Conor O’Riain, Managing Director at Ecocem, explores how the construction industry is using sustainability measures to contribute to net zero goals
Reducing cement industry emissions by half
Concrete is the most used man-made material on Earth and arguably the most important. It is critical for putting roofs over the heads of billions, and essential for providing structure for healthcare, clean energy, sanitation, transport, education, and workplaces all around the world – undoubtedly, because it is strong, durable, affordable, practical, and can take any shape.
Cement, which is used to make concrete, is almost ubiquitous to the point of anonymity. It is everywhere, and yet, concerningly, many fail to notice its environmental impact.
Far more than 50% of a commercial building’s lifetime CO2 footprint can be emitted during its construction – before anybody even walks into the building for the first time. A large proportion of these emissions will be attributed to cement, making it a key contributor to a building’s total lifetime CO2 footprint.
In all, the cement industry is responsible for seven per cent of global CO2 emissions. To put that in perspective, if it was a country, the industry would be the third biggest source of CO2 emissions – the same as India, and behind China and the United States.
According to the IPCC, to limit global warming to 1.5-2°C, global CO2 emissions must fall by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Currently, cement emissions are down only about 20% based on 1990 levels.
Near-term emissions reduction levers are almost exhausted, projecting further reduction of only around 1% per year from 2017 to 2030. Cumulatively, this means that the industry is on track for a reduction of less than 30% – well short of where we need to be.
The challenge is two-fold. Firstly, cement manufacturing is very energy intensive. Secondly, cement is made by burning limestone (at 1,450ºC), and when burned, limestone emits significant amounts of CO2, as a result of a chemical reaction.
Overall, every tonne of cement manufactured emits almost one tonne of CO2. Two-thirds of CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing come from the limestone burning process. The remaining third of emissions come from the energy required for the process.
As such, even 100% renewable energy will only reduce emissions in cement manufacturing by one third. Therefore, we need to use an alternative for the limestone burning process.
The cement and construction industries are developing and deploying a range of emission reduction technologies to tackle this challenge. At Ecocem, we aim to be at the vanguard of these efforts.
We deliver high-performance, cost-effective technology that significantly reduces CO2 emissions in the cement and construction industries.
Our new ultra-low carbon cement technology, developed in partnership with Vinci, has already been used on Vinci’s headquarters in Paris and is set to be used in two major upcoming Paris projects – the Athletes’ Village for summer 2024 and the Grand Paris Express.
Through our work on such projects, we have already achieved a cumulative reduction in CO2 emissions of almost 14 million tonnes – equivalent to taking more than three million cars off the road.
Investing in innovation
We are part of a network of partners and stakeholders across the industry, from universities to construction companies, working to accelerate the development of new technology and products that will help reach solutions to decarbonise production even more quickly.
It is widely suggested that the cement and concrete production process is one of the most complex industries to decarbonise, and that existing technologies in widespread commercial use are limited past this decade in their ability to cut emissions.
However, we believe the answer is relatively simple – in theory at least. The industry needs to tackle the root cause of the problem by manufacturing alternative cements that minimise, or exclude altogether, the chemical reaction that occurs with traditional cement manufacture. Solutions have existed for many years, but their problem has been scalability. With exciting innovations, this is changing.
Combining alternative cement usage with energy efficiency improvement and carbon capture would lead to rapid decarbonisation of the cement sector. However, to achieve this, significant attention and investment will be required. This is why environmentally focused innovation funds such as the Breakthrough Energy Fund (BEV), which Ecocem is backed by, will be crucial to the industry’s ability to develop.
While we’re hopeful that government action will also begin to have an impact, with the potential for countries to set carbon prices and other policies, the real possibility of leading the world to net-zero emissions will come from innovation directly within our industry. If this is to happen, private investment will be key.
People may believe that the cement industry is one of the hardest to abate industries, but it is a challenge that can be met. To do so though, we must work together, and adopt technology urgently, widely, effectively, and globally.
We must be committed to this deep and rapid decarbonisation. It is essential for the planet and future generations, and ultimately, the sustainability of all.
LinkedIn: Ecocem Ireland Ltd