In the suburbs south of Beijing, what could one day be the world’s busiest airport is rapidly taking shape. Nicknamed “the starfish” due to the striking design by Zaha Hadid Architects, the Beijing Daxing international airport is set to open in October, and could eventually handle more than 100 million passengers a year.
While the 52,000-tonne steel exoskeleton covering the airport’s six concourses immediately catches the eye, what lies beneath is familiar to many Chinese mega-projects: concrete – 1.6m cubic metres of it.
Construction of the new airport hub started in 2014, and is one of the largest infrastructure projects initiated by the country’s president, Xi Jinping, in an effort to jumpstart China’s slowing economy and place Beijing firmly on the international stage.
What is Guardian concrete week?
This week Guardian Cities investigates the shocking impact of concrete on the planet, to learn what we can do to bring about a less grey world.
Our species is addicted to concrete. We use more of it than anything else except water. Like that other manmade wonder material, plastic, concrete transformed construction and advanced human health. But, as with plastic, we are only now waking up to its dangers.
Concrete causes up to 8% of global CO2 emissions; if it were a country it would be the world’s worst culprit after the US and China. It fills our rubbish dumps, overheats our cities, causes floods that kills thousands of people – and fundamentally changes our relationship to the planet.
Can we kick our addiction, when it’s so hard to imagine modern life without it? In this series of articles, Concrete Week will explore the impact of the material on our environment and us, and look at alternative options for the future.
Chris Michael, Cities editor
Located 67km south of the capital, the airport sprawls across 780,000 sq metres – about a third of the size of Edinburgh. It aims to process 72 million passengers a year, and will have four runways by 2025, but there is a longer-term vision for additional runways and talk of 200 million passengers. Beijing’s existing international airport in the north-east, which will stay open, already handles around 96 million passengers a year.
One group who won’t benefit from the cutting-edge contemporary design are the 20,000 people evicted from Daxing’s villages to make way for construction. Another 20 villages are slated for relocation after the airport opens due to concerns over noise pollution.
The new airport is just the latest chapter in the story of how China became the concrete superpower of the 21st century. Since 2003, China has poured more cement every two years than the US managed in the entire 20th century. Even after a dip in recent years, China uses almost half the world’s concrete. The construction sector – roads, bridges, railways, urban development and other concrete-and-steel projects – accounted for one-third of the expansion of the Chinese economy in 2017.
China is already home to the largest concrete structure in the world – the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River. Sometimes touted as China’s “new Great Wall”, the dam includes 27.2m cubic metres of concrete and its hydroelectric power station is the world’s largest power station in terms of capacity.
Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth
Like all of China’s concrete achievements, the Three Gorges Dam has been mired in controversy. Around 1.4 million people were displaced by the project, and there were complaints that the rehousing settlements were inadequate or that compensation money disappeared into local government coffers. More than 100 workers died in the construction process, and archaeological and cultural sites were flooded. None of this prevented Li Yongan, general manager of the Three Gorges Corporation, from declaring in 2006 that the dam was “the grandest project the Chinese people have undertaken in thousands of years”.
Li only had to wait seven more years to be outdone by yet another Chinese feat of concrete. In 2013, the eastern route of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project opened, connecting the Grand Canal in China’s east with the capital in the north. The project is a multi-decade plan to divert the water from China’s lush south to its arid north, where water scarcity is an acute problem. The waterway has already cost around $80bn (£61bn), making it the most expensive infrastructure project in the world. In the first phase alone, it has used more than double the amount of concrete in the Three Gorges Dam: 65m cubic metres. The project ultimately aims to transport fresh water a distance of more than 4,300km.
Such ambitious infrastructure projects require a ready and vast supply of concrete. It is a demand that has been easily met by the country’s cement supply: in 2017, China produced 2.4bn tonnes of the stuff, more than the rest of the world combined. But China’s total capacity for cement, the main ingredient in concrete, is closer to 4bn tonnes. This discrepancy is accounted for by thousands of unused or underused cement factories that litter China’s industrial heartlands, a relic of years of rampant supply-side investment, supported by cheap loans to state-owned companies that disregarded profits in favour of growth, employment and kickbacks.
China’s overcapacity problem, particularly in heavy industry, is well-documented. In February last year, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that capacity-expansion in the cement industry would be strictly off-limits for the rest of the year, with the aim of reducing capacity by a 10th by 2020.
Such curbs on production don’t yet seem to be putting a halt on China’s concrete love story, though. In October 2018, the world’s longest sea bridge, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, was officially opened by Xi. At 55km, it is also the longest fixed link in the world – 20 times the length of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It took 1.08m cubic metres of concrete, nine years and $18.3bn (£14bn) to build the snaking structure, which consists of bridges, artificial islands and tunnels.
A brief history of concrete: from 10,000BC to 3D printed houses
In China, where concrete goes, controversy follows. The first hiccup in the mega-bridge was a specifically concrete-related one. In December 2017, a Hong Kong laboratory technician was jailed for eight months for falsifying concrete compression test results for the bridge. Ray Chan, a Hong Kong lawmaker, said the scandal “created a crisis of trust in the [Hong Kong] government’s ability to monitor and ensure the credibility of large-scale construction projects”, reported the Hong Kong Free Press.
But the crisis of trust was not just about safety standards. The million cubic metres of concrete also represent mainland China’s growing reach into the supposedly autonomous regions of Macau and Hong Kong. Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said last year that the bridge was a “politically driven mega-project without urgent need”, given the existing transport links between Hong Kong and the mainland. Others have called it a “white elephant” and an unfair burden on Hong Kong taxpayers.
China’s concrete mania shows little sign of abating. High-rise apartments are constantly being added to the cities’ edges to accommodate the never-ending flow of migrants from the countryside, and headline projects such as the new Beijing airport or the Hong Kong bridge are considered prestigious achievements.
On a more humble scale, the world’s longest 3D-printed concrete bridge was unveiled in Shanghai earlier this year. It is a feat of engineering, constructed from 176 individual 3D printed concrete units.
As Xu Weiguo, the architect of the 3D bridge, says: “It’s very easy to get and widely used in construction projects.” After all, he adds, “concrete is the cheapest construction material in China”.
Guardian Concrete Week investigates the shocking impact of concrete on the modern world. Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use the hashtag #GuardianConcreteWeek to join the discussion or sign up for our weekly newsletter
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