can have phosphorus at levels up to 13 percent. But given the amount of food produced, the number of animals needed to be raised in order to extract their bones would be too high.
According to some estimates, zinc reserves will be depleted by around 2030 if current production remains static. This is true for gold and lead also. Silver and iridium will last until about 2035, while copper might run out just before 2050. Rare earth metals will be available to us at least until 2090.
Last year, HSBC released a report that warned resources are running out fast and that neither governments nor companies are ready for the coming change. Citing data from the Global Footprint Network, the bank said that the world had spent its annual natural resource budget for 2018 by the first of August, a full five months before it was supposed to be used up.