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Is the concrete industry doing enough to reduce CO2 emissions?

Dangerous climate change has become one of the greatest threats to global security and prosperity. The impact of the industrial revolution has resulted in an increase of 40% CO2 in the atmosphere compared to previous levels.

Two important things to highlight here are that it took 5000 years for the planet to warm 5 degrees and that the pace of Global Warming was 20 times faster after the Industrial Revolution.

The countries involved in the Paris Agreement have pledged to keep the rise of global temperatures below 2°C degrees from its pre-industrial levels to protect our ecosystems against the dangerous climate change. This implied the reduction of CO2 emission by 20% of its pre-industrial levels by 2020.

One of the key problems that the Industrial Revolution brought to our climate change was the building materials, with the concrete industry being at the forefront of the problem. Cement, which is the principal component of concrete, is the second most-consumed resource on earth after water.

It’s almost ironic that the industry which shaped the modern built environment we inhabit today has also given us the most environmentally unfriendly materials.

If you calculated the amount of emissions that the entire cement industry produces, it would equal that amount of emissions caused by an entire country in every aspect of CO2 the industry is the third CO2 emission producer after the US and China.

The process of producing cement hasn’t significantly changed over the past two decades. It still emits the CO2 in two ways; first, the fossil fuel to heat the kiln up to the temperature required to break the materials; and secondly, the thermal decomposition process.

According to Chatham House, the chemical and thermal processing of cement account for 8% of the global CO2 emissions.

Researchers highlighted the need to focus on the way that building material is processed in order to find solutions to cut its enormous CO2 footprint.

Researchers believed that the cement industry could reduce up to 80% of its Carbon Emissions, which factors in at 4% of the total global emissions.

But how can the industry do this?


Replacing fossil fuels with alternative fuels

By using alternative fuels in place of conventional fossil fuels; and therefore, reducing the GHG emissions of the traditional manufacturing process. This includes biofuels; natural gas; waste-derived fuels; wind energy; hydroelectric power; solar energy; hydrogen; and nuclear energy-based fuels.

The use also of low-grade alternative fuels such as waste coal, tyres, sewage sludge, and biomass fuels (such as wood products, agricultural wastes, etc.) ensures producing the cement in a lower temperature with lower CO2 emissions and less cost.

However, this shift has proven to have an impact on the quality of cement produced, which makes the selection of the proper alternative fuel a crucial and equally challenging task because companies don’t want to have a lower standard of cement. That being said, there is an existing gap between the fundamental researches and the producers that had to be filled.


Developing alternative materials to the cement production components

Replacing and/or blending the clinker (main cement component) by reused waste (ex: coal power generation), industrial by-products like fly ash, or biomass wastes like rice husk, ash and more.

Unfortunately, there is a reluctance of the industry to adopt newer technologies that would challenge their existing business models. This reluctance is also driven by limited willingness to pay the cost required to perform more in-depth research, as well as the lack of a skilled workforce to complete the effort.

The safety regulations of the concrete industry are not capable of tackling issues surrounding concrete processing which is required in order to significantly reduce the carbon emissions. To make it clearer; the Concrete Industry has been relying for a long time on perspective codes that regulate the production of concrete in a certain way, and this leaves a very small window for change.

For example, we need to make sure that any alternative material should be similar to or even more advantageous than clinker. But isn’t the dangerous climate change as critical as the safety regulation of the concrete industry?

There is a collective responsibility of the leaders within the cement industry to address the risk and effects of their industry to further combat climate change.

The steps towards a more sustainable cement industry are not yet fully tangible. An establishment of Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) that represents 35% of the global cement industry to combat climate change is a huge step but still not enough.

The industry should catch up quickly with these newer technologies where more researches are required to adopt these alternatives before it is too late.

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