Half of the global population already lives in cities – by 2050 two thirds of the world's people are expected to live in urban areas. The global population is at 7.2 billion, it is growing by 1billion every 12 years. By 2050 there should be 10 billion souls on this planet and the equivalent of nearly the current world population will be in urban areas with a need to be housed, nourished and have transport.
This is not an article on overpopulation – that's for another day. This is about the damage caused to the earth by providing for such huge populations. There are cries made about climate change and the realization it is man-made, yet no thought is really given as to why the seas are rising, why islands are disappearing, why the coastal millionaires' rows are falling into the sea and what can actually be done slow down our demise – if not prevent it. We don’t need ‘strong signals’ – we need practical ways to turn the ship around!
To accommodate such huge population numbers, the wilderness disappears, crop growing farmland is commandeered for housing, seas are over fished, and nobody has heard a bird sing in Shanghai for years and of course people live closer to forests and when bushfires occur major loss is experienced.
In business, when management wants to implement change, it often holds a general meeting of all its staff and asks for the people to “work with me”. The Bible says “he who is not with me is against me...”.
Nature can't vocalize those demands and we, as the inhabitants of this planet, work much more against nature than with it, and yet we are surprised by the consequences when they make an appearance – often at a stage of irreversible damage. There is always press about rising sea levels, climate change and reducing greenhouse gases – but no one really gives too much thought to the root causes of any of these facets of consequential damage created by us – the human race- living on planet earth.
I'm hopeful that this series may provide some insights into how we are unconsciously damaging the planet and how we can help bring the real culprits to heel- if we really want to. To do any of this we have to change our way of life and the way we think.
In the previous article the reader was alerted to the need to change living circumstances – accommodation types. Particularly ridding the Earth of concrete. It is the destroyer of the planet. It consists of mainly three components- cement, water and sand.
The Construction Industry and Economics
With the dawn of the first industrial revolution, around the late eighteen hundreds, as coal, steam, energy and labour enhancing machines came to the fore, a group of academics wanted to make sense of how the markets reacted to the new outputs. They introduced a new discipline – Economics. And from that time we have been saddled with a subjective discipline that the whole political world puts its faith in, yet which at best has always been faulty, at worst is a disaster. In the 21st Century there is enough serious scientific evidence in thermodynamics to relegate Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say et al, the developers of Economics, to its ‘past use by’ date.
You will notice it is referred to as a discipline, few call this a science – in reality it is a subjective thinking process based on absurd assumptions and controversial mathematics that no two economists will agree to. Economists are not scientists – measure and test? No. They are more ‘that’s a pretty colour’. The policy makers of the western world appear to be professors of economics. If you’ve spent anytime in a university, you’ll be very much aware – professors of any school are generally show-offs, endeavouring to get one up on their collegiate competitors. Usually they write papers, but what better stage than to be the advisor to a country’s leader, major world bank, or god forbid, a whole cabinet of government ministers?
As a result of these misguided appointments we get the Financial Crisis, The Great Depression, necessity for balanced budgets, inflation concerns, the need for “MORE”, over population and globalization.
Leaders, I believe, use these people because they themselves don’t have the requisite skills, often people in these positions are lawyers not market manipulators and there’s that old adage – you can’t be fired for buying IBM. Economists are expected to think outside the box and magically solve problems– it’s never going to happen - because a box is a mathematical structure with empirical facts, anathema to economists. It does however, become a huge obstruction when people are trying to change the world to basically save our own skins.
The Construction Industry
The construction industry is a major contributor to our demise – it pollutes the air, the waterways, the landfill sites and worst of all our minds. Big business, courtesy of the economists, brainwashes us to believe the only way to live is in concrete boxes; the only roads to build are from concrete or bitumen; the only windows we should use are made from glass. All of these things are nonsense, but economists, their political masters and others whose fortunes depend on us “buying it”, are going to make it hard to change.
The construction industry accounts for more than one third of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and produces nearly 40 percent of all human-generated waste.
There are three precious commodities on this earth – air, water and sand. The construction industry impacts them all to a large extent.
For years, not much thought was given to these vital commodities. Then air pollution was addressed – or at least monitored; water became a scarce commodity and yet councils still ban the installation of private water tanks and water collection; but sand?? It’s free and there’s masses of it – I hear you say. Well the world is running out of sand.
Sand is a non-renewable resource. A 2014 report by the UN estimates that globally, more than 40 billion tonnes of sand and gravel are extracted every year. Mining that quantity of sand annually is unsustainable.
Sand is now a scarce resource because of the boom in construction of skyscrapers, and countries wishing to expand their terra firma footprint– Singapore, Dubai and China’s reclamation of the Spratley and Paracels Islands as examples. You can at least tell those millionaires losing their coastal mansions why they fall into the sea… erosion due to over mining of sand.
The voracious need for roads, tunnels, houses, apartments, window and door glass, mobile phones and computers has driven the extraction of sand and gravel to unprecedented levels and being a free resource the control of its extraction is limited. View the video Sand Wars by Denis Delestrac.
The sand you and your children play with at the beach is probably 500million years old, so if we run out – it can’t be replaced tomorrow.
The majority of sand starts off as rocks, quartz, it comes from mountains via rivers and streams where they are pounded into ever decreasing sized tors which eventually find their way to the sea, where the tumbling and churning continues. Well that’s how it used to work. Along came man and stuffed up nature’s perfectly honed method of making sand.
Dams have been installed all over the world preventing rivers getting to the sea. Tasmania, is a small island just below the 40th parallel in Australia. It is 68,401 km² in area, forested and mountainous with a population of around 500,000. There are 84 large dams (15 metres or more in height) and many hundreds of smaller ones. In America there are over 91,000 dams preventing 970,000 km (600,000 miles) of rivers getting to the sea. That’s about 17% of rivers in the nation. According to the World Commission on Dams in 2000, there were 22,104 dams over the height of 15 m (49 ft) operating in China. Of course, they have the three gorges dam, which used the most concrete ever poured, to dam the Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world – 6300 km (3,915 miles). The Yangtze river has its source on the Tibetan Plains and is fed by innumerable lakes and tributaries, all of this water is sand making – yet it is all impounded at the Three Gorges Dam. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of sand - blocked forever. And so it is around the world, dams preventing the passage of sand to the sea.
Two of the three precious commodities, water and sand, are needed to make the most commonly used construction material on earth and the second most consumed substance – Concrete. Each year, on average, three tons of concrete are consumed by every person on the planet.
Concrete is actually the final product made from cement and sand – it requires one part cement and two parts sand and 4 parts aggregate (rocks not yet sand).
Cement accounts for around 8% of global carbon dioxide ( CO2) emissions.
Producing a ton of cement requires 4.7 million BTU of energy, equivalent to about 400 pounds ( divide by 2.2 for kilos) of coal, and generates nearly a ton of CO2.
The 2019 estimated annual consumption of concrete is upwards of 23.4 billion tonnes and growing.
The percentage for the three components to make concrete is roughly
15% cement, 30% sand, 45% gravel, 5% (150 litres H2O).
The manufacture of cement requires firstly the destruction of the planet’s limestone resource; then the colossal amount of energy required for conversion ( from power stations using fossil fuels to generate their output); then the almost 1:1 CO2 emission.
2019 concrete production equates to :-
3.51billion tonnes of cement; PLUS 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2 vented to atmosphere,
639 billion tonnes of coal equivalent in energy expended;
7 billion tonnes of sand,
10.53 billion tonnes of gravel(aka sand);
1.15 billion tonnes of water.
Concrete alone, should never be used for any structural member.
That’s ridiculous! I hear you say. My whole apartment building is made from concrete. My sister’s floors in her house are made from concrete!
If you watched your sister’s concrete floor being made- poured- you would have noticed steel mesh and in your apartment building rebars (reinforcement steel rods) would have gone into the posts(pillars) along with mesh (reinforcement steel mesh) on the floors.
There is a reason for this.
In engineering terms, concrete is very strong in compression – that is trying to push it together – it resists it admirably; however, its tensile strength- that is the trying to pull apart - is exceptionally weak. It will crack and break without any warning – commonly called a brittle break. The addition of the steel reinforcement to the concrete changes the failure mode to what is called a ductile. If the concrete cracks it takes some time and before there is a complete loss of strength and hopefully time enough rectify the faults prior to a disaster.
We therefore have another pollutant in concrete…. Steel.
Everyone surely has seen the videos of the conversion of iron ore to pig iron. Blast furnaces that operate on a continuous production basis and are fuelled by coke (coal), electricity and gas. Yet again limestone (CaCo3) is used in the reduction process. The blast furnace uses so much energy and takes so long to come up to temperature once at working conditions, it is not turned off.
According to the World Steel Association in 2019, ‘on average, 20 GJ of energy is consumed per tonne of crude steel produced globally. The most efficient steel companies have reduced their energy consumption per tonne of steel by around 60% since 1960.
Today (Feb 2019), it is estimated that the global steel industry used about 2 billion tonnes of iron ore, 1 billion tonnes of metallurgical coal and 575 million tonnes of recycled steel to produce about 1.7 billion tonnes of crude steel’.
The steel industry producers are also large takers of water, although little is consumed, as the water is for cooling, descaling - though not large users, they certainly are water polluters. The average water intake for integrated plants is 28.6 m3 per metric ton of steel, with average discharges at 25.3 m3/t. The overall water consumption per metric ton, is low, at 1.6-3.3 m3.
Apart from steel, sand, cement and water, concrete buildings also have at least several other features –glass windows and oft times aluminium facades and window frames.
In addition, there is the hard stand around the buildings – roads, footpaths(sidewalks), and parking lots. The roads and parking areas made from either bitumen or concrete.
Most of the concrete production is used in residential construction – apartment buildings, condominiums, houses, row houses, shopping malls and office blocks, that means glass windows, window frames doors with frames.
Glass is heavy, fragile, easily transmits cold and heat and dangerous to work with.
It is also a fluid – although it looks like a solid. So what is glass?
Silica (SiO2 ).
What is the common name for SiO2? SAND.
74% of glass is Sand. It is also used in mobile phones, computer chips, bitumen for roads, and as the aggregate the base for forming a road. In 2020 Queensland, Australia is unable to source sufficient aggregate for its roads.
The Glass industry is an intense user of energy. A number of years ago the usage figure was 18 to 20 million Btu/ton of finished product. There have been significant improvements in production, the figure today is closer 10 to 12 Btu/ton of finished product. Still a significant energy use, provided by power generating entities, which will likely be oil or gas fuelled.
There is also an excellent alternative to glass and it is not made from sand – polycarbonate. Lightweight, better thermal insulating properties and it doesn’t smash. The frames for windows could be much lighter, the products handled more easily and safely.
We come to the last of the major components of a concrete structure. Steel reo bars. Everyone surely has seen the videos of the conversion of iron ore to pig iron. Blast furnaces that operate on a continuous production basis and are fuelled by coke (coal), electricity and gas. Yet again limestone (CaCo3) is used in the reduction process. The blast furnace uses so much energy and takes so long to come up to temperature once at working conditions, it is not turned off.
How about we put all these facts into context?
Buildings have gone from moderate size to bragging rights as to who can construct the tallest monstrosity, or the most spectacular, without too much consideration given to the inhabitants of them, the environment they are constructed in, or even the raw materials required to construct them.
Dubai lays claim to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. While I'm sure the Arabs went with an open cheque book, the actual lack of social responsibility can be laid squarely at the feet of the designers Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), an American firm. They have been pioneers in skyscraper design. Is that something to crow about – history will tell?
Now let’s look at the Burj Khalifa and put some of these figures into bite size pieces. The Burj Khalifa tops out at 829.8 metres. It is located in Dubai, The United Arab Emirates- a sand nation. It is impossible to used desert sand for construction, road making, computer chip manufacture, glass bottles, windows.
Sharp sand (beach sand, SiO2), is required.
The foundations were tested to be “weak to very weak sandstone and siltstone”. For this building to withstand sandstorms and possible earthquakes, 45,000cubic metres of concrete weighing more than 110,000 tonnes were used to construct the steel and concrete foundations- oh and what water they have there, at 50 metres deep, is sulphate and chloride rich – great for eating concrete and steel – so a cathodic protection system under the concrete had to be installed. The actual building used 330,000 cubic metres of concrete with a probable weight of 806,667 tonnes.
15% of 806,667 tonnes is 121,000 tonnes of cement. That's 568,700 million BTU's or 22 million tonnes of coal and 121,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – Just for the cement.
Add to this 55,000 tonnes of steel reo, plus glass and aluminium for163 floors, 174,000 square metres of glass, plus cladding. Each glass panel weighs 362Kg. The empty building weight is 500,000 tonnes.
The reason for this tower? To show to the world that Dubai has grown from a regional centre to a global one. Yet it was 8 years away from women being allowed to legally drive! Many other rules are less than stellar for a ‘global centre’.
I can't recall groups, or any protesters for that matter, standing at the bottom of this building demanding cessation of work to prevent climate change.
We can but hope that the era for these monstrosities is over.
Austria and Norway are building skyscrapers, 84 metre tall, from wood. The wood is sourced from their respective forests and processed into cross-laminated timber (CLT). This is made from at least 3 layers of timber glued together crosswise. The beams are used as static load bearing, as well as non-load bearing elements. They are lighter that solid timbers, can be made from offcuts. Clearly, this is an improvement on concrete. Alas, the glues employed are toxic and glass windows are still used.
This system can be readily converted to a green, non-toxic building system. There are alternatives, which will be presented in a future article.
The timber barons don’t escape mention. After all it was a forester who first coined the phrase Sustainable Development – Hans Carl von Carlowitz. He called for timber to be sparingly used to enable the forest to regenerate and naturally sustain itself. In this instance it would appear the deforestation comes from Asia, South America and Australia (that didn’t have a great many forests to start with!).
It has to be said that Sweden’s forests and timber industry appears to manage its forests best, the country is the fourth largest exporter of timber. In 1903 it introduced the Swedish Forestry Act, which ostensibly states anyone cutting down a forest has to regenerate it. The myriad of hikers, bikers, campers, skiiers seem to keep a close eye on what happens in their forests. Companies wishing to log sections of the forest must submit a plan and this is open for public criticism and debate.
Such practices could well be adopted in Australia, Asia, Brazil and no doubt the United States of America.
In Australia, old growth forests that have taken hundreds years to grow, Huon Pine, King Billy Pine, Blackwood, Karri, Jarrah , Marri, Yarri– expensive furniture timber trees areclear felled and shipped to Japan for chipping, or in Tasmania’s case drowned by flooding Lake Peddar. These tactics have been so effective – there is no longer any old growth jarrah.
( The government bodies will argue to the contrary). Protesters are neither entertained nor heard.
In Malaysia 52% of its jungle has been destroyed since 1960. Originally it was claimed told that for developing nations to develop they need to chop down forests, for housing and agriculture, there is a modicum of truth in that, however, the reality is that the largest proportion of forests disappearing are not for the people, but for opportunists to make squillions of dollars, to the detriment of the rest of the planet. The illegal loggers of Indonesia, and the irresponsible Malaysian Palm Oil industrialists
Since 1970, the Brazilian rainforest, that started off at 4.1 million square kilometres , has lost 801.5 square kilometres of forest – that’s 20% of the forest, due to deforestation. Both legal and illegal. At one point the Brazilian government paid loggers to take out the trees to make way for cattle grazing land. They didn’t want cattle to fees their own population, they want wanted to export them. The planet lost an irreplaceable natural resource so Brazil could become the largest beef exporter in the world…
The Amazon as a whole has suffered the same fate, Sumatra jungle wrecked by illegal loggers. It is expected by 2030 the forest will have disappeared.
These acts of vandalism are driven by greed, not survival, and the ever depressing need for “MORE”...