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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

Ranked: The 20 Most Air-Polluted Cities on Earth

Using 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations, we rank the most polluted cities in the world.

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Ranked: The 20 Most Air-Polluted Cities on Earth

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits.

In the above map, we use 2022 average PM2.5 concentrations from IQAir’s World Air Quality Report to visualize the most air-polluted major cities in the world.

World’s Air Pollution Hot Spots

As one of the standard air quality indicators used by the WHO, the PM2.5 concentration refers to the quantity of fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less in a given volume of air.

Fine particulate matter that is this small can penetrate the lungs when inhaled and enter the bloodstream, affecting all major organs.

Based on annual average PM2.5 concentrations (μg/m³) in 2022, here are the most polluted cities in the world.

RankCity 2022 average PM2.5 concentration (μg/m³)
1🇵🇰 Lahore, Pakistan97.4
2🇨🇳 Hotan, China94.3
3🇮🇳 Bhiwadi, India92.7
4🇮🇳 Delhi, India92.6
5🇵🇰 Peshawar, Pakistan91.8
6🇮🇳 Darbhanga, India90.3
7🇮🇳 Asopur, India90.2
8🇹🇩 N'Djamena, Chad89.7
9🇮🇳 New Delhi, India89.1
10🇮🇳 Patna, India88.9
11🇮🇳 Ghaziabad, India88.6
12🇮🇳 Dharuhera, India87.8
13🇮🇶 Baghdad, Iraq86.7
14🇮🇳 Chapra, India85.9
15🇮🇳 Muzaffarnagar, India85.5
16🇵🇰 Faisalabad, Pakistan84.5
17🇮🇳 Greater Noida, India83.2
18🇮🇳 Bahadurgarh, India82.2
19🇮🇳 Faridabad, India79.7
20🇮🇳 Muzaffarpur, India79.2

With numbers these high, the concentration of some or all of the following pollutants are at dangerous levels in these cities:

  • Ground-level ozone
  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Nitrogen dioxide

At the top of the list, Lahore in Pakistan has a combination of high vehicle and industrial emissions, as well as smoke from brick kilns, crop residue, general waste burning, and dust from construction sites.

Air pollution levels can also be impacted by practices such as large-scale tree removal in order to build new roads and buildings.

As a result of its growing population and rapidly expanding industrial sector, India has 14 cities on the list, outpacing China, formerly considered the world’s number one air pollution source.

The only African country on the list, Chad, experienced severe dust storms in 2022 that resulted in an 18% increase in PM2.5 concentration in 2022 compared to the previous year.

The Cost of Poor Air Quality

Poor air quality is one of the leading causes of early deaths worldwide, just behind high blood pressure, tobacco use, and poor diet.

According to a 2020 study by the Health Effects Institute, 6.67 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2019.

In addition to the millions of premature deaths each year, the global cost of health damages associated with air pollution currently sits at $8.1 trillion.

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Urbanization

Visualizing the World’s Largest Steel-Producing Countries

China has dominated global steel production the past few decades, but how did the country get here, and is its production growth over?

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cropped infographic of global steel production by country in 2022

The Largest Steel-Producing Countries: Visualized

Steel is a critical component of modern industry and economy, essential for the construction of buildings, automobiles, and many other appliances and infrastructure used in our daily lives.

This graphic uses data from the World Steel Association to visualize the world’s top steel-producing countries, and highlights China’s ascent to the top, as it now makes up more than half of the world’s steel production.

The State of Global Steel Production

Global steel production in 2022 reached 1,878 million tonnes, barely surpassing the pre-pandemic production of 1,875 million tonnes in 2019.

Country2022 Production (in million tonnes)Annual Production ChangeGlobal Share
🇨🇳 China1013.0-2.0%53.9%
🇮🇳 India124.85.3%6.6%
🇯🇵 Japan89.2-7.9%4.8%
🇺🇸 United States80.5-6.5%4.3%
🇷🇺 Russia71.5-5.8%3.8%
🇰🇷 South Korea65.9-6.9%3.5%
🇩🇪 Germany36.8-8.8%2.0%
🇹🇷 Türkiye35.1-15.0%1.9%
🇧🇷 Brazil34.0-6.5%1.8%
🇮🇷 Iran30.66.8%1.6%
🇮🇹 Italy21.6-13.0%1.1%
🇹🇼 Taiwan20.7-12.1%1.1%
🇻🇳 Vietnam20.0-15.0%1.1%
🇲🇽 Mexico18.2-1.9%1.0%
🇮🇩 Indonesia15.68.3%0.8%
Rest of World201.0-11.2%10.7%
World Total1878.5-3.9%100.0%

2022’s steel production marked a significant reduction compared to the post-pandemic rebound of 1,960 million tonnes in 2021, with a year-over-year decline of 4.2%–the largest drop since 2009, and prior to that, 1991.

This decline was spread across many of the world’s top steel producers, with only three of the top fifteen countries, India, Iran, and Indonesia, increasing their yearly production. Most of the other top steel-producing countries saw annual production declines of more than 5%, with Turkey, Italy, Taiwan, and Vietnam’s production all declining by double digits.

Even the world’s top steel-producing nation, China, experienced a modest 2% decline, which due to the country’s large production amounted to a decline of 19.8 million tonnes, more than many other nations produce in a year.

Despite India, the world’s second-largest steel producer, increasing its production by 5.3%, the country’s output still amounts to just over one-tenth of the steel produced by China.

China’s Meteoric Rise in Steel Production

Although China dominates the world’s steel production with more than a 54% share today, this hasn’t always been the case.

In 1967, the World Steel Association’s first recorded year of steel production figures, China only produced an estimated 14 million tonnes, making up barely 3% of global output. At that time, the U.S. and the USSR were competing as the world’s top steel producers at 115 and 102 million tonnes respectively, followed by Japan at 62 million tonnes.

Almost three decades later in 1996, China had successively overtaken Russia, the U.S., and Japan to become the top steel-producing nation with 101 million tonnes of steel produced that year.

The early 2000s marked a period of rapid growth for China, with consistent double-digit percentage increases in steel production each year.

The Recent Decline in China’s Steel Production

Since the early 2000s, China’s average annual growth in steel production has slowed to 3.4% over the last decade (2013-2022), a considerable decline compared to the previous decade’s (2003-2012) 15.2% average annual growth rate.

The past couple of years have seen China’s steel production decline, with 2021 and 2022 marking the first time the country’s production fell for two consecutive years in a row.

While it’s unlikely China will relinquish its position as the top steel-producing nation anytime soon, it remains to be seen whether this recent decline marks the beginning of a new trend or just a brief deviation from the country’s consistent production growth.

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