Will GCCA's concrete roadmap be a smooth or bumpy road?

By Dominic Ellis
As major producers affirm their commitment to net zero concrete by 2050, the world watches eagerly to see if replacements can be rolled out in time

As the cement and concrete industry will soon find itself in the spotlight at UN COP26, the industry has delivered what looks like a pre-emptive strike.

Forty producers from across the world, representing 80% of total production outside China, have come together to affirm their commitment to net zero concrete by 2050 and agree to an ambitious intermediate goal of preventing 5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030.

The move by the members of the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) marks the biggest global commitment by an industry to net zero so far – bringing together companies from the Americas, Africa, Asia, including India and China, and Europe. It follows the September announcement during New York Climate Week that the GCCA has become the first global ‘heavy’ industry accelerator for the UN’s global Race to Zero.

It's a welcome move but the key question remains: just how realistic will it be to replace the world's most human-made material with something that solves the 'trilemma' of being durable, environmentally friendly and can be rolled out at scale - and all within three decades? 

Concrete is the most used human-made material on the planet with 14 billion cubic metres produced every year for use in everything from roads to bridges, tunnels to homes, and hydropower installations to flood defenses.

It is an essential element of construction, with no other material equaling its resilience, strength and wide availability. Production of cement, the key ingredient in concrete, accounts for around 7% of global CO2 emissions. 

The GCCA has published a detailed roadmap which sets out the path that the industry will follow to fully decarbonise by 2050, a target aligned with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

The roadmap actions between now and 2030 will prevent almost 5 billion tonnes of carbon from entering the atmosphere compared to a business-as-usual scenario, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of almost 15 billion flights from Paris to New York.

The roadmap's seven-point plan relies on what the GCCA believes are "ambitious yet achievable actions" to reduce the amount of CO2 intensive clinker in cement, significantly reduce fossil fuel use in manufacturing, and accelerate innovation in products, process efficiency and breakthrough technologies including carbon capture.

  • Increased clinker substitution The industry will continue to substitute clinker, the main constituent of Portland cement, with supplementary materials such as fly ash (a by-product of the power sector), ground granulated blast-furnace slag (a by-product of the steel manufacturing process), calcined clays, unburnt and ground limestone or recycled concrete fines.
  • Fossil fuel reductions and increased use of alternative fuels Building on its track record of  establishing an almost tenfold increase in the use of alternative fuels since 1990, the industry will reduce fossil-fuel use at every point in supply and production chains, as well as repurposing society’s waste as a smart and greener alternative to fossil fuels. To reduce dependance on conventional fuels, GCCA expects alternative fuels to cover 22% of global cement kiln energy usage by 2030. 
  • Investment in technology and innovation GCCA will spearhead innovation through its global research network, Innovandi - research topics include concrete chemistries and kiln technologies. This includes 75 partners in Innovandi and a global innovation challenge matching startups with GCCA member companies to accelerate deployment of promising technologies.
  • Novel chemistries (alternatives to Portland cement clinker) and components in cement and concrete manufacturing Innovative cements including both new clinker substitutes and new types of clinker and new concrete mix designs play an important role in the roadmap – with numerous promising approaches already in research or development phase.    
  • Infrastructure development for CCUS GCCA members will build on findings from their existing CCUS pilots in North America, India, China and Europe. The industry has committed to 10 industrial scale carbon capture plants by 2030.
  • Improved efficiency in the design and use of concrete during construction: GCCA will intensify collaboration with the construction industry, design professionals and policymakers to develop the design and procurement framework that will drive efficient use of resources and products, use of reprocessed and recycled material, re-use of elements, and extend the lifetime of whole projects.
  • Establishing a policy framework to achieve net zero concrete: To deliver net zero concrete by 2050, the global concrete and cement industry is asking for support from policymakers to create a consistent and appropriate global system of carbon pricing to create a level playing field on carbon costs, avoid carbon leakage and ensure a managed transition to a net zero economy; support low-carbon production technologies, such as carbon capture utilisation and storage, by integrating them in public financing mechanisms and providing fair recognition of all carbon capture technologies; create market demand for low carbon products in construction regulations and public procurement; and develop the infrastructure and policies necessary for the development of green energy and waste directives that promote a circular economy 

Thomas Guillot, GCCA Chief Executive, said concrete is the world’s most used building material and provides the foundation for renewable energy transition, resilient infrastructure and new homes around the world.

"Global cooperation on decarbonising concrete is a necessity, as countries developing their infrastructure and housing will be the biggest users of concrete in the coming decades," he said. "I am proud of the commitment made by our members today to take decisive action and accelerate industry decarbonisation between now and 2030, an important milestone towards the ultimate goal of net zero concrete. I envision a world in the not too distant future where the foundation of a sustainable, zero carbon global economy will literally be built with green concrete.

“We now need governments around the world to work with us and use their huge procurement power to advocate for low carbon concrete in their infrastructure and housing needs. We require their support to change regulation that limits the use of recycled materials and impedes the transition to a low carbon and circular economy."

GCCA member companies operate in almost every country of the world with a global cement and concrete market worth $440 billion annually and supporting a wider construction sector which represents 13% of global GDP. The Association counts companies such as CEMEX, CNBM, CRH, HeidelbergCement, Holcim and Votorantim as members. The industry last year announced its ambition to fully decarbonize by 2050 and today is detailing its roadmap to achieve this goal.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, invited all cement companies to join this vital endeavour.

"The transition cost should not be borne only by the first movers," he said. "I call on all governments and relevant actors to align public and private finance and procurement to create strong markets for net zero-aligned industrial production and develop national sectoral roadmaps towards net zero emissions. Three quarters of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 has yet to be built. Without credible action now, future generations will have no liveable planet to build upon. The United Nations stands ready to support you in accelerating the transformation of your industry.”

Cao Jianglin, the CEO of China National Building Material Company (CNBM), said: “This is a landmark for industry co-operation in decarbonization. As part of a global industry, it will need collaboration across our sector to achieve it. As one of the leading cement and concrete producers in China, we will play our part in decarbonizing the industry.”

Albert Manifold, GCCA President and Group Chief Executive of CRH, said: “This Roadmap represents a clear commitment to positive change across our industry and will allow us to sustainably transition to net zero while continuing to supply society with the concrete it needs to grow and prosper.”

The global launch coincides with the publication of a roadmap for the USA by the Portland Cement Association (PCA) for Carbon Neutrality.

In a telling line, the industry also calls on "policymakers, governments and multilateral organisations to play their part through public procurement reforms, appropriate carbon pricing mechanisms, legislation to support a circular economy and the development of new technologies"; in other words, we can't do it alone.

How effective all stakeholders work together will doubtless determine whether decarbonisation goals succeed or fail.


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