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Five Minutes… with Michael McSweeney

Published by
World Cement,


Describe your job in a sentence.

Working with all three levels of government across Canada to build awareness of the strategic importance of cement and concrete. While many see these products as commodities, they are products that society can’t do without. I spend a great deal of time protecting the social licence to operate for the cement sector and positioning concrete as the sustainable building material of choice.

How did you start in the cement industry?

I have spent over 40 years working in the public affairs space, in numerous roles – as an elected official, working as an executive assistant to a Canadian Prime Minister, Head of Canada’s Standards system, and finally in the cement sector.

I was hired at the Cement Association of Canada (CAC) because of my experience in public and environmental affairs. The cement industry wanted someone who knew the machinery of government and how to navigate through it. But, more importantly, someone who knew many politicians in the governing and opposition parties firsthand, and who could seamlessly work with both to educate them on how cement and concrete could play a leading role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. This is all while working at the same time on protecting this foundational industry in Canada.

Who knew I would spend 12 years, so far, in this incredible and strategic industry that builds our communities and infrastructure – an industry that people unknowingly rely on to get to and from work, and to have their children play sports in great venues? There is no other industry like the cement industry.

In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing the cement industry?

Convincing Canadians that cement and concrete are viable solutions in the fight against climate change. The wood industry has done a good job at portraying itself as the only sustainable industry. My primary goal over the next few years is to debunk this myth.

We commissioned a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development that finally brings this issue to a head. The study found that up to 72% of carbon emissions from the harvesting and processing of timber products may be unaccounted for and that when these emissions are taken into account, concrete’s embodied carbon footprint could actually be up to 6% less intensive than that of wood products. This is a clear challenge to prevailing assumptions that wood construction materials are lower carbon than other building materials like concrete. This research was peer reviewed by scientists, forestry academics, and leading Canadian environmental groups.

What strategies can the industry employ to solve this challenge?

One of our key strategies is working with governments to help ensure they implement regulations that allow for more clinker substitutions (e.g. portland limestone cement, slag, flyash), as well as developing waste policies that will permit the use of more zero and low carbon fuels to replace fossil fuels. It is important, as we fight climate change, that we reduce the amount of fossil fuels we use to make cement. That means that governments need to rethink where they send waste for processing. If we can divert waste from landfill to a cement kiln, we can reduce greenhouse gases.

How is the CAC supporting the industry to solve this challenge?

By using a constant, consistent coordinated approach to federal and provincial governments to deliver a compelling storyline on how cement and concrete can be part of the climate change solution. Many people don't realise that if they build with concrete, whether it's a pavement or a building, those will last more than 50 years for pavement, and for hundreds of years for buildings.

What’s new for the CAC this year?

The CAC engaged with the International Institute for Sustainable Development on a landmark study, with findings that demonstrate that concrete has 6% less embodied carbon than wood products when robust lifecycle carbon accounting is employed.

The study has uncovered that up to 72% of carbon emissions from the harvesting and processing of timber products may be unaccounted for. We need government to mandate one carbon accounting tool that all industries use, to make it easier for decision makers, building professionals, and the public to choose lower carbon footprint products.

Do you have a final message for the industry?

It is paramount that the cement and concrete industry works very closely with all three levels of government and indigenous communities across Canada to demonstrate the innovative and solution-orientated nature of our industry and its role in fighting climate change. Most people are not aware that, globally, for every woman and man and child, three t of concrete is consumed each year; that's second only to water. Concrete is a strategic material because of its thermal mass capabilities, its resiliency, its durability, and its ability to reabsorb carbon, which means it can act a carbon sink.

What is your proudest career achievement?

Playing a role in fighting climate change, which will hopefully change the world for generations to come. Bringing my kids along on this journey and turning them into passionate environmentalists has been a crowning achievement for me. From a personal perspective, playing a leadership role with my friends from Ottawa’s Ashbury College in helping to sponsor and resettle a Syrian refugee family in Ottawa. Within an hour of seeing their new home, fully decorated and stocked with halal foods, they said to me “we love you Mike”. Comments like that really make you understand what’s important in life.

What is your favourite food?

Asian food of all sorts, from Indian curries to Chinese dumplings.

What are you listening to or reading at the moment?

With the Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his family, I played a bit of a role in discovering Canadian crooner Michael Bublé. His music is always on my playlist and reminds me to always look for ways of executing random acts of kindness. It’s good for the soul, as is taking time to listening to music, reading literature, or looking at art.

What is your favourite place – and why?

Canada’s Lake of the Woods, Kenora, Ontario, for its magnificence, isolation, splendor, and its wonderful Indigenous People who share their knowledge readily – and because it’s where I first met my wife.

Who do you most admire – and why?

John Diefenbaker, the first author of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I was blessed to know him and bring him as a speaker to my high school. He inspired me to get into public affairs.

Read the article online at: https://www.worldcement.com/special-reports/05062019/five-minutes-with-michael-mcsweeney/

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