Finding ways to produce concrete with fewer carbon emissions has already inspired a lot of research and development ©Getty Images
Finding ways to produce concrete with fewer carbon emissions has already inspired a lot of research and development ©Getty Images

How the cement industry is cutting emissions

posted by Shardell Joseph
7 June 2022

Innovation is fuelling progress in low-carbon construction 

Demand for cement, a key ingredient of concrete, is on the rise. And with our appetite for newbuilds as relentless as ever, that demand is expected to reach around 6bn tonnes by 2050, according to the CW Group’s recent Global cement volume forecast report. However, it is widely recognised that cement is one of the most energy-intensive materials used in construction, responsible for a vast amount of emissions. 

“As a material that creates the majority of the world’s bridges, roads, dams and construction, concrete releases an extreme amount of CO2 each year,” explains Keegan Ramsden, a contributor to Princeton University’s Climate Initiative.

“It’s the most consumed product on earth besides water. Until the overall emissions are cut worldwide, the environment will continue to be polluted with more than 4bn tonnes of carbon dioxide annually due to this industry.”

In line with the Paris Agreement and multiple government strategies to reach net zero, hundreds of millions of pounds have already been invested in decarbonising many construction materials. Being on the extreme edge of carbon consumption has made cement a prime focus of the surge in technology-powered low-carbon solutions.

According to the Mineral Products Association (MPA), CO2 emissions from concrete and cement are down 53% from 1990 levels thanks to the actions being taken. In the UK, concrete and cement account for around 1.5% of overall CO2 emissions – far below the global average of about 7%. And it doesn’t stop there.

“The concrete and cement sector is aiming to go beyond net zero and become net negative, removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits each year”, the MPA’s 2020 roadmap says. 

The race to innovate  

With pressure mounting to drive change faster, more and more organisations are putting their money into developing new materials to reach low-carbon goals, often by delivering effective technologies. This is not a shift taking place in isolation.

The cement and concrete industry at large is pushing this forward, including many of the leading cement companies, spurred on by the imposed targets. In the UK, the Future Homes Standard rules that from this year, newbuilds must have a 30% lower carbon footprint than previously. 

In January, building materials producer Cemex claimed to have developed the UK’s first zero-carbon concrete block, with 80% less embodied carbon and the remaining 20% being offset. The company claims it has the same quality, compressive strength and durability as traditional concrete.

The UK also witnessed another world first last year, according to the MPA, by using hydrogen technology in a cement kiln. The MPA collaborated with building materials firm Hanson UK, funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in a trial that used a mix of 100% net zero fuels, including hydrogen, for the production of commercial-scale cement. 

“Our sector is committed to advancing ground-breaking collaborative research and innovation to meet the industry’s climate change objectives,” says Dr Richard Leese, MPA director for industrial policy, energy and climate change.

“Building on the significant steps our members have already taken through the use of waste-derived fuels, in the future we envisage that combining the use of net zero fuels with carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology will enable the production of cement to capture more CO2 than it emits.”

According to Chatham House’s Making concrete change report, R&D for low-carbon concrete is booming, as is the mass growth in technologies that support these changes. In fact, patenting in general is higher within the cement and concrete sector than in other heavy industries, including steelmaking, though this too is experiencing a steady increase of patents being filed. 

Commercial success 

The cement industry is now moving closer to its next big hurdle – scaling up trials. Once a new material is developed, the challenge then becomes proving this concept on a sizeable, meaningful scale, and finding the right suppliers and customers to make it marketable for a range of applications. With a hurdle this high, many innovations are failing to progress from concept to commercialisation.

But as the report suggests, the solution for the construction industry may lie in moving away from seeking “a single silver bullet” and towards building a “range of potential solutions that offer different prospects under different circumstances”. 

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