Why are minerals referred to as non-renewable natural resources

Responsible use of non-renewable raw materials

Whether rare earths, energy resources such as crude oil, natural gas and lignite or metal ores: mineral resources keep coming up in discussion. Because these raw materials are important for many areas of production - and therefore a basis for our prosperity. For example, copper is needed for electronic products and coal for energy generation.

However, the demand for many raw materials is increasing around the world, making it more difficult and more expensive to extract supplies. And both the mining and the use sometimes cause major environmental damage.

What are raw materials?

In addition to biodiversity, water, soil and clean air, raw materials are natural resources. Raw materials are unprocessed or only slightly processed substances or mixtures of substances that can be used in production processes. A distinction is made between primary and secondary raw materials. Primary raw materials are taken from nature. Secondary raw materials come from recycling.

The word mineral resources is often used for many primary raw materials, including in legal regulations on mining such as the Federal Mining Act. This includes "with the exception of water all mineral raw materials in solid or liquid state and gases that occur in natural deposits or accumulations (deposits) in or on the earth, on the seabed, in the seabed or in seawater."

Abiotic raw materials are all raw materials that do not come from or from living beings. They include ores and other mineral raw materials, construction minerals such as sand, gravel, stones and industrial minerals such as quartz sand and potash salts.

Fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum are also referred to as abiotic raw materials, even though they originated from biomass. It was only after millions of years that they achieved their present state through very slow geological processes.

The abiotic raw materials mentioned are also referred to as non-renewable raw materials. There are also renewable raw materials that come from agriculture and forestry. Wood, for example, is one of them, but also grain or meat. Animal and vegetable substances are referred to as biotic raw materials, often also as renewable raw materials.

What role do raw materials play in our way of life and economy?

Raw materials are important for the production of goods and thus the basis of our prosperity. Because the world population is growing and emerging and developing countries are becoming increasingly wealthy, the demand for raw materials in the global economy is increasing and people around the world extract more raw materials from nature every year.

In 2009, for example, over 68 billion tons of raw materials were used worldwide, around a third more than in 2000, two thirds more than in 1990 and around twice as much as in the late 1970s. If the world population and the emerging economies grow as is assumed today, the demand for raw materials will continue to grow strongly. In 2017, global raw material consumption had already reached 90 billion tons, and high-income countries are currently consuming 10 times more raw materials per person than low-income countries.

Why is the current use of raw materials unsustainable?

The increasing demand for raw materials is a major challenge from an economic as well as ecological and social point of view. From an economic point of view, it is stressful when the prices for raw materials rise or fluctuate again and again. It is also problematic if the supply of raw materials is not secure. Some important raw materials, such as petroleum, cobalt and heavy rare earths, are increasingly difficult to obtain from easily accessible sources.

From an ecological point of view, the increasing use of raw materials is exacerbating global environmental problems. The possible adverse effects on the environment affect the entire so-called value chain, from extraction to disposal. They range from the release of greenhouse gases to pollution in the air, water and soil, soil degradation and the increasing loss of biological diversity, especially in ecologically sensitive areas.

Overall, the use of natural resources already significantly exceeds the earth's regenerative capacity.

Does Germany have a special responsibility when it comes to the use of raw materials?

Germany plays a special role in the global use of raw materials, similar to many other industrialized countries. Germany is an industrialized country in which many so-called commodity-intensive goods such as cars and machines are manufactured, a large part of which are exported. In order to be able to manufacture these goods, the economy in Germany depends to a large extent on the supply of raw materials. Some of it is extracted in the country, some has to be imported.

A large part of the non-metallic, mineral raw materials required in Germany are obtained in the country. These include sand, gravel and some industrial minerals. In contrast, Germany is almost completely dependent on imports for metal raw materials, individual industrial minerals and energy raw materials. According to this, a large part of the environmental pollution caused by the German economy’s demand for raw materials occurs abroad.

What do raw materials have to do with civil wars?

Raw materials from so-called conflict regions pose a special problem with the use of raw materials. This applies to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), for example. For example, 60 percent of the world's production of cobalt, which is needed for batteries in electric cars and cell phones, comes from this country in Central Africa.

In the DR Congo, cobalt is not only extracted in industrial mining, but also in small businesses. Abuses such as child labor or dangerous working conditions have repeatedly been found in the past few years.

After years of civil war and political instability, the DR Congo is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country has a great wealth of natural resources. Gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten ores are also mined there. However, as a result of mismanagement, corruption and civil war, the extraction and trade of raw materials are largely uncontrolled today. Armed groups in the civil war region of Eastern Congo finance themselves through illegal trafficking. At the same time, mining in small mines is one of the main sources of income for millions of people in Eastern Congo.

How do environmental problems arise? What do the environmental impacts depend on?

When mining raw materials, humans intervene in nature and the environment in a variety of ways. The effects of raw material extraction on the environment occur over a long period of time. A project for the extraction of raw materials typically goes through several phases; experts speak of a life cycle.

The first phase is the exploration of a deposit, the so-called exploration. It is then opened up and mostly dismantled over many years. The raw materials are processed into raw materials and refined. At the end of the day, the storage facility will be closed and, ideally, follow-up care will take place. In each of these phases, different effects on the environment occur, sometimes in different places - for example, if the raw materials are not processed at the deposit. Not to be neglected are the effects of access roads that arise in previously untouched areas.

Interventions in the water balance and other natural relationships (natural balance) that can affect biological diversity, among other things, are significant here. Other uses of nature by humans can also be affected - for example the extraction of groundwater or the use of land for agriculture. The mining of raw materials also consumes energy and pollutants are released and end up in the water, soil and air. From an ecological point of view, it is also important how mining waste is dealt with.

The nature and extent of the impact on the environment can vary widely. They depend on which raw material is involved, which technologies are used in its use and which ecological conditions are given. Other factors are the political and social conditions. For example, a weak government is hardly able to fully enforce compliance with environmental and social standards in mining.

When moving from exploration to the development and mining phase, the effects on the environment usually increase significantly. Provided that there is effective aftercare, they usually decrease again during the closure and renovation phase of the raw material extraction site.

These effects can be clearly described as the "ecological rucksack" of the raw materials obtained. For a gold ring weighing ten grams, for example, an average of 3.5 tons of earth is moved. To extract one ton of pure copper from the rock, you need an energy input of 14,000 to 28,000 kilowatt hours. This is how much energy a two-person household in Germany consumes over a period of four to eight years.

Examples: What happens in mining?

Many raw materials are extracted in open-cast mining. In Germany, it is primarily fossil energy raw materials such as lignite, construction minerals such as sand, gravel or stones, and mineral industrial raw materials such as salts or refractory clays.

Opencast mining has serious consequences for the environment. The quarrying of natural stone on mountain slopes, for example, permanently affects the vegetation. When lignite, sand and gravel are extracted, the soil structure and the groundwater balance are affected. The landscape is fundamentally changed and the land is irretrievably lost for agriculture and forestry.

Even after the end of production, open-cast mines are still a challenge, especially open-cast lignite mines. Due to the changes in the soil structure, later use for settlements is hardly possible, and only with difficulty for agriculture. The natural soil fertility is not fully restored.

Other raw materials are mined underground, that is: in mines that can be reached through specially constructed tunnels. Mines can also have negative effects on the environment, for example lowering the water table, impairing water bodies and losing soil fertility. Mines can also lead to the formation of cracks in houses and so-called open quarries and make relocation necessary. Day breaks are surface breaks that occur when underground cavities collapse.

Aftercare and the so-called perpetual burdens or perpetual tasks are also an important topic in Germany. Follow-up care includes all measures that are carried out in open-cast mines or mines after the end of production. Perpetual burdens are tasks that are permanently necessary.

Most of the hard coal mines in Germany have already been closed. At the end of 2018, operations in the last mine will cease. Nevertheless, pumps have to be operated continuously in the hard coal mines in the Ruhr area, for example. As long as coal was being mined there, the water that would otherwise have flooded tunnels and shafts was pumped from the depths. But after the last hard coal mine in the Ruhr area has been closed, pumps are still needed: then they have to prevent the salty water from coming into contact with the groundwater below. In addition, the water on the surface must also be regulated. Because the underground work has changed the landscape there. In some places the surface has sunk by up to 25 meters below the water table, even in areas where many people live. Without pumping stations, a lake landscape would arise there.

What are the possible solutions?

Various strategies are being pursued in order to reduce the environmental impact of the extraction of raw materials to an acceptable level. This includes

  • to reduce the enormous environmental impact directly during the extraction of the raw materials,
  • to use raw materials more economically and efficiently in production and consumption,
  • to use so-called secondary raw materials from waste if possible and thus reduce the use of raw materials taken directly from nature (primary raw materials).

For example, the Ministry of the Environment and the Federal Environment Agency are committed to further developing and disseminating environmental and social standards in the extraction of raw materials around the world. In addition, the best available techniques should be used in each case.

In principle, the Federal Nature Conservation Act provides that significant damage to nature and the landscape is to be avoided and minimized as a matter of priority. Unavoidable impairments must be compensated. Either through compensatory or substitute measures or, if this is not possible, through compensation payments.

In the case of mining, this means that the most environmentally friendly production possible. Alternative locations are often ruled out, as raw materials only occur in certain deposits.

This means that exploration, development and operation must be planned from the outset with a view to environmental impact. This is called precautionary oriented. In addition, the so-called aftercare is part of it. This includes the handling of waste as well as recultivation after the end of funding.

The careful and efficient use of natural resources is a key competence of sustainable societies. Since the use of natural resources is closely related to economic output and thus prosperity, it is the goal of politics to decouple economic growth from the use of resources. This means that fewer natural resources should be used and environmental pollution should be reduced while maintaining the same or increasing economic output.

This approach is often referred to as increasing the so-called resource efficiency or “decoupling”. And the relationship between the use of raw materials and economic performance is also referred to as raw material productivity. These approaches are already anchored in the Federal Government's National Sustainability Strategy (NHS) from 2002. and will continue in the NHS from 2016.

Germany also wants to become a member of the international "Initiative for Transparency in the Raw Materials Industry" (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative - EITI). Among other things, this initiative aims to combat corruption in connection with raw materials transactions. The first German report to the international EITI secretariat was submitted in August 2017. After this report has been validated in autumn / winter 2018, a decision will be made about admission as a full member.

Consumers can also come into direct contact with the question of the conditions under which raw materials are extracted. For example when they buy gold and silver jewelry. These precious metals are often mined under questionable or even dangerous conditions. The Fairtrade organization therefore awards a seal for fair trade gold and silver jewelry.

But not only jewelery metals can come from problematic production, but this also applies to a large number of imported raw materials. The Federal Government is therefore committed to improving environmental and social standards in mining, for example within the framework of its raw materials diplomacy and development cooperation. At the same time, companies that import raw materials are also required to review their supply chains and ensure compliance with environmental and social standards along the entire value chain.

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