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.
Visualizing 50 Years of Global Steel Production
Global steel production has tripled over the past 50 years, with China’s steel production eclipsing the rest of the world.
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.
Shrinking Portions: Visualizing Rising Food Prices
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s food price index has increased since mid-2020 for nine months straight, with meat prices lagging behind.
The Global Food Price Index Continues Rising in 2021
Food expenditures as a portion of disposable income have trended downwards in the U.S. for more than 50 years, but the trend could be reversing as food prices have risen sharply over the past months.
Since June 2020, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index has risen for nine consecutive months, with almost every food group setting new three-year highs in 2021. If the trend continues, food prices could begin to outpace income growth and monetary support from governments.
The one outlier in changing food prices has been meat prices, which have lagged behind with a minimal increase since mid-2020.
This graphic tracks the FAO’s food price indices along with their year-over-year (YoY) changes, showing the rapid price increases many of our staple food groups have had over the past year.
The Rising Food Prices of 2020 and 2021
Over the past five years, the FAO’s food price index has fluctuated by a few percentage points, but the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic brought significant volatility.
Sugar and vegetable oils saw the largest changes, dropping by double-digit percentages (-19.2% and -12.4% respectively) in March of 2020, before recovering with the strongest overall price surges of the various food groups.
Food Price Indices Month-over-Month Change
|Date||Food Price Index MoM Change||Meat Price Index MoM Change||Dairy Price Index MoM Change||Cereals Price Index MoM Change||Vegetable Oils Price Index MoM Change||Sugar Price Index MoM Change|
The food price index increased by almost 17% YoY going into 2021, and while dairy, cereals, sugar, and vegetable oil prices all increased by double-digit percentages, meat prices rose less than 1% on average in 2021.
Surging Demand for Food at Home Drives Higher Prices
Although food prices have always fluctuated depending on weather conditions and global trade affecting food supply, this year’s increases were especially driven by a weakening U.S. dollar and increased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic resulted in severe changes to the world’s eating habits, with restaurant walk-ins and reservations down by more than 60% while demand for food at home increased as people stocked up on essentials.
To go alongside this, trade and supply chain disruptions in essential agricultural materials like fertilizer resulted in an inconsistent output from farmers and food producers, causing issues right as demand surged.
Meat and Dairy Prices Aren’t Keeping Up
As other food prices rise, the lack of significant increases in meat prices could reflect the avoidance of more expensive food products during tighter times, a lack of supply chain disruptions and constraints compared to agricultural sectors, or a larger societal trend of reduced animal product consumption.
Although dairy prices increased by 10% YoY in 2021, this increase was less than half of the price increases of cereals and sugar (21.7% and 22.3% respectively), and less than a quarter of vegetable oils prices which rose by 44%.
Plant-based alternatives are rapidly growing in popularity as nearly one in four Americans are reducing their meat consumption while veganism is rising in select European nations. Interestingly, despite these trends, 2020 also saw U.S. meat purchases rise as 43% of Americans have been buying more meat since the start of the pandemic.
Fighting the Fear of Inflating Food Prices
Whether meat prices catch up soon or not, the general trend of rising food prices poses a new inflationary pressure upon people around the world.
With in-restaurant dining taking a backseat, the increased prices are felt by everyone as they stock their cupboards, and inflation fears have been brewing as nations make their way out of the pandemic.
Rising government deficits and an increasing money supply represent efforts by governments to support citizens and national economies, but could ultimately be a key factor fueling the rising food prices.
One thing is certain, if food prices continue rising by double-digit percentages in the coming months and years, incomes and government support will struggle to keep up.
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