A green recovery and a carbon neutral future is possible – but needs the whole construction value chain to play a positive role. By Dr. Andrew Minson
The Panama Canal, the Sydney Opera House, the Pentagon, the Burj Khalifa, and the Three Gorges Dam. The unifying building material in these world-renowned human-made marvels is concrete, the central substance that holds our world together. As the most widely used material on our planet after water, concrete is essential to our society – supporting the infrastructure we use every day such as bridges, roads, homes, hospitals and energy supplies. We use concrete because it is so useful – strong, versatile, resilient, fire resistant, with excellent thermal and acoustic properties. It is also surprisingly sustainable – made locally (including the cement), the structures it creates can last for generations, and over its lifetime concrete re-absorbs and retains CO2 from the atmosphere.
Our response to the climate challenge
We know concrete is needed, both now and in the future, but we also know that it comes with a significant challenge that we need to address, namely climate change. Cement, the key binding ingredient in concrete, accounts for about seven per cent of global CO2 emissions.
Over the past three decades, the industry has reduced its emissions proportionally by around 20 per cent. Ours was the first industry to collect and publish emissions data of this kind. These reductions represent a huge effort from producers across the world, but we know we need to build on this success and extend these reductions.
That is why in September last year, 40 of the leading cement and concrete companies represented by the Global Cement and Concrete Association announced a global climate ambition to drive down the carbon footprint of their operations and products to provide carbon neutral concrete by 2050.
This represents a critical milestone for the industry. It is the first time it has come together globally to state a collective ambition for a carbon neutral future, and we are fully committed to working right across the built environment value chain to deliver this aspiration in a circular economy, whole life context.
2050 Roadmap to a carbon neutral future
Work is well underway to develop a 2050 Roadmap, which will set out the pathway and milestones necessary to achieving our ambition. Producing a Roadmap is a significant and complex undertaking, and we will be among the first industries to do so when we complete ours at the end of the year.
Our Roadmap will outline all the levers across the entire value chain that will be required to reach our goal of carbon neutral concrete. In cement manufacture, this includes the ingredients, kiln technology, new binders and reducing fossil fuel use at every stage. In the use of concrete, we need to look at how we unlock its performance benefits such as its thermal mass, ability to act as a carbon sink, and also how we design buildings that maximize its efficiencies, minimize waste and build in the ability to re-use concrete, or where necessary recycle it.
Recycling and reusing material from demolition sites will play an increasingly important role – concrete’s recyclability is one of its great sustainability benefits, but this means shifting perceptions to see concrete and cement not only as products to be produced, but as crucial components in a circular economy with a broader life-cycle context.
The adoption of policies and practices that encourage the circular economy, particularly recycling of construction materials, should not be contentious and would be eagerly supported by the industry.
As a final measure towards carbon neutrality, some CO2 will need to be captured, re-used if possible, or stored as a last resort – (CCUS). The industry is well on its way with various trials showing the technology works and there are several live projects in North America, China and Europe.
Research and innovation will clearly be key – our Innovandi Research network is bringing together academia and industry from around the world to collaborate to accelerate the development of crucial solutions. Innovandi brings together more than 30 companies from across the cement and concrete industry and supply chain – manufacturers, admixture specialists, and equipment and technology suppliers – along with 40 renowned scientific institutions from across the world.
We know we won’t achieve carbon neutral concrete or build a net zero economy alone – such a wide-reaching material that touches all corners of society requires input at multiple levels. We want to work actively and closely across industry, with policymakers, investors, designers, end users and governments to help shape the transformation.
This includes calling for a level-playing field in building material assessment. We believe it is important to accurately and transparently measure all carbon emissions of all potential building materials’ emissions throughout their lifecycle.
We believe concrete is already a highly sustainable building material across its lifetime and with our ambition to make it carbon neutral, we are certain it has a defining role in building the sustainable world of tomorrow.
The industry is making bold changes today that will help us build both the marvels and the practical essentials of the future, to make them stand stronger and last longer and ensure that they’re worthy of the world they’ll represent.
Dr Andrew Minson is Concrete and Sustainable Construction Director at the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA). The GCCA is the trusted, authoritative platform and voice for the cement and concrete sector across the world. Dr Minson leads GCCA’s work promoting the sustainability value of concrete in the future of construction. This includes improving understanding of concrete’s lifecycle and its role in the circular economy. He also leads work with industry partners developing new global sustainability guidelines for concrete. Andrew is a member of the GCCA executive team.