Will it make Greta happy?

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It’s back to work for many in Europe this week following the summer break and so too for the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) with the release of its 2050 Climate Ambition mission statement. Talk about setting the bar high for the rest of us struggling to remember how to log into our computers! The short version is that the association aspires to deliver society with carbon neutral concrete by 2050. The actual detail will be published in the second half of 2021.

What it does say is that, “detailed actions and milestones” will be set out in the forthcoming roadmap. This will include, “working across the built environment value chain to deliver the vision of carbon neutral concrete in a circular economy, whole life context.” This focus on concrete and end-product life-cycles looks likely to be the wriggle room cement and building materials producers need to actually meet the goal. To put it another way, as the press release helpfully reminds us, things that people need are made out of concrete. So, until a viable alternative to clinker turns up, the cost in CO2 emissions needs to be spread as far and wide as possible. At the same time everyone needs to be continually told how much they need cementitious products: don’t think of the CO2 released to build your new house. Rather: think of the CO2 saved annually by living in a well-constructed dwelling, as opposed to the alternatives, and consider what happens to the concrete once the structure is demolished.

A few ideas of what strategies the roadmap may use to reach its target are revealed. This is fairly standard current thinking including: cutting direct energy-related emissions; increasing co-processing; increased renewable electricity usage; reducing process emissions through new technologies and deployment of carbon capture at scale; reducing the content of both clinker in cement and cement in concrete; more efficient use of concrete in construction; reprocessing concrete from construction and demolition waste to produce recycled aggregates; and quantifying and enhancing the level of CO2 uptake of concrete through recarbonation in a circular economy, whole life context.

It’s early days yet, with the roadmap not due for at least a year, but deploying carbon capture methods at scale will be expensive and difficult. Whatever target the GCCA sets here will be keenly observed, especially so given that the association is a global concern. So far carbon capture in the cement industry has generally been linked to regions with market or legislative encouragement. How, for example, would a producer in a country with low environmental restrictions react to its peers trying to get it to make cement production more expensive? The rest of the points seems more tangible at the moment but will require lots of work to realise. They are also interlinked and this reinforces the need for someone to continually remind society about the life cycle of concrete. Taking concrete recycling into the mainstream is great but the world has to be told that it is happening.

This last point brings us to the perceived success of the GCCA’s ambitions: will a successfully realised strategy to make carbon neutral concrete by 2050 be enough to make environmental activists like Greta Thunberg happy? Probably not. Pure environmentalists seem unlikely to accept whole lifecycle thinking while limestone decomposition in kilns continues without capture or cessation. Even if the cement and concrete industries hit the target they will have to shake off the taint that the achievement was at least partly down to sneaky carbon accounting. Suddenly saying that concrete buildings have been sucking up CO2 all along and that the industry is now, say, 20% closer to its carbon neutral target may feel like cheating to some observers. Step forward a global association to say otherwise. The need for industry associations making the case for the sector’s aspirations seems more essential than ever.

Last modified on 02 September 2020

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