China used 6.4 gigatons of cement between 2011 and 2013, two gigatons more than the US did over the course of the entire 20th century. Urbanisation and a state-owned cement industry are some of the reasons behind this staggering figure.
As the Washington Post reports, the incredible amount of cement used by China cannot be explained by the economy’s growth rate or the size of its population alone. The countries are nearly the same size in terms of geographic area and 20th century America was a time of mass infrastructure expansion as the country built almost all its roads and bridges, the Hoover Dam and many of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
One explanation is China’s unprecedented urbanisation: 60 per cent of its population will be living in cities by 2020 (compared to 20 per cent in 1978) and cities are being transformed to accommodate the influx of people. According to the Washington Post, half of China’s infrastructure has been built since 2000, including new rail networks, roads, dams, airports and high-rise apartments across the country.
Another reason is that China suffers from a relative lack of lumber and is far more dependent on cement as a building material than the US. Related to this is that many of China’s cement manufacturers are state-owned, writes the Washington Post, and therefore benefit from government support.
The dark side to China’s massive use of cement is its environmental impact: the global cement industry accounts for 5 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. What’s more, China uses low-grade cement and has low construction quality standards, which means that some of its concrete buildings may have to be demolished and replaced in as little as 20 to 30 years.
So while some like Bill Gates, who wrote about China’s cement consumption in a blog, regard cement as key to helping the world’s poorest people improve their lives, the environmental cost of economic growth may come at too high a price.