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Mind the Gap

Published by , Editorial Assistant
World Cement,


In 2014, the BBC released Climate Challenge on its website, a game that saw players step into the shoes of the President of the European Nations. They were tasked with making a series of decisions aimed at tackling climate change, while at the same time striving to remain popular enough with voters to stay in office.

The game’s central challenge will be familiar for many of CEOs and senior leaders at large cement companies around the world. They too must navigate a challenging path: responding to growing awareness that climate change is an urgent, crucial strategic issue for their business and, indeed, our collective future, but simultaneously balancing this against the legitimate need to deliver on financial markets and customers’ expectations – which are today still insufficiently driven by long-term agendas. Greater innovation offers the only route to reconciling this dilemma; the time for this is long overdue.

We are not on track. At all.

The World Cement Association’s (WCA) Global Climate Change Forum, held in Paris in June, starkly revealed the extent of the technological gap the cement sector has to bridge if it is to have any hope of delivering its contribution to the central goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, limiting global warming well below 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

Simply put, the technologies currently available and being deployed by the global cement industry can only deliver 50% of the CO2 emission savings required to achieve this two-degrees scenario.

Furthermore, existing technologies – related largely to the areas of energy efficiency improvement, waste co-processing, and clinker substitution – are typically adopted far too slowly. This is illustrated by recently disclosed CO2 emission figures from the global Getting the Numbers Right database, which revealed carbon intensity per tonne of cement has remained at troublingly stable levels since 2012.

Pressure is building. As cement production is projected to keep rising, the share of cement-related emissions as a proportion of total global greenhouse emissions is increasing beyond 6%. Meanwhile, the average energy efficiency of buildings is improving, which pushes up the relative share of embodied CO2 within total lifecycle emissions.

China has now established the world’s largest emissions trading scheme, which will expand to include the cement sector within the next few years. European CO2 allowance prices have recently been on the rise and the revised post-2021 EU Emissions Trading Scheme is designed for a progressive increase in prices towards unprecedented levels. Many of the 197 nations that signed up to the Paris Agreement are also moving ahead with stricter carbon regulations.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire cement industry now has an historic responsibility to put much greater focus on innovation. We cannot just count on the technological optimisation of old techniques; a disruptive transformation is needed within the next few decades in order to make crucial progress on reducing CO2 emissions, adopting a lifecycle approach.

Scaling up deployment of existing technologies

There is still massive waste co-processing capacity in cement kilns around the world that is not being used, despite the widely-acknowledged positive impact this can have on society, business, and emissions. The cement sector should seize the opportunity to position itself as providing a win-win solution to the global plastic waste issue, unlocking its large-scale capacities to manage plastic waste, instead of watching it make its way into rivers, seas, and oceans.

Clinker substitution opportunities, including calcined clay cements, are validated technologies that also need accelerated deployment. During the WCA Global Climate Change Forum, the potential of so-called LC3 cement was notably presented: this new type of cement is made using limestone and low-grade clays that are available in abundant quantities. It is cost effective and can reduce CO2 emissions by 30%.

Regulations and standards must be developed as well, to ensure these low carbon solutions are officially recognised and made financially attractive compared to existing business practices. Cement companies are working hard on this, but their voice must be better heard in order to scale up the pace of deployment. The role of associations and industry bodies is more important than ever in achieving this. Stepping up efforts to educate and train concrete producers and users, as well as supporting the ongoing professionalisation of the construction sector, are also key for boosting sustainability across our value chain.

The ultimate objective must be to minimise the CO2 emissions over the entire lifecycle of buildings and infrastructure, encompassing embodied CO2 in constructing functional units, as well as CO2 emissions produced by heating and cooling during the use phase.

A role for digital

While progress has sometimes been slow, the cement industry is becoming increasingly effective in assessing and unlocking the potential of digital technologies. These technologies could dramatically enhance process efficiency, as well as help to design and implement innovative business models.

Digital technologies create new opportunities for emission mitigation by accelerating change in resource manageability and process control. They also offer the opportunity to change the way buildings are designed, constructed, and managed in a way that was not previously possible.

On the process side, digital technologies for data collection, storage, and use within and across organisations and supply chains provide detailed insights into resource availability (energy, water, and primary and secondary resources), use, and quality, down to the level of each individual user.

Suppliers claim that digital technologies offer an optimisation potential of up to 20% in terms of delivering greater resource efficiency and flexibility. Within individual companies, digital applications for remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, predictive quality, and connected logistics are starting to be deployed more widely.

But digitalisation also enables the integration of discrete segments of the fragmented construction value chain, through the development of platforms, databases, and advanced, near real-time decision support systems. It can help create an integrated and transparent chain linking all stakeholders involved, while generating additional potential to reduce cost and boost resource efficiencies across companies. For the end users, building information modelling technologies (BIM) probably has an even bigger role to play in mitigating emissions, by helping to deliver the strongly enhanced material efficiency that is so important in construction. BIM aims to gather all information associated with building components, construction, and building operation in order to improve cost, energy, and material efficiency through better design, optimised construction, operation, maintenance, deconstruction, and material re-use or recycling.

Large-scale deployment of BIM will ensure the best use of materials, water, and energy over the lifecycle of buildings and is likely to have a particular impact on minimising embodied and operational CO2 emissions, as well as eliminating waste.

This is only achievable if all stakeholders involved in a project collaborate and communicate openly. Several cement and concrete companies recently created and released so-called BIM objects, providing data on building materials. These efforts must be accelerated, as the industry has a strategic interest in promoting the most efficient and durable use of qualitative and resilient concrete-based building materials.

Going electric

There is a growing body of research dedicated to seeking ways to electrify the production of basic materials, including cement, though today we are obviously far from achieving industrial-scale deployment. This would mean a complete change in the kiln concept, as well as widespread adoption of low-CO2 electricity production and a symbiosis between the industry, power producers, and distribution networks. It should also be noted that the shift to electricity would of course not solve the high process CO2 share from limestone decarbonation, which requires other solutions.

Carbon capture as a last option

Beyond emission mitigation and material efficiency efforts, residual CO2 emissions will still have to be managed. If it transpires that other technologies are not sufficient to deliver a two-degrees scenario, residual CO2 might have to be collected and recirculated as a resource for other industrial processes, or ultimately moved to sustainably managed storage locations.

Several technological options are being considered for carbon capture, use, and storage, with a number of pilot programmes already underway. The commercial use of these techniques will require appropriate monitoring and reporting methodology, large availability of cost-competitive low carbon energy, and appropriate regulation and incentives, as well as a securing societal acceptance.

Hurdles are numerous and complex. The cement sector has to provide technological answers, which will require collective action and partnerships with public authorities, as well as proactively advocating keeping those end-of-pipe options open.

Collaborative actions

Collaboration will be key, if the cement industry is to have any hope of achieving these vital goals as an industry. Associations therefore have a key role to play. The industry must work to support individual companies in their transition to low-carbon businesses, through enhancing knowledge exchange, engaging with academics and researchers, or reaching out to equipment suppliers.

The WCA will continue its contribution to this mission with regular knowledge dissemination activities throughout the year, culminating in its annual Global Climate Change Forum, which brings together experts in related technologies. The WCA will also reward and publicise the most innovative products, solutions, and business models that support the transition to a low-carbon built environment and help create more resilient communities in the face of the detrimental consequences of climate change.

The WCA will always favour actions over words. It is also committed to the convergence of efforts with other global platforms and associations in the cement sector.

About the author

Bernard Mathieu is Director of the WCA Climate Programme and has 22 years of experience in the cement, concrete, and aggregates business. He has held a wide range of roles related to sustainability, most recently at LafargeHolcim where he was Head of Sustainable Development.

Before that, Mathieu was HeidelbergCement's Head of Global Environmental Sustainability and has also taken an active role in business associations and in international conferences on climate change and sustainability (notably the UNFCCC Conferences of Parties).

Bernard is Founder and Sustainability Consultant at Hop3, advising organisations in the integration of sustainability in their vision, strategy, and actions.

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European cement news UK cement news Cement news 2018