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
|Rank||Country||Cement Production (in million tonnes)|
|#4||🇺🇸 United States||90|
|#12||🇰🇷 South Korea||50|
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
|Sector||Steel Recovery Rate|
|Electrical and domestic appliances||50%|
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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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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