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Urbanization

Sand, Steel, and Cement: The Annual Production of the World’s Building Blocks

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cement, sand, steel production in 2020

Essential Materials for City Construction

From the buildings around us to the sidewalks we walk on, sand, steel, and cement are an important foundation for all urbanization. Every year, the world produces an immense amount of all three materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments around the world.

Using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, this visualization shows the steel, sand, and cement produced in 2020, to help put in perspective the amount of raw materials we produce and ultimately consume every year.

The Concrete Facts of Cement

Cement is the indispensable glue that binds together the materials that make up concrete highways, sidewalks, and buildings.

With concrete being the world’s most consumed material (beaten only by water), it’s no wonder that the world produced 4.1 billion tonnes of cement in 2020.

2020 Cement Production by Country

RankCountryCement Production (in million tonnes)
#1🇨🇳 China2,200
#2🇮🇳 India340
#3🇻🇳 Vietnam96
#4🇺🇸 United States90
#5🇮🇩 Indonesia73
#6🇹🇷 Turkey66
#7🇮🇷 Iran60
#8🇧🇷 Brazil57
#9🇷🇺 Russia56
#10🇯🇵 Japan53
#11🇪🇬 Egypt50
#12🇰🇷 South Korea50
Other countries890

Source: USGS

While cement-based concrete has a variety of benefits like being fire-proof, hydrographic, and frost-resistant, the IEA estimates that in 2019 the cement sector emitted 2.4 GtCO2, which accounted for 7% of global CO2 emissions. The production of concrete also requires high amounts of water, with calculations from 2012 finding that the concrete industry’s water withdrawals made up 9% of all industry water withdrawals (1.7% of total global water withdrawal).

To combat high carbon emissions and water consumption in concrete production, Swedish power company Vattenfall has developed a concrete mix which reduces the amount of cement needed, and as a result cuts down CO2 emissions by around 25%. Shifting the world’s concrete production to this new method could be the first step in greatly reducing cement and concrete’s impact on the environment.

Steel Recyclability Steals the Show

While cement is the most commonly used material in the world, steel is the most commonly used metal. With 1.8 billion tonnes produced last year, steel fulfills a variety of structural and construction needs, along with being an essential material for the production of vehicles, mechanical equipment, and domestic appliances.

One of steel’s greatest strengths is its ability to be infinitely recycled, making it the most recycled material in the world with new steel products containing an average of 30% recycled steel. While the world produced 1.8 billion tonnes of steel in 2020, since 1900 the steel industry has recycled over 25 billion tonnes of steel scrap, reducing iron ore and coal consumption by 35 billion and 18 billion tonnes respectively.

Global Steel Recovery Rates by Sector

SectorSteel Recovery Rate
Automotive90%
Machinery90%
Construction85%
Electrical and domestic appliances50%

Source: World Steel Association

The steel industry is also highly aware of reducing its environmental impact, with steel plants reusing the heat and electricity from process gases to provide between 60-100% of the plant’s electricity requirements. Along with this, ~90% of water used by the steel industry is returned to the source after being cleaned and cooled.

Yet steel production still emits around two tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of steel produced, largely due to the majority of the world’s steel production taking place in China’s coal-reliant plants. However, fossil-free steel is on the horizon, with carmaker Volvo partnering with the Swedish steelmakers SSAB to explore the development of fossil-free steel for the automotive industry.

More than Beaches

Completing the trio of essential city-building materials is industrial sand and gravel, with 265 million tonnes of the material produced in 2020. Primarily composed of quartz, feldspar, and other minerals and rock fragments, industrial sand and gravel is also called silica sand or quartz sand.

“It’s actually the most important solid substance in the world because without sand, we have no modern civilization.”
Vince Beiser

While steel and cement are opaquely visible in their end products in our cities, industrial sand and gravel primarily makes up the transparent glass walls and windows of our world. It also serves essential functions as foundry sand, forming molds and patterns for various metal castings.

Just like steel and cement, industrial sand and gravel is an essential building block of the cities we live in. As the world continues its shift towards reducing carbon emissions, it is clear that these essential materials cannot be replaced, and rather must be improved upon.

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Electrification

Visualizing the World’s Largest Copper Producers

Many new technologies critical to the energy transition rely on copper. Here are the world’s largest copper producers.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Copper Producers

Man has relied on copper since prehistoric times. It is a major industrial metal with many applications due to its high ductility, malleability, and electrical conductivity.

Many new technologies critical to fighting climate change, like solar panels and wind turbines, rely on the red metal.

But where does the copper we use come from? Using the U.S. Geological Survey’s data, the above infographic lists the world’s largest copper producing countries in 2021.

The Countries Producing the World’s Copper

Many everyday products depend on minerals, including mobile phones, laptops, homes, and automobiles. Incredibly, every American requires 12 pounds of copper each year to maintain their standard of living.

North, South, and Central America dominate copper production, as these regions collectively host 15 of the 20 largest copper mines.

Chile is the top copper producer in the world, with 27% of global copper production. In addition, the country is home to the two largest mines in the world, Escondida and Collahuasi.

Chile is followed by another South American country, Peru, responsible for 10% of global production.

RankCountry2021E Copper Production (Million tonnes)Share
#1🇨🇱 Chile5.627%
#2🇵🇪 Peru2.210%
#3🇨🇳 China1.88%
#4🇨🇩 DRC 1.88%
#5🇺🇸 United States1.26%
#6🇦🇺 Australia0.94%
#7🇷🇺 Russia0.84%
#8🇿🇲 Zambia0.84%
#9🇮🇩 Indonesia0.84%
#10🇲🇽 Mexico0.73%
#11🇨🇦 Canada0.63%
#12🇰🇿 Kazakhstan0.52%
#13🇵🇱 Poland0.42%
🌍 Other countries2.813%
🌐 World total21.0100%

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and China share third place, with 8% of global production each. Along with being a top producer, China also consumes 54% of the world’s refined copper.

Copper’s Role in the Green Economy

Technologies critical to the energy transition, such as EVs, batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines require much more copper than conventional fossil fuel based counterparts.

For example, copper usage in EVs is up to four times more than in conventional cars. According to the Copper Alliance, renewable energy systems can require up to 12x more copper compared to traditional energy systems.

Technology2020 Installed Capacity (megawatts)Copper Content (2020, tonnes)2050p Installed Capacity (megawatts)Copper Content (2050p, tonnes)
Solar PV126,735 MW633,675372,000 MW1,860,000
Onshore Wind105,015 MW451,565202,000 MW868,600
Offshore Wind6,013 MW57,72545,000 MW432,000

With these technologies’ rapid and large-scale deployment, copper demand from the energy transition is expected to increase by nearly 600% by 2030.

As the transition to renewable energy and electrification speeds up, so will the pressure for more copper mines to come online.

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Misc

Mapped: Countries With the Highest Flood Risk

Recent floods in Pakistan have affected more than 33 million people. Where is the risk of flooding highest around the world?

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PopulationFloodRisk_MainGraphicOption2_1200px

Risk of Flooding Mapped Around the World

Devastating floods across Pakistan this summer have resulted in more than 1,400 lives lost and one-third of the country being under water.

This raises the question: which nations and their populations are the most vulnerable to the risk of flooding around the world?

Using data from a recent study published in Nature, this graphic maps flood risk around the world, highlighting the 1.81 billion people directly exposed to 1-in-100 year floods. The methodology takes into account potential risks from both inland and coastal flooding.

Asian Countries Most at Risk from Rising Water Levels

Not surprisingly, countries with considerable coastlines, river systems, and flatlands find themselves with high percentages of their population at risk.

The Netherlands and Bangladesh are the only two nations in the world to have more than half of their population at risk due to flooding, at 59% and 58%, respectively. Vietnam (46%), Egypt (41%), and Myanmar (40%) round out the rest of the top five nations.

Besides the Netherlands, only two other European nations are in the top 20 nations by percentage of population at risk, Austria (18th at 29%) and Albania (20th at 28%).

RankCountryFlood risk, by population exposed (%)Total population exposed
#1🇳🇱 Netherlands58.7%10,100,000
#2🇧🇩 Bangladesh57.5%94,424,000
#3🇻🇳 Vietnam46.0%45,504,000
#4🇪🇬 Egypt40.5%38,871,000
#5🇲🇲 Myanmar39.9%19,104,000
#6🇱🇦 Laos39.7%2,985,000
#7🇰🇭 Cambodia38.1%7,431,000
#8🇬🇾 Guyana37.9%276,000
#9🇸🇷 Suriname37.7%233,000
#10🇮🇶 Iraq36.8%16,350,000
#11🇹🇭 Thailand33.9%25,431,000
#12🇸🇸 South Sudan32.5%5,437,000
#13🇵🇰 Pakistan31.1%71,786,000
#14🇳🇵 Nepal29.4%11,993,000
#15🇨🇬 Republic of the Congo29.3%1,170,000
#16🇵🇭 Philippines29.0%30,483,000
#17🇯🇵 Japan28.7%36,060,000
#18🇦🇹 Austria27.8%2,437,000
#19🇮🇳 India27.7%389,816,000
#20🇦🇱 Albania27.6%771,000
#21🇨🇳 China27.5%394,826,000
#22🇹🇩 Chad27.4%4,547,000
#23🇮🇩 Indonesia27.0%75,696,000
#24🇭🇷 Croatia26.9%1,094,000
#25🇸🇰 Slovakia26.7%1,401,000

The Southeast Asia region alone makes up more than two-thirds of the global population exposed to flooding risk at 1.24 billion people.

China and India account for 395 million and 390 million people, respectively, with both nations at the top in terms of the absolute number of people at risk of rising water levels. The rest of the top five countries by total population at risk are Bangladesh (94 million people at risk), Indonesia (76 million people at risk), and Pakistan (72 million people at risk).

How Flooding is Already Affecting Countries Like Pakistan

While forecasted climate and natural disasters can often take years to manifest, flooding affected more than 100 million people in 2021. Recent summer floods in Pakistan have continued the trend in 2022.

With 31% of its population (72 million people) at risk of flooding, Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to floods.

In 2010, floods in Pakistan were estimated to have affected more than 18 million people. The recent floods, which started in June, are estimated to have affected more than 33 million people as more than one-third of the country is submerged underwater.

The Cost of Floods Today and in the Future

Although the rising human toll is by far the biggest concern that floods present, they also bring with them massive economic costs. Last year, droughts, floods, and storms caused economic losses totaling $224.2 billion worldwide, nearly doubling the 2001-2020 annual average of $117.8 billion.

A recent report forecasted that water risk (caused by droughts, floods, and storms) could eat up $5.6 trillion of global GDP by 2050, with floods projected to account for 36% of these direct losses.

As both human and economic losses caused by floods continue to mount, nations around the world will need to focus on preventative infrastructure and restorative solutions for ecosystems and communities already affected and most at risk of flooding.

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