In this paper, we review the energy requirements to make materials on a global scale by focusing on the five construction materials that dominate energy used in material production: steel, cement, paper, plastics and aluminium. We then estimate the possibility of reducing absolute material production energy by half, while doubling production from the present to 2050. The goal therefore is a 75 per cent reduction in energy intensity. Four technology-based strategies are investigated, regardless of cost: (i) widespread application of best available technology (BAT), (ii) BAT to cutting-edge technologies, (iii) aggressive recycling and finally, and (iv) significant improvements in recycling technologies. Taken together, these aggressive strategies could produce impressive gains, of the order of a 50–56 per cent reduction in energy intensity, but this is still short of our goal of a 75 per cent reduction. Ultimately, we face fundamental thermodynamic as well as practical constraints on our ability to improve the energy intensity of material production. A strategy to reduce demand by providing material services with less material (called ‘material efficiency’) is outlined as an approach to solving this dilemma.