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.
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.
Mapped: The World’s Next Megacities by 2030
Where will the world’s next megacities be by 2030?
What is a Megacity?
In 1800, less than 10% of people lived in urban areas. Today, more than 4.3 billion people or 55% of the world’s population live in urban settings.
Mass migration from rural areas to urban centers gives rise to megacities—cities housing more than 10 million people, which are often the centers of economic activity in a given country. New York and Tokyo were the first to be recognized as megacities in the 1950s. Today, there are 32 megacities across the globe, and this number is set to grow.
The above graphic uses data from UN World Urbanization Prospects (2018) to map cities that are projected to turn into megacities by 2030.
The World’s Next Megacities
In most high-income countries including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, and those in the Middle East, over 80% of the population live in urban areas. By contrast, in many low-income countries, the majority still live in rural settings, and the potential for urbanization remains high.
Therefore, many of the up-and-coming megacities are in developing countries.
|City||Country||2022 Population||2030P Population||% Increase From 2022|
|Seoul||South Korea 🇰🇷||9,975,709||10,163,000||1.90%|
|Ho Chi Minh City||Vietnam 🇻🇳||9,077,158||11,054,000||21.80%|
|Dar es Salaam||Tanzania 🇹🇿||7,404,689||10,789,000||45.70%|
The fastest-growing cities—Dar es Salaam and Luanda—are both in Sub-Saharan Africa. Luanda is the capital city of Angola and among the 10 wealthiest cities in Africa. Dar es Salaam is the largest city and financial hub of Tanzania, and by 2100, it’s projected to be the third-most populous city globally.
Furthermore, five of the nine projected megacities are located in Asia.
Chengdu, located in Southwestern China, has been an attractive destination for foreign investment. As of 2020, 305 of the world’s 500 largest companies had operations in the city. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the fastest-growing Asian city on the list. In 2019, HCMC accounted for roughly 23% of Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP), highlighting its position as the main commercial hub.
Upon comparing the per capita GDPs of the countries listed above, London and Seoul are the two outliers, located in the wealthiest countries.
|Country||GDP per capita (2020, current US$)|
|South Korea 🇰🇷||$31,631.5|
Source: World Bank
Both South Korea and the UK have a higher GDP per capita than the rest of the countries combined, and more than 80% of their population live in urban areas. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Seoul and London have the lowest growth rates among projected megacities. By contrast, cities in Angola and Tanzania—the two lowest-income countries—are projected to grow by over 35% from 2022 to 2030.
The Urbanization Megatrend
The global urban population has been climbing for decades, while the rural population has started stagnating.
In 2007, the number of people living in urban areas eclipsed that of rural areas, and the gap is expected to widen. The UN projects that by 2050, 68% of the world will live in urban areas. Only a few countries are expected to have more people living in rural areas than urban settings, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Where will the new megacities beyond 2030 be?
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