China’s Staggering Demand for Commodities
>50% of all steel, cement, nickel, and copper goes there
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
It’s said that in China, a new skyscraper is built every five days.
China is building often, and they are building higher. In fact, just last year, China completed 77 of the world’s 144 new supertall buildings, spread through 36 different Chinese cities. These are structures with a minimum height of 656 feet (200 meters).
For comparison’s sake, there are only 113 buildings in New York City’s current skyline that are over 600 feet.
It’s always hard to put China’s size and scope in perspective – and we’ve tried before by showing you 35 Chinese cities as big as countries, or highlighting the growing prominence of the domestic tech scene.
Today’s chart also falls in that category, and it focuses in on the raw materials that are needed to make all this growth possible.
|Year of data||Commodity||China's % of Global Demand||Source|
|2016||Copper||50%||Global X Funds|
|2017||Steel||50%||World Steel Association|
|2017||Gold||27%||China Gold Association, WGC|
Note: Because this data is not all in one easy place, it is sourced from many different industry associations, banks, and publications. Most of the data comes from 2017, but some is from 2016.
China Demand > World
There are five particularly interesting commodity categories here – and in all of them, China’s demand equals or exceeds that of the rest of the world combined.
The primary ingredient in concrete is needed for roads, buildings, engineering structures (bridges, dams, etc.), foundations, and in making joints for drains and pipes.
Nickel’s primary use is in making stainless steel, which is corrosion resistant. It also gets used in superalloys, batteries, and an array of other uses.
Steel is used for pretty much everything, but demand is primarily driven by the construction, machinery, and automotive sectors.
Copper is one of the metals driving the green revolution, and it’s used in electronics, wiring, construction, machinery, and automotive sectors, primarily.
China’s winding down coal usage – but when you have 1.4 billion people demanding power, it has to be done with that in mind. China has already hit peak coal, but the fossil fuel does still account for 65% of the country’s power generated by source.
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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