18 Jan 2023
By Aitana Villegas, Diario AS:
A group of experts have concluded that the current increased production rate will lead to the depletion of some finite resources, including gold.
Just how scarce are our gold reserves? Well, a group of scientists have set a date for the disappearance of the rare metal, and that is just 27 years away, in 2050. This is the opinion of the Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (CREAF-UAB) and of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). They have published a study in which they show that over the last century the extraction of rare and scarce minerals has doubled, a rate that may “involve environmental, economic, social and geopolitical risks”.
Earth’s dwindling resources
The work, which has been published by the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, points out that 70% of the elements in the periodic table needed to “ build the modern world of humans” are no longer found in biomass. That is, the elements used in the manufacture of sanitary products, train tracks, airplanes or smartphones.
This is due, according to the scientists, to the fact that they require more chemical elements than those needed by planet Earth for there to be natural elements, such as leaves and tree trunks. This series of chemical elements for artificial objects — the scientific name is human elementome — is increasingly at variance with what is required by the biological elementome, that is, for nature.
Biomass usage and an“increasingly complex and risky” process
This process began in the 1900s, when humans switched “from using common materials such as clay, stone or lime, which are continually recycled in nature and in the atmosphere, to using many other elements, especially including those known as rare earths”, commented one of the authors of the study, Jordi Sardans, in statements collected by EFE .
Humans used to need elements that came 80% from biomass, as indicated in the study. In 2005, this percentage was lowered to 32% and, in 2050, assuming we continue on the same path, they believe that it will continue to decrease to 20%.
“We are going to a situation in which 80% of the elements we use are from non-biological sources,” warn the scientists. In this sense, another of the authors of the paper, UAB professor Jaume Terradas, has pointed out that “sustaining the human element will be increasingly complex and risky,” which will require “a more rational use of the Earth’s limited resources,” he added.
Gold and other elements will run out by 2050
The extraction of elements such as gold, copper and silicon has skyrocketed in the 20th century due to the development and use of new technologies and clean energy sources. The annual growth of the consumption and extraction process is around 3%, according to the third of the study’s authors, Josep Peñuelas. According to him, “in this scenario it is possible that the reserves of some of these elements will be exhausted in 2050 — such as gold and antimony — or in less than 100 years — in the case of molybdenum and zinc.”
Call for an end to ‘planned obsolescence’
This practice will have repercussions on our environment, as the more elements of the periodic table that are used, the more minerals will have to be extracted. A process that will mean increasing energy consumption and associated CO2 emissions. But the effects will not stop there, it will also be noticeable at the economic level, since the scarcity of elements entails a threat to their availability, especially in the poorest countries. And it will also hinder the production in rich countries.
Therefore, the experts are calling for an end to what is known as ‘planned obsolescence’. This is a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete, one that has been applied for decades. And they also propose the development of new technologies that favor a more profitable use of materials that are becoming scarce.
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