A renewable resource is a natural resource which replenishes to
overcome resource depletion caused by usage and consumption, either
through biological reproduction or other naturally recurring processes
in a finite amount of time in a human time scale. Renewable resources
are a part of Earth's natural environment and the largest components
of its ecosphere. A positive life cycle assessment is a key indicator
of a resource's sustainability.
Definitions of renewable resources may also include agricultural
production, as in sustainable agriculture and to an extent water
resources. In 1962,
Paul Alfred Weiss
Paul Alfred Weiss defined Renewable Resources
as: "The total range of living organisms providing man with food,
fibres, etc...". Another type of renewable resources is renewable
energy resources. Common sources of renewable energy include solar,
geothermal and wind power, which are all categorised as renewable
oceans and seas often act as renewable resources
Sawmill near Fügen, Zillertal, Austria
1 Air, food and water
1.2 Non agricultural food
1.3 Sustainable agriculture
2 Non-food resources
2.1 Historical role
2.3 Renewables used for self sufficiency
3 Legal situation and subsidies
4 Examples of industrial use
4.1 Biorenewable chemicals
4.4 Renewable energy
4.8 Natural fibre
5 Threats to renewable resources
5.3 Endangered species
6 See also
8 Further reading
Air, food and water
Water can be considered a renewable material when carefully controlled
usage, treatment, and release are followed. If not, it would become a
non-renewable resource at that location. For example, groundwater is
usually removed from an aquifer at a rate much greater than its very
slow natural recharge, and so groundwater is considered non-renewable.
Removal of water from the pore spaces may cause permanent compaction
(subsidence) that cannot be renewed. 97.5% of the water on the Earth
is salt water, and 3% is fresh water; slightly over two thirds of this
is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The remaining unfrozen
freshwater is found mainly as groundwater, with only a small fraction
(0.008%) present above ground or in the air.
Water pollution is one of the main concerns regarding water resources.
It is estimated that 22% of worldwide water is used in industry.
Major industrial users include hydroelectric dams, thermoelectric
power plants (which use water for cooling), ore and oil refineries
(which use water in chemical processes) and manufacturing plants
(which use water as a solvent).
Desalination of seawater is considered a renewable source of water,
although reducing its dependence on fossil fuel energy is needed for
it to be fully renewable.
Panorama of a natural wetland (Sinclair Wetlands, New Zealand)
Non agricultural food
Alaska wild "berries" from the
Innoko National Wildlife Refuge
Innoko National Wildlife Refuge -
Food is any substance consumed to provide nutritional support for the
body. Most food has its origin in renewable resources.
obtained directly from plants and animals.
Hunting may not be the first source of meat in the modernised world,
but it is still an important and essential source for many rural and
remote groups. It is also the sole source of feeding for wild
Main article: Sustainable agriculture
The phrase sustainable agriculture was coined by Australian
agricultural scientist Gordon McClymont. It has been defined as
"an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having
a site-specific application that will last over the long term".
Expansion of agricultural land reduces biodiversity and contributes to
Food and Agriculture Organisation
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations estimates that in coming decades, cropland will continue to be
lost to industrial and urban development, along with reclamation of
wetlands, and conversion of forest to cultivation, resulting in the
loss of biodiversity and increased soil erosion.
Polyculture practices in Andhra Pradesh
Although air and sunlight are available everywhere on Earth, crops
also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water.
Monoculture is a method of growing only one crop at a time in a given
field, which can damage land and cause it to become either unusable or
suffer from reduced yields.
Monoculture can also cause the build-up of
pathogens and pests that target one specific species. The Great Irish
Famine (1845–1849) is a well-known example of the dangers of
Crop rotation and long-term crop rotations confer the replenishment of
nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals and
other crops, and can improve soil structure and fertility by
alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants. Other methods to
combat lost soil nutrients are returning to natural cycles that
annually flood cultivated lands (returning lost nutrients
indefinitely) such as the Flooding of the Nile, the long-term use of
biochar, and use of crop and livestock landraces that are adapted to
less than ideal conditions such as pests, drought, or lack of
Agricultural practices are the single greatest contributor to the
global increase in soil erosion rates. It is estimated that "more
than a thousand million tonnes of southern Africa's soil are eroded
every year. Experts predict that crop yields will be halved within
thirty to fifty years if erosion continues at present rates." The
Dust Bowl phenomenon in the 1930s was caused by severe drought
combined with farming methods that did not include crop rotation,
fallow fields, cover crops, soil terracing and wind-breaking trees to
prevent wind erosion.
The tillage of agricultural lands is one of the primary contributing
factors to erosion, due to mechanised agricultural equipment that
allows for deep plowing, which severely increases the amount of soil
that is available for transport by water erosion. The
phenomenon called Peak
Soil describes how large-scale factory farming
techniques are jeopardizing humanity's ability to grow food in the
present and in the future. Without efforts to improve soil
management practices, the availability of arable soil will become
Methods to combat erosion include no-till farming, using a keyline
design, growing wind breaks to hold the soil, and widespread use of
Chemical fertiliser and pesticides can also have an effect of
soil erosion, which can contribute to soil salinity and prevent other
species from growing.
Phosphate is a primary component in the chemical
fertiliser applied most commonly in modern agricultural production.
However, scientists estimate that rock phosphate reserves will be
depleted in 50–100 years and that Peak
Phosphate will occur in about
Industrial processing and logistics also have an effect on
agriculture's sustainability. The way and locations crops are sold
requires energy for transportation, as well as the energy cost for
materials, labour, and transport.
Food sold at a local location, such
a farmers' market, have reduced energy overheads.
Illegal slash and burn practice in Madagascar, 2010
Air is a renewable resource. All living organisms need oxygen,
nitrogen (directly or indirectly), carbon (directly or indirectly) and
many other gases in small quantities for their survival.
Douglas fir forest created in 1850,
Meymac (Corrèze), France
Energy crop and Non-food crop
An important renewable resource is wood provided by means of forestry,
which has been used for construction, housing and firewood since
ancient times.  Plants provide the main sources for
renewable resources, the main distinction is made between energy crops
and non-food crops. A large variety of lubricants, industrially used
vegetable oils, textiles and fibre made e.g. of cotton, copra or hemp,
paper derived from wood, rags or grasses, bioplastic are based on
plant renewable resources. A large variety of chemical based products
like latex, ethanol, resin, sugar and starch can be provided with
plant renewables. Animal based renewables include fur, leather,
technical fat and lubricants and further derived products, as e.g.
animal glue, tendons, casings or in historical times ambra and baleen
provided by whaling.
With regard to pharmacy ingredients and legal and illegal drugs,
plants are important sources, however e.g. venom of snakes, frogs and
insects has been a valuable renewable source of pharmacological
ingredients. Before GMO production set in, insulin and important
hormones were based on animal sources. Feathers, an important
byproduct of poultry farming for food, is still being used as filler
and as base for keratin in general. Same applies for the chitin
produced in farming Crustaceans which may be used as base of chitosan.
The most important part of the human body used for non-medical
purposes is human hair as for artificial hair integrations, which is
being traded worldwide.
An adult and sub-adult
Minke whale are dragged aboard the Nisshin
Maru, a Japanese whaling vessel
Hemp insulation, a renewable resource used as building material
Historically, renewable resources like firewood, latex, guano,
charcoal, wood ash, plant colors as indigo, and whale products have
been crucial for human needs but failed to supply demand in the
beginning of the industrial era. Early modern times faced large
problems with overuse of renewable resources as in deforestation,
overgrazing or overfishing.
Besides fresh meat and milk, which is as a food item not topic of this
section, livestock farmers and artisans used further animal
ingredients as tendons, horn, bones, bladders. Complex technical
constructions as the composite bow were based on combination of animal
and plant based materials. The current distribution conflict between
biofuel and food production is being described as
Food vs. fuel.
Conflicts between food needs and usage, as supposed by fief
obligations were in so far common in historical times as well.
However, a significant percentage of (middle European) farmers yields
went into livestock, which provides as well organic fertiliser.
Oxen and horses were important for transportation purposes, drove
engines as e.g. in treadmills.
Other regions solved the transportation problem with terracing, urban
and garden agriculture. Further conflicts as between forestry and
herding, or (sheep) herders and cattle farmers led to various
solutions. Some confined wool production and sheep to large state and
nobility domains or outsourced to professional shepherds with larger
British Agricultural Revolution
British Agricultural Revolution was mainly based on a new system
of crop rotation, the four-field rotation. British agriculturist
Charles Townshend recognised the invention in Dutch
popularised it in the 18th century UK,
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver in the
USA. The system used wheat, turnips and barley and introduced as well
Clover is able to fix nitrogen from air, a practically non
exhaustive renewable resource, into fertilizing compounds to the soil
and allowed to increase yields by large. Farmers opened up a fodder
crop and grazing crop. Thus livestock could to be bred year-round and
winter culling was avoided. The amount of manure rose and allowed more
crops but to refrain from wood pasture.
Early modern times and the 19th century saw the previous resource base
partially replaced respectively supplemented by large scale chemical
synthesis and by the use of fossil and mineral resources
respectively. Besides the still central role of wood, there is a
sort of renaissance of renewable products based on modern agriculture,
genetic research and extraction technology. Besides fears about an
upcoming global shortage of fossil fuels, local shortages due to
boycotts, war and blockades or just transportation problems in remote
regions have contributed to different methods of replacing or
substituting fossil resources based on renewables.
The use of certain basically renewable products as in TCM endangers
various species. Just the black market in rhinoceros horn reduced the
world's rhino population by more than 90 percent over the past 40
Renewables used for self sufficiency
In vitro-culture of Vitis (grapevine), Geisenheim Grape Breeding
The success of the German chemical industry till World War I was based
on the replacement of colonial products. The predecessors of IG Farben
dominated the world market for synthetic dyes at the beginning of the
20th century and had an important role in artificial
pharmaceuticals, photographic film, agricultural chemicals and
However the former
Plant breeding research institutes took a different
approach. After the loss of the German colonial empire, important
players in the field as
Erwin Baur and
Konrad Meyer switched to using
local crops as base for economic autarky. Meyer as a key
agricultural scientist and spatial planner of the Nazi era managed and
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft resources and focused about a
third of the complete research grants in Nazi Germany on agricultural
and genetic research and especially on resources needed in case of a
further German war effort. A wide array of agrarian research
institutes still existing today and having importance in the field was
founded or enlarged in the time.
There were some major failures as trying to e.g. grow frost resistant
olive species, but some success in the case of hemp, flax, rapeseed,
which are still of current importance. During World War 2, German
scientists tried to use Russian
Taraxacum (dandelion) species to
manufacture natural rubber. Rubber dandelions are still of
interest, as scientists in the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular
Biology and Applied Ecology (IME) announced 2013 to have developed a
cultivar that is suitable for commercial production of natural
Legal situation and subsidies
Several legal and economic means have been used to enhance the market
share of renewables. The UK uses Non-Fossil
Fuel Obligations (NFFO), a
collection of orders requiring the electricity Distribution Network
Wales to purchase electricity from the
nuclear power and renewable energy sectors. Similar mechanisms operate
Scotland (the Scottish Renewable Orders under the Scottish
Renewables Obligation) and
Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland
Fuel Obligation). In the USA, Renewable
(RECs), use a similar approach. German Energiewende is using fed-in
tariffs. An unexpected outcome of the subsidies was the quick increase
of pellet byfiring in conventional fossil fuel plants (compare Tilbury
power stations) and cement works, making wood respectively biomass
accounting for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy
Examples of industrial use
Biorenewable chemicals are chemicals created by biological organisms
that provide feedstocks for the chemical industry. Biorenewable
chemicals can provide solar-energy-powered substitutes for the
petroleum-based carbon feedstocks that currently supply the chemical
industry. The tremendous diversity of enzymes in biological organisms,
and the potential for synthetic biology to alter these enzymes to
create yet new chemical functionalities, can drive the chemical
industry. A major platform for creation of new chemicals is the
polyketide biosynthetic pathway, which generates chemicals containing
repeated alkyl chain units with potential for a wide variety of
functional groups at the different carbon atoms.
Main article: Bioplastics
A packaging blister made from cellulose acetate, a bioplastic
Bioplastics are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomass
sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, lignin, corn starch, pea
starch or microbiota. The most common form of bioplastic is
thermoplastic starch. Other forms include
biopolyester, Polylactic acid, and bio-derived polyethylene.
The production and use of bioplastics is generally regarded as a more
sustainable activity when compared to plastic production from
petroleum (petroplastic); however, manufacturing of bioplastic
materials is often still reliant upon petroleum as an energy and
materials source. Because of the fragmentation in the market and
ambiguous definitions it is difficult to describe the total market
size for bioplastics, but the global production capacity is estimated
at 327,000 tonnes. In contrast, global consumption of all flexible
packaging is estimated at around 12.3 million tonnes.
Main article: Bioasphalt
Bioasphalt is an asphalt alternative made from non-petroleum based
renewable resources. Manufacturing sources of bioasphalt include
sugar, molasses and rice, corn and potato starches, and vegetable oil
Asphalt made with vegetable oil based binders was
patented by Colas SA in France in 2004.
Main article: Renewable energy
Renewable energy refers to the provision of energy via renewable
resources which are naturally replenished fast enough as being used.
It includes e.g. sunlight, wind, biomass, rain, tides, waves and
Renewable energy may replace or enhance fossil
energy supply various distinct areas: electricity generation, hot
water/space heating, motor fuels, and rural (off-grid) energy
Main article: Biomass
A sugarcane plantation in
Brazil (State of São Paulo). Cane is used
for biomass energy.
Biomass is referring to biological material from living, or recently
living organisms, most often referring to plants or plant-derived
Sustainable harvesting and use of renewable resources (i.e.,
maintaining a positive renewal rate) can reduce air pollution, soil
contamination, habitat destruction and land degradation. Biomass
energy is derived from six distinct energy sources: garbage, wood,
plants, waste, landfill gases, and alcohol fuels. Historically, humans
have harnessed biomass-derived energy since the advent of burning wood
to make fire, and wood remains the largest biomass energy source
However, low tech use of biomass, which still amounts for more than
10% of world energy needs may induce indoor air pollution in
developing nations and results in between 1.5 million and 2
million deaths in 2000.
The biomass used for electricity generation varies by region.
Forest by-products, such as wood residues, are common in the United
States. Agricultural waste is common in
Mauritius (sugar cane
Southeast Asia (rice husks). Animal husbandry
residues, such as poultry litter, are common in the UK. The
biomass power generating industry in the United States, which consists
of approximately 11,000 MW of summer operating capacity actively
supplying power to the grid, produces about 1.4 percent of the U.S.
Main article: Biofuels
Brazil has bioethanol made from sugarcane available throughout the
country. Shown a typical
Petrobras gas station at
São Paulo with dual
fuel service, marked A for alcohol (ethanol) and G for gasoline.
A biofuel is a type of fuel whose energy is derived from biological
Biofuels include fuels derived from biomass
conversion, as well as solid biomass, liquid fuels and various
Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermentation, mostly from
carbohydrates produced in sugar or starch crops such as corn,
sugarcane or switchgrass.
Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils and animal fats.
produced from oils or fats using transesterification and is the most
common biofuel in Europe.
Biogas is methane produced by the process of anaerobic digestion of
organic material by anaerobes., etc. is also a renewable source of
Biogas typically refers to a mixture of gases produced by the
breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
produced by anaerobic digestion with anaerobic bacteria or
fermentation of biodegradable materials such as manure, sewage,
municipal waste, green waste, plant material, and crops. It is
primarily methane (CH
4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and may have small amounts of hydrogen
2S), moisture and siloxanes.
Main article: Natural fiber
Natural fibres are a class of hair-like materials that are continuous
filaments or are in discrete elongated pieces, similar to pieces of
thread. They can be used as a component of composite materials. They
can also be matted into sheets to make products such as paper or felt.
Fibres are of two types: natural fibre which consists of animal and
plant fibres, and man made fibre which consists of synthetic fibres
and regenerated fibres.
Threats to renewable resources
Renewable resources are endangered by non-regulated industrial
developments and growth. They must be carefully managed to avoid
exceeding the natural world's capacity to replenish them. A life
cycle assessment provides a systematic means of evaluating
renewability. This is a matter of sustainability in the natural
Atlantic cod stocks severely overfished leading to abrupt collapse
Main article: Overfishing
National Geographic has described ocean over fishing as "simply the
taking of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for fished species
to replace themselves."
Tuna meat is driving overfishing as to endanger some species like the
bluefin tuna. The European Community and other organisations are
trying to regulate fishery as to protect species and to prevent their
extinctions. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
treaty deals with aspects of overfishing in articles 61, 62, and
Examples of overfishing exist in areas such as the North Sea of
Europe, the Grand Banks of
North America and the
East China Sea
East China Sea of
The decline of penguin population is caused in part by overfishing,
caused by human competition over the same renewable resources
Main article: Deforestation
Besides their role as a resource for fuel and building material, trees
protect the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide and by creating
oxygen. The destruction of rain forests is one of the critical
causes of climate change.
Deforestation causes carbon dioxide to
linger in the atmosphere. As carbon dioxide accrues, it produces a
layer in the atmosphere that traps radiation from the sun. The
radiation converts to heat which causes global warming, which is
better known as the greenhouse effect.
Deforestation also affects the water cycle. It reduces the content of
water in the soil and groundwater as well as atmospheric moisture.
Deforestation reduces soil cohesion, so that erosion, flooding and
Rain forests house many species and organisms providing people with
food and other commodities. In this way biofuels may well be
unsustainable if their production contributes to deforestation.
Over-hunting of American Bison.
Main article: Endangered species
Some renewable resources, species and organisms are facing a very high
risk of extinction caused by growing human population and
over-consumption. It has been estimated that over 40% of all living
Earth are at risk of going extinct. Many nations have
laws to protect hunted species and to restrict the practice of
hunting. Other conservation methods include restricting land
development or creating preserves. The
IUCN Red List
IUCN Red List of Threatened
Species is the best-known worldwide conservation status listing and
ranking system. Internationally, 199 countries have signed an
accord agreeing to create
Biodiversity Action Plans to protect
endangered and other threatened species.
Renewable energy portal
Earth sciences portal
Sustainable development portal
Exploitation of natural resources
List of renewable resources produced and traded by the United Kingdom
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Pollution / quality
Ambient standards (USA)
Air Act (USA)
Fossil fuels (peak oil)
Non-timber forest products
Types / location
storage and recovery
Earth Overshoot Day
Renewable / Non-renewable
Agriculture and agronomy