Natural resources and their distribution

Resources, or natural resources in general, are all natural materials that people can use and that for that reason have some kind of importance attached to them. The economic and societal importance and the value of natural resources can change because of new technologies, a change in the way of life and the preference of people. The unequal distribution of natural resources results in economic and geopolitical power relationships that can directly or indirectly influence the occurrence of conflicts.

One can differentiate between energetic resources, that is those that can be used to produce energy (such as gas and oil) and non-energetic resources (such as metals or soils). Another difference is whether resources are renewable, such as agricultural products or forests, or exhaustible, such as many energy sources, minerals and metals.

As concerns the degree of processing, only those resources are considered primary that, apart from having been collected, have not been processed. Some natural resources can be recycled; they are therefore called secondary resources.

There is a difference between resources and reserves. Reserves are the amounts of a resource that have been recorded in great detail and that can be mined under the current technical circumstances The amount of natural resources, therefore, depends on the knowledge about the deposits, the price of the resource (that determines the profit margin) and the state of the art of technology.

People in the so-called industrial, developed world, mostly North America, Europe and Japan—about 20 per cent of the word's population—use around 80 per cent of global resources and 70 per cent of energy available. More and more countries use more energy, with China in top place, but many other developing and threshold countries have recently become active in the resource market. In addition, the technological progress, particularly in information and communication technology and the demand for rare commodities, such as tantalum and rare earths, has led to a shortage of these very resources.

Germany is one of the largest users of resources in the world. Nearly two-thirds of its consumption concern mineral resources, such as metals, industrial minerals, rocks and earths. Germany is totally (100%) dependent on the import of primary metals, such as copper or iron ore (BGR) Therefore, Germany depends on the co-operation with other countries; the visit to Mongolia by German Chancellor Merkel in October 2011 and the Resource Agreement entered into there that is to allow German companies access to so-called rare earths is an example for this. In 2010, the German federal government decided on a resource strategy which clearly focuses on the hunger of the German economy for resources. It, therefore, had to listen to accusations by civil society that this decision has detrimental effects on the producing countries where poverty and conflict are widespread. Instead of purely guaranteeing the supply of the German industry with resources, the production of resources ought to help improve chances for development of the people living in resource-rich countries.

The global distribution of natural resources first depends on the geological circumstances. In parts of the earth's crusts, that, for example, were subject to great pressure and high temperatures in areas of mountain formation, rising rocks from the earth's mantle rose through volcanic eruptive chimneys—making diamonds in the process. Coal deposits originate from large quantities of organic mass that, for instance, existed in prehistoric swamp forests. In the course of millions of years, the organic material turned to lignite through coalification; it took even longer to turn it to hard coal. The formation of other mineral resources was due to similar processes; their deposits only exist because of certain geological processes and types of rock. Such resources are finite; humankind cannot reproduce their formation.

The industrial past of countries also plays an important role when its comes to the current availability and distribution of resources and their reserves. While due to the technological and scientific progress in many countries in Europe and their former colonies as well as in North America, various resources had already been discovered and used early on, exploration in other countries has so far not been as widespread. Scientific knowledge of geological layers and their sequences can assist in assessing the occurrence of certain natural resources—again an advantage for developed countries. New technologies permit, for example, to assess resource deposits in the seabed.

Therefore, many natural resources are exhaustible. In public debate, terms such as peak oil and peak soil are often discussed. As a reaction to the dwindling, scarcer exhaustible resources but also to the reduced productivity of soil suitable for agricultural use, prices for resources increase.

Against this background, old, already abandoned sites and new deposits, such as in the Arctic, are becoming attractive for (re-)exploitation. The production of new exhaustible resources, however, can be problematic in more than one way. Greenpeace, for instance, calls the tar sands mining in Canada one of the "dirtiest ways of extracting oil and, at the same time, one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions."

The use of so-called renewable energies could become an alternative to reduce the use of energetic resources. There is, however, one catch to renewables so far: Many parts of high-tech and environmental technology, such as catalysts, wind farms, energy-saving lamps and electric motors do need other, scarce, resources, such as rare earth metals. More than 90 per cent of the rare earth metals traded on the world market originate in China. In mid-2011, Beijing decided on a limit on exports of rare earths for strategic economic grounds. Since then, the search for deposits of rare earths has been intensified in various countries.

The unequal distribution of deposits and reserves has always caused a conflict of interests. The fairer the trade with and agreements about natural resources are, the more peaceful and, finally, the more sustainable the solution to the related challenges are. Still, the current conflict potential is high. Conflicts—mostly of a diplomatic, but sometimes a military nature—arise around the access to and the control over the resource and its distribution amongst participating actors. Criminal activities, such as robberies or illegal mining, can occur. Often, resource production goes hand in hand with exploitation and human rights violations. Finally, in some countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, resource extraction directly finances armed conflict—such as blood diamonds.

Sources and further information:

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