Cement is everywhere. It is in our homes, our schools, our roads, our bridges, even in the dome of Rome’s iconic Pantheon. Indeed, cement has been a building block of civilization for over 2000 years, and is one of the most used materials on Earth.
But this is a problem. While we need cement for global construction and development, it is the second most polluting industrial sector in the world and very damaging for the environment.
Cutting cement emissions
Our latest research on the industry has shown some progress, with companies on average reducing their emissions by about 1% per annum over the last four years.
But, this is not nearly enough. Companies need to more than double their emissions reductions if they are to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, as agreed in the Paris climate deal.
There are a number of ways the sector can transition.
One thing companies can do is use more waste fuel, such as municipal waste, instead of fossil fuels.
This is already happening in many developed markets, like Europe, that have the infrastructure and legislation in place. Some European plants already use up 60% waste fuels for the production of cement.
Lower emission materials
Limestone – a key ingredient in cement – emits carbon during the production process. To cut emissions, companies should look at increasing the use of natural alternative materials (such as pozzolanas and calcinated clays). These tend to be harder to get hold of, as they are often found in very specific geographic locations, but exploring options for such alternatives could provide a vital solution to the emissions associated with the cement process.
Meanwhile, many companies also rely on alternative materials that are themselves associated with high-emitting sectors, such as fly ash from coal generation and slag from coal. While good for the carbon footprint of cement companies, relying on other high-emitting processes is not a long-term solution.
In Europe, for example, companies are already facing a constrained supply of these materials and are having to look elsewhere. Other markets will have to follow suit over time.
Investing in new technologies
Another way to reduce emissions in cement production is to increase the energy efficiency of the cement plants themselves. Indian companies are leading the way here with their newer, and more efficient plants.
Stepping up investments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) is key for the sector. CCS technologies - which capture and store CO2 instead of releasing it into the atmosphere - are deemed to be important for the sector’s decarbonization but remain at pilot stage, and crucially require significantly more investment if they are going to make any real impact.
Environmental regulation could hold the key
There is a solution for the sector, but it will require long-term thinking, rapid action, and proper investment from companies, and this needs to be facilitated externally.
Governments and regulators may be the key driver for change here, and interestingly, the pressure may not come solely from specific industry regulators, but from down the value chain. As cities raise their ambitions to go low-carbon, and building regulators potentially widen their focus, cement companies could come under increasing pressure to adapt their practices and align with the global need to tackle climate change.