In the past two weeks, The Rockefeller Foundation published a series of articles and opinion pieces in The Guardian under an initiative called Concrete Week. The stated objective was to “celebrate the aesthetic and social achievements of concrete, while investigating its innumerable harms”, writes Koen Coppenholle.
Koen Coppenholle is the Chief Executive of the European Cement Association (CEMBUREAU).
From the outset, it is disappointing to see such prominence given to what is in effect promoted content paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation. As an industry, we are fully aware of the challenges facing us in terms of our impact on the environment.
However, as CEO of Europe’s leading trade-association for the cement sector, it is important to highlight how we as a sector are taking our responsibilities very seriously, and how the European industry is at the forefront of finding solutions that will minimise our impact on the environment.
The cement industry is investing in research and development to reduce its carbon footprint. Over the past twenty-five years, the European cement industry has reduced CO2 emissions per tonne of cement by about 14% through investment in our production technology and through the use of greater quantities of alternative fuels.
In recent years, the idea of the Circular Economy has taken hold amongst industry and policymakers alike. The cement industry is working hard to maximise its contribution to this economic approach. It reduces its reliance on fossil fuels by using a technique called co-processing, in which waste is used both as a fossil fuel replacement and as a raw material. This allows for materials that otherwise would end up in landfill or incinerators to be used as a fuel source, leaving behind no additional waste products.
Concrete itself is 100% recyclable and can be repurposed as a recycled aggregate once a building has been demolished and the waste is processed. The material efficiency of cement production is close to 100%, and new technologies are only enhancing the eco-efficiency throughout the entire value chain.
Over the lifespan of a concrete structure, up to 25% of the process emissions related to the production of cement can be absorbed by the clinker in the cement. While this is not used in the calculation of total emissions, worldwide it equates to a large reduction in carbon emissions.
However, we know that we need to build on the progress we have made so that cement can play a role in the low-carbon economy. One of our most ambitious projects brings together eleven organisations across industry and academia who are working together on a European Union Horizon 2020 research project called LEILAC (Low Emissions Intensity Lime And Cement), which potentially could capture over 95% of the CO2 process emissions in cement production.
Added to this, cement companies are introducing new lines of lower emission cement and concrete products, resulting in a 30% lower CO2 output and a 15% decrease in energy consumption.
The answer to climate change will not be found by singling out an entire industry. Cement is a key component of societies worldwide, and continues to offer a durable, sustainable and cost-efficient source of housing and public infrastructure. For the cement industry, the future lies in advancing new technologies, applying European standards for low emissions globally, and finding innovative new ways to reduce our carbon footprint. With the necessary investment, we can continue to make inroads and meet the challenges of environmental protection and climate change head on.