2c. Resource exhaustion (fossil fuels, minerals, water, timber, fossil fuels, atmosphere)

Track Chairs:

João Joanaz de Melo. Center for Environmental and Sustainability Research, Dept. Environmental Sciences and Engineering, School of Science and Technology, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, Portugal. jjm@fct.unl.pt

Background and goals

Natural resources are the basis of all economic activity, an often forgotten fact. Where would we be without water, air, soil, mineral and biomass resources? All the financial wealth in the world is nothing without our ability to command such resources.

Existing studies suggest that natural resource extraction and primary processing represent a very large part of the impact of the life cycle of the consumer products we use. They also suggest that many of those resources are subject both to growing demand and rapid degradation or depletion.

Very conservative ecologic footprint calculations (that do not account for non-renewable resource consumption or persistent pollution) already indicate that we are using up 1.5 planets, in terms of supposedly renewable resources.

Our modern harvesting methods are very aggressive, yielding results even at low resource density; the cost of primary resource exploitation is a small fraction of the product value chain; most environmental impacts occur far away from the decision centres; and the conventional economic calculations drastically discount the long term. As a result, decision makers do not feel any resource shortage, and many resources are being used up, right to the point of collapse or exhaustion.

In many parts of the world we are already facing dire shortages of basic resources such as clean water, arable soil, timber and fish stocks (all of those supposed to be renewable). We are probably initiating the next mass extinction. We are also approaching the physical or economic limits of the exploitation of key mineral resources such as fossil fuels and phosphate rock, which for a century were essential to support the life style of industrialized countries.

The struggle to control scarce resources is, now as ever, a cause for conflict and too often full-scale war. Besides its terrible social toll, war aggravates resource depletion and destruction, creating a vicious cycle. The (recently more visible) refugee crisis is yet another symptom of systemic degradation; much of it is related, not only to war but also to poor natural resource management.

Track 2c in the ISDRS 2016 Conference aims to understand better the problems, limits and solutions for the excessive exploitation of natural resources.

Authors' contributions

Authors in ISDRS 2016 Conference are invited to write papers exploring a number of issues:

  • What are the limits (physical, economic) of current major natural resources exploitation?
  • Are there alternatives to nearly exhausted key resources? If so, at what cost, and what new pressures on other resources? If there are no alternatives, what are the consequences?
  • What economic tools or institutional arrangements can be effective in curbing the current trend of natural resource depletion and degradation?
  • If, as many signs indicate, we will have fewer resources available in the near future, where will the next crises hit? How can we design better monitoring systems based on early warning signals /thresholds to aid management of natural resources?
  • How can we ease the transition into a life style that needs fewer resources than current expectations? What are some real world examples/case studies related to these transitions?



João Joanaz de Melo graduated and holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering. He is an Assistant Professor at the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, conducting teaching, research and consultancy on ecodesign, impact assessment, energy efficiency, sustainability and economic instruments for environment. He has supervised applied research in cooperation with business involving over 200 partnerships. He authored the popular science book "What is Ecology" and 221 scientific papers, of which 91 international. Ever a lover of Nature, he was a founder and served as president of GEOTA, a national environmental NGO.