transition is materials increase… (=energy)

Last month the OECD published its report with the latest figures on material consumption worldwide. [1] Currently that is 79 GigaTon of materials per year, and we are going to 167 Gt (!) in 2060. Every year. This includes a doubling of biomass use, and even greater for metals, from 8 Gt to 20 Gt . And yes, global population will grow, but even then the use per person of about 30 kg (per day!) goes up to 45 kg per day per person …. And those figures already include the benefits to be gained through technology improvement (including recycling) and a shift to more services instead of products. Otherwise the total would be 283 Gt. And we still have to wait and see if it really happens, with that technology and services. Moreover, the figures are a global average. Here in Western Europe, the figures per person are much higher.


It will not be surprising that the largest share of growth globally comes from construction activities: in the next decades we will continue to build as many cities as there are already in total ….

Incidentally, the largest share of resources in construction activities is in sand and gravel. Sand, a scarce commodity, for which a mafia is already active in many parts of the world. [2] The consumption of wood for construction triples and copper, one of the metals with a high impact and desperately needed for the energy transition, is going to double. That means, with declining ore saturation, the energy to be invested per clean kg of copper will triple or quadruple To highlight just a few examples. By the way, there are many figures used about global CO2 emissions from concrete, in this report the OECD comes to 9% of all CO2 emissions, from concrete alone.

Apart from autonomous growth, a large share of this material increase is caused by our energy transition, such as thousands of wind turbines, at 1 million kilos each (2 MW land turbine) [3]

Which are also needed for various functions or devices in our household costs. As previous calculations for the ‘windmill index’ showed, [4] to provide our laundry dryers with renewable energy, we already need 500 turbines, (at 100% penetration), or 0.5 Gton of material.

Which not even counting the dryers themselves. And if we want to replace those with more energy efficient dryers, that also results in an increase in the use of materials.

The same with electric cars: this transition pushes the amount of new material to great heights: All cars to be replaced with a new car (now about 1 billion driving around), plus 2 billion extra for people who can buy a car for the first time. Add to that the wind farms and solar panels to feed them with electricity, and a completely new charging infrastructure. Huge batteries per car, plus hundreds of thousands charge points. Because we want to be able to ‘refuel’ everywhere and always. A bit of planning is often too much to ask. I still remember my parents always driving around with a spare tank of gas, because you never know. And we sometimes needed it.

And as an earlier survey revealed, retrofitting all Dutch homes to a near 0-energy standard requires more material ( related CO2 emissions) as we can afford under the 1.5 degree scenario. [5]

All those energy-driven changes are shifting the problem to immense use of materials. And for the time being also to huge emissions from the material production industry.

It is the same effect as we have seen in energy transitions before: the transition from labor, and supported by hundreds of thousands of horses, to fossils in the industrial revolution also required a completely new infrastructure and related products. [6] Moreover, not only replacement products, but also introducing many new products that did not exist before. We will now experience that again.

The conclusion is not that we should not make that energy transition, but that the only thing that counts is less use of energy (in general, not just fossil!) , and materials together, and therefore aim for fewer products and less consumption in general .




There was a justified reaction by Han Schnijders to this article, stating that this concerns only the direct end-use. In the mining industry, a multitude of materials is moved to get to the raw materials, which often disappear into the background as waste in many forms. (Also known as Ruck Sack) Humanity generally moves more material together than terrestrial systems, volcanic  tectonics and erosion. And with ores containing fewer and fewer metals, that “useless” share of raw materials is growing enormously. The ecology and landscapes are therefore severely affected.


1 OECD Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060, febr 2019

2 The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, 2018, Vince Beiser, Penguin.

3 Chaouki Ghenai (2012). Life Cycle Analysis of Wind Turbine, Sustainable Development – Energy, Engineering and Technologies – Manufacturing and Environment, Prof. Chaouki Ghenai (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-51-0165-9,

InTech, Available from:


5 chapter 3.1

6 Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, ,2018, MIT press, isbn 0262035774.

Author: ronald rovers