“There is no consensus among economists about the degree of concern we should have about the exploitation of non-renewable resources”

Lhe massive needs for rare earths and metals for the energy transition (batteries, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, etc.) are bringing back to the forefront an old fear of the exhaustion of non-renewable natural resources. Their non-renewable nature is due to the fact that they are created by extremely slow geological phenomena, and their availability is limited to the time scale of humanity. How have economists thought about this question of the scarcity of limited resources?

The classical founders of the economic discipline took the natural factor in production seriously. Thus, the limited nature of areas of fertile cultivable land is at the heart of David Ricardo’s (1772-1823) theory of rent. “Malthus’ law” (Thomas Malthus, 1766-1834) on the gap between population growth and the growth of food resources is another example. But it was William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) who, in the history of economic thought, was the first scholar to truly question how an exhaustible energy resource could be exploited in the most economical way. rational possible.

From 1865, in his book The Coal Question (“the coal question”), the one who was one of the founders of the marginalist approach expressed his fear that the depletion of coal reserves would cause the collapse of the British economy (and the world economy , as it was at the time dominated by England). In this key work, he identifies a paradoxical effect, called the “rebound effect”, namely that the improvement of resource exploitation techniques paradoxically results in an even more rapid decline in fossil fuel stocks. It is precisely this rebound effect which leads him to think that the exhaustion of non-renewable fossil resources is inevitable.

Optimization calculation

This rebound effect has not aged a bit and can be generalized. Thus, while the energy efficiency of internal combustion engines and electric batteries is continually improving and could therefore contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions for internal combustion engine cars and to lower energy extraction needs. rare metals for batteries, most of the environmental benefits of these technological advances are wiped out by the increased weight of vehicles and the explosion in SUV sales.

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