A net-zero world needs zero-carbon concrete. Here’s how to do it

By Anthony Robert Hobley, Co-Executive Director, Mission Possible Partnership & Dinah Mcleod, CEO, Global Cement and Concrete Association | July 22, 2021

A sustainable, zero-carbon global economy will, literally and figuratively, rest on concrete. It is the world’s most-used building material. It is ubiquitous, versatile, affordable, durable, strong and recyclable – and is the second-most consumed substance in the world, after water. It will provide the foundations for our green energy systems, for climate-resilient infrastructure, for safe, healthy, and secure housing, for clean water and for low-carbon transportation around the world. It will be central to meeting many of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals.

But concrete has a significant carbon challenge. The concrete and cement sector currently accounts for 7% of global carbon emissions – predominantly from the chemical reaction that essentially turns limestone into cement, but also from the energy used to produce the high temperatures needed to make it, as well as a smaller amount from its transportation. To meet the needs of a growing, more urbanized, and affluent global population, production is forecast to grow by as much as 38% by 2050 if no intervention is made to use it more efficiently through design, re-use and recycling.

The industry has long recognized it needs to act. Since 1990, it has reduced the carbon intensity of its product by 20%. Last year, the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) published its Climate Ambition Statement, which sets a target of delivering carbon-neutral concrete by 2050. It brought together 40 of the world’s leading cement and concrete companies (accounting for around 40% of global clinker production), signing up for what will be a challenging transition to eliminate the sector’s climate impact.

This statement is a recognition of the growing urgency of the climate crisis. It is a response to the industry’s customers, who are looking to their suppliers to help them reduce their emissions. It provides an answer to the investor community, which is also becoming increasingly sensitive to the climate crisis. And it is the right thing to do for societies around the world that will continue to need this vital material to develop and thrive.

Opportunities from innovation

The sector has a suite of options that can help to bring down its carbon footprint. Alternative fuels and the electrification of kilns can drive fossil fuels out of its energy use. Its transport infrastructure can be decarbonized. Efficiency of material use can be maximized, buildings repurposed, and recycling can be promoted (concrete is 100% recyclable). Clinker (the main emitting ingredient of cement) is already being substituted with alternative materials where possible, and this can be extended in the coming years along with novel cement use. Carbon-capture technology can also be employed to manage unavoidable process emissions.

But the goal the industry has set is not one it can reach on its own. That is why the GCCA has joined forces with the World Economic Forum to launch the Concrete Action for Climate(CAC) initiative as part of the Mission Possible Partnership (MPP).

The initiative is one of seven high-ambition platforms the MPP is creating with carbon-intensive but essential industry sectors. Each of these platforms is designed to trigger transformational change by bringing together industry-leading companies, their customers, suppliers, investors and policy-makers through cross-industry and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Collaborating to create demand

Reaching net-zero emissions in concrete will, as in other carbon-intensive sectors, require more than commitments from producers. It will require strong demand-side signals to demonstrate there is a market for low-carbon cement and concrete.

It also needs the collaboration of customers and regulators. There is enormous potential for innovation in the built environment to use concrete more efficiently, for example by city planners, designers, and architects, and this could be underpinned by greater clarity around low-carbon label claims and a material-neutral set of standards. Government regulators could ensure that building codes focus on sustainability as well as safety. They could help incentivise circularity.

The effort will involve working across the entire built-environment value chain, with a goal of delivering the vision of net-zero concrete in a circular economy, whole-life context.

The MPP approach focuses on this sort of collaborative approach. It has a four-step theory of change: create a coalition of leading companies committed to action; develop a roadmap that sets out how the sector will reach net-zero by 2050; help critical stakeholders develop commitments to action; and build the market infrastructure needed to track and support implementation.

Stakeholder partnership

With the launch of the CAC, we are looking for partners throughout the cement and concrete value chain to help us develop and deliver the sector transition. That strategy will present a clear set of policy asks to reward and incentivise investments in technology by cement producers, such as clean energy or carbon capture, and to develop regulations which aim to achieve carbon neutrality across the built environment.

With COP26 setting a clear staging post on the road to net-zero, we hope that, by the end of 2021, we will be making good progress, using the GCCA roadmap as a critical building block, backed by strong supply-side commitments, emerging policy implementation and crucial demand side signals. We recognise that decarbonizing the sector will be a challenging task, but we also know that a net-zero world cannot be built without it.

Anthony Robert Hobley is Co-Executive Director, Mission Possible Partnership and an Executive Fellow, World Economic Forum (WEF).

Dinah Mcleod is Chief Executive Officer, Global Cement and Concrete Association.