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Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

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Anthropomass

Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth

The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.

In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.

In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.

A Man-made Planet

Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.

Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.

While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.

Human-Made Mass

Every year, we extract almost 90 billion tons of raw materials from the Earth. A single smartphone, for example, can carry roughly 80% of the stable elements on the periodic table.

The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.

At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.

Human-Made MassDescription1900 (mass/Gt)1940 (mass/Gt)1980 (mass/Gt)2020 (mass/Gt)
ConcreteUsed for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand21086549
AggregatesGravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings1730135386
BricksMostly composed of clay and used for constructions11162892
AsphaltBitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement 012265
MetalsMostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper131339
OtherSolid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic461123

Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.

Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.

Human-Made Mass Plastic

As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.

Can We Work It Out?

While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.

At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.

As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.

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Urbanization

Mapped: Energy Consumption Per Capita Around the World

Which countries use the most energy per person?

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map of energy consumption per capita by country

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.

CountryYear of dataEnergy consumption per capita (kWh)
Iceland2020167,175
Qatar2020165,044
Singapore2020162,192
Bahrain2019145,193
Trinidad and Tobago2020123,800
Brunei2019121,637
United Arab Emirates2020117,686
Canada2020100,310
Norway202098,879
Kuwait202098,021
United States Virgin Islands201995,010
Malta201991,685
Saudi Arabia202084,262
Faeroe Islands201980,177
New Caledonia201978,606
Oman202074,514
United States202073,677
Turkmenistan202064,639
Saint Pierre and Miquelon201964,130
South Korea202063,865
Luxembourg202063,726
Greenland201962,156
Europe202028,617
European Union (27)202034,772
Falkland Islands201961,362
Australia202060,660
Sweden202060,494
Taiwan202056,199
Finland202054,962
Netherlands202054,673
Russia202053,895
Belgium202052,510
Bermuda201951,713
Cayman Islands201951,435
Aruba201951,179
New Zealand202048,414
Seychelles201947,768
Kazakhstan202045,950
Guam201944,771
Austria202042,676
Bahamas201941,170
Germany202040,153
Czechia202039,883
Iran202039,785
Estonia202039,024
Japan202037,403
France202037,041
Slovenia202035,850
Malaysia202035,296
Ireland202034,600
Switzerland202034,597
Hong Kong202034,430
Israel202033,625
Slovakia202031,697
Antigua and Barbuda201931,385
Puerto Rico201929,546
Spain202029,541
Poland202029,453
Bhutan201929,338
Panama201928,998
Belarus202028,871
Denmark202028,314
United Kingdom202028,211
China202028,072
Cook Islands201927,921
Hungary202027,834
Bulgaria202027,582
Montserrat201927,374
Italy202026,936
Greece202026,659
American Samoa201926,024
Libya201925,864
Turks and Caicos Islands201925,775
Portugal202025,405
Lithuania202025,365
Nauru201924,818
Martinique201924,598
Barbados201924,537
Mongolia201924,338
Suriname201924,136
Macao201923,858
British Virgin Islands201923,486
Cyprus202023,358
Chile202023,348
Mauritius201923,278
Latvia201923,051
South Africa202022,959
Serbia201922,784
Montenegro201922,650
Croatia202022,105
Guadeloupe201921,483
Laos201921,449
Latvia202021,370
Saint Kitts and Nevis201921,074
Bosnia and Herzegovina201921,068
Ukraine202021,048
Turkey202020,716
Thailand202020,370
Niue201919,975
Argentina202019,352
Romania202019,220
Georgia201918,547
Paraguay201918,398
Maldives201917,493
Azerbaijan202017,037
French Polynesia201916,894
Equatorial Guinea201916,880
French Guiana201916,526
Reunion201915,931
Brazil202015,692
Lebanon201915,614
Uzbekistan202015,542
Armenia201915,538
Saint Lucia201914,909
Jamaica201914,563
Algeria202014,561
Guyana201914,246
Iraq202014,246
Venezuela202014,082
Mexico202013,952
North Macedonia202013,582
Costa Rica201913,159
Vietnam202011,669
Grenada201911,661
Jordan201911,484
Dominican Republic201911,435
Albania201911,266
Dominica201910,994
Ecuador202010,158
Botswana20199,992
Egypt20209,899
Colombia20209,648
Fiji20199,642
Cuba20199,608
Belize20199,247
Saint Helena20198,871
Namibia20198,738
Peru20208,400
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines20198,154
Tajikistan20198,102
Samoa20197,959
Bolivia20197,940
Gabon20197,850
Cape Verde20197,776
Indonesia20207,753
Syria20197,325
El Salvador20197,070
Tonga20196,694
Morocco20206,607
India20206,438
Micronesia20196,334
Honduras20195,803
Guatemala20195,689
Eswatini20195,678
Congo20194,735
Philippines20204,626
Nicaragua20194,372
Pakistan20204,369
Sri Lanka20204,237
Cambodia20193,994
Palestine20193,991
Mauritania20193,976
Africa20203,851
North Korea20193,696
Angola20193,430
Sao Tome and Principe20193,412
Zambia20193,398
Zimbabwe20193,375
Papua New Guinea20193,316
Ghana20193,294
Vanuatu20193,188
Myanmar20193,130
Kiribati20192,739
Senegal20192,703
Bangladesh20202,685
Djibouti20192,598
Benin20192,483
Nigeria20192,481
Cote d'Ivoire20192,417
Mozambique20192,377
Sudan20192,360
Lesotho20192,293
Solomon Islands20192,038
Western Sahara20191,868
Kenya20191,849
Cameroon20191,818
Timor20191,682
Yemen20191,598
Comoros20191,567
Nepal20191,530
Mali20191,289
Guinea20191,212
Togo20191,205
Haiti20191,164
Liberia20191,112
Gambia20191,039
Tanzania2019978
Burkina Faso2019952
Afghanistan2019946
Eritrea2019945
Ethiopia2019944
Uganda2019862
Guinea-Bissau2019721
South Sudan2019705
Madagascar2019677
Malawi2019530
Sierra Leone2019528
Rwanda2019500
Chad2019462
Niger2019451
Democratic Republic of Congo2019403
Central African Republic2019328
Burundi2019319
Somalia2019236

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 / Industry2019 energy consumption* (thousand kWh)% of total
Aluminum smelters12,490,26665.9%
Services1,127,6155.9%
Data centers990,0975.2%
Ferroalloy industry897,8464.7%
Residential847,7134.5%
Utilities781,7074.1%
Aluminum foil industry473,7232.5%
Agriculture231,2361.2%
Fisheries78,9400.4%
Other industries1,038,4105.5%
Total18,957,553100%

*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.

Country2019 Energy consumption per capita (kWh)GDP per capita (2020, current US$)
Madagascar677$471.5
Malawi530$636.8
Sierra Leone528$509.4
Rwanda500$797.9
Chad462$659.3
Niger451$567.7
Democratic Republic of Congo403$544.0
Central African Republic328$492.8
Burundi319$239.0
Somalia236$438.3

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.

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Urbanization

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.

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MaterialImpactUrbanization_1200px_MainGraphic

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 Regions2010 Material Consumption (billion tonnes)2050P Material Consumption (billion tonnes)% total urban DMC change (2010-2050P)
Africa2.017.7792%
Southern Asia2.78.6223%
South-Eastern Asia2.05.6180%
Central and Western Asia1.94.7151%
Oceania1.12.6136%
Eastern Asia9.019.2113%
South and Central America6.511.171%
Europe8.310.425%
North America7.79.017%
World41.188.8116%

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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