The Rise of the Steel Age
From the bronze age to the iron age, metals have defined eras of human history. If our current era had to be defined similarly, it would undoubtedly be known as the steel age.
Steel is the foundation of our buildings, vehicles, and industries, with its rates of production and consumption often seen as markers for a nation’s development. Today, it is the world’s most commonly used metal and most recycled material, with 1,864 million metric tons of crude steel produced in 2020.
This infographic uses data from the World Steel Association to visualize 50 years of crude steel production, showcasing our world’s unrelenting creation of this essential material.
The State of Steel Production
Global steel production has more than tripled over the past 50 years, despite nations like the U.S. and Russia scaling down their domestic production and relying more on imports. Meanwhile, China and India have consistently grown their production to become the top two steel producing nations.
Below are the world’s current top crude steel producing nations by 2020 production.
|Rank||Country||Steel Production (2020, Mt)|
|#5||🇺🇸 United States||72.7|
|#6||🇰🇷 South Korea||67.1|
Source: World Steel Association. *Estimates.
Despite its current dominance, China could be preparing to scale back domestic steel production to curb overproduction risks and ensure it can reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
As iron ore and steel prices have skyrocketed in the last year, U.S. demand could soon lessen depending on the Biden administration’s actions. A potential infrastructure bill would bring investment into America’s steel mills to build supply for the future, and any walkbalk on the Trump administration’s 2018 tariffs on imported steel could further soften supply constraints.
Steel’s Secret: Infinite Recyclability
Made up primarily of iron ore, steel is an alloy which also contains less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and other trace elements. While the defining difference might seem small, steel can be 1,000x stronger than iron.
However, steel’s true strength lies in its infinite recyclability with no loss of quality. No matter the grade or application, steel can always be recycled, with new steel products containing 30% recycled steel on average.
The alloy’s magnetic properties make it easy to recover from waste streams, and nearly 100% of the steel industry’s co-products can be used in other manufacturing or electricity generation.
It’s fitting then that steel makes up essential parts of various sustainable energy technologies:
- The average wind turbine is made of 80% steel on average (140 metric tons).
- Steel is used in the base, pumps, tanks, and heat exchangers of solar power installations.
- Electrical steel is at the heart of the generators and motors of electric and hybrid vehicles.
The Steel Industry’s Future Sustainability
Considering the crucial role steel plays in just about every industry, it’s no wonder that prices are surging to record highs. However, steel producers are thinking about long-term sustainability, and are working to make fossil-fuel-free steel a reality by completely removing coal from the metallurgical process.
While the industry has already cut down the average energy intensity per metric ton produced from 50 gigajoules to 20 gigajoules since the 1960s, steel-producing giants like ArcelorMittal are going further and laying out their plans for carbon-neutral steel production by 2050.
Steel consumption and demand is only set to continue rising as the world’s economy gradually reopens, especially as Rio Tinto’s new development of atomized steel powder could bring about the next evolution in 3D printing.
As the industry continues to innovate in both sustainability and usability, steel will continue to be a vital material across industries that we can infinitely recycle and rely on.
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Mapped: Energy Consumption Per Capita Around the World
Which countries use the most energy per person?
Mapping Global Energy Consumption Per Capita
In the four decades since 1980, global energy consumption doubled from 77 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) to nearly 155 trillion kWh.
But despite soaring energy demand from emerging economies, energy consumption per person only grew by around 14%.
So, which countries consume the most energy per capita today?
The above infographic maps global per capita energy consumption in 2020 using data from Our World in Data. Energy consumption includes electricity, transport, and heating.
The Energy Consumption Leaderboard
The top 10 countries by energy consumption per capita are relatively wealthy and heavily industrialized.
|Country||Year of data||Energy consumption per capita (kWh)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||2020||123,800|
|United Arab Emirates||2020||117,686|
|United States Virgin Islands||2019||95,010|
|Saint Pierre and Miquelon||2019||64,130|
|European Union (27)||2020||34,772|
|Antigua and Barbuda||2019||31,385|
|Turks and Caicos Islands||2019||25,775|
|British Virgin Islands||2019||23,486|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||2019||21,074|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||2019||21,068|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||2019||8,154|
|Sao Tome and Principe||2019||3,412|
|Papua New Guinea||2019||3,316|
|Democratic Republic of Congo||2019||403|
|Central African Republic||2019||328|
Iceland tops the list and is also the leading generator of electricity per capita. Thanks to the country’s abundance of geothermal resources, geothermal and hydropower plants account for more than 99% of Iceland’s electricity generation.
Many of the top 10 countries are large energy producers or industry-heavy economies. For example, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Kuwait, Norway, and Qatar are among the world’s 15 largest oil-producing countries. Similarly, Trinidad and Tobago is the largest oil and gas producer in the Caribbean and is one of the largest exporters of ammonia globally.
The presence of energy-intensive industries like oil and gas extraction is likely a major factor influencing total and per-person energy use in these countries.
Why is Tiny Iceland So Big on Energy Use?
Why does Iceland use so much energy per person?
Let’s take a look at Iceland’s colossal industrial energy consumption, to see where energy goes:
|Sector / Industry||2019 energy consumption* (thousand kWh)||% of total|
|Aluminum foil industry||473,723||2.5%|
*Energy consumption excludes losses.
Source: Orkustofnunn – National Energy Authority of Iceland
Iceland’s three Aluminum smelters—Alcoa, Rio Tinto Alcan, and Century Aluminum—consume more energy than all other sectors combined, and account for 30% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Iceland isn’t particularly rich in bauxite (the raw material used to make aluminum), but cheap and clean electricity are big incentives for aluminum smelters to set up operations on the island.
For similar reasons, Iceland is also a popular destination for data centers and bitcoin mining. The year-round cool climate lowers cooling costs for thousands of computers running around the clock, and clean grid electricity minimizes their carbon footprint.
Overall, it’s not surprising that the residential sector is among the smaller consumers of energy, despite the importance of home heating in a cool climate. Iceland’s industries, especially aluminum smelting, make up the bulk of its energy use, pushing the overall per-person use above all other countries.
The Bottom 10 Countries
Countries at the bottom end of the list are among the world’s least-developed economies, with relatively lower GDP per capita numbers.
|Country||2019 Energy consumption per capita (kWh)||GDP per capita (2020, current US$)|
|Democratic Republic of Congo||403||$544.0|
|Central African Republic||328||$492.8|
These countries consumed significantly less energy per capita compared to the global average of 19,836 kWh. In a stark contrast to the countries topping the list, their per capita GDPs are all lower than $1,000.
As economies develop, villages get electrified, megacities emerge, and industries grow, leading to higher overall energy consumption. On a global scale, if economic growth continues, energy consumption per capita is likely to continue its steady increase.
Visualizing the Material Impact of Global Urbanization
The world’s material consumption is expected to grow from 41 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 89 billion tonnes by 2050. This graphic shows the impact of urbanization.
Visualizing the Material Impact of Global Urbanization
Cities only cover 2% of the world’s land surface, but activities within their boundaries consume over 75% of the planet’s material resources.
With the expansion of urban areas, the world’s material consumption is expected to grow from 41.1 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 89 billion tonnes by 2050.
In today’s graphic, we use data from the UN International Resource Panel to visualize the material impact of global urbanization.
How Material Consumption is Calculated
Today, more than 4.3 billion people or 55% of the world’s population live in urban settings, and the number is expected to rise to 80% by 2050.
Every year, the world produces an immense amount of materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments.
To calculate how much we use to build our cities, the UN uses the Domestic Material Consumption (DMC), a measure of all raw materials extracted from the domestic territory per year, plus all physical imports, minus all physical exports.
Generally, the material consumption is highly uneven across the different world regions. In terms of material footprint, the world’s wealthiest countries consume 10 times as much as the poorest and twice the global average.
Based on the total urban DMC, Eastern Asia leads the world in material consumption, with China consuming more than half of the world’s aluminum and concrete.
|Major Global Regions||2010 Material Consumption (billion tonnes)||2050P Material Consumption (billion tonnes)||% total urban DMC change (2010-2050P)|
|Central and Western Asia||1.9||4.7||151%|
|South and Central America||6.5||11.1||71%|
According to the UN, the bulk of urban growth will happen in the cities of the Global South, particularly in China, India, and Nigeria.
Consumption in Asia is set to increase as the continent hosts the majority of the world’s megacities—cities housing more than 10 million people.
However, the biggest jump in the next decades will happen in Africa. The continent is expected to double in population by 2050, with material consumption jumping from 2 billion tonnes to 17.7 billion tonnes per year.
A Resource-Efficient Future
Global urban DMC is already at a rate of 8–17 tonnes per capita per year.
With the world population expected to swell by almost two and a half billion people by 2050, new and existing cities must accommodate many of them.
This could exacerbate existing problems like pollution and carbon emissions, but it could equally be an opportunity to develop the low-carbon and resource-efficient cities of the future.
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