Zero-carbon concrete – here’s how to do it

Ahead of tomorrow’s climate policy action from the EU, the Head of the World Economic Forum’s Mission Possible Partnership, Anthony Hobley, outlines how to make net-zero work in the concrete industry. «A sustainable, zero-carbon global economy will, literally and figuratively, rest on concrete,» he says.

By Anthony Hobley, Head of Mission Possible Partnership at the World Economic Forum and
Dinah Mcleod, CEO, Global Cement and Concrete Association 
Key points: 

  • A sustainable, zero-carbon global economy will, literally and figuratively, rest on concrete.
  • Concrete accounts for 7% of global emissions, and it’s the second-most used material, after water.
  • Emissions mostly come from the chemical reaction that essentially turns limestone into cement, but also from the energy used to produce the high temperatures needed to make and transport it
  • Reaching net-zero emissions will require more than commitments from producers.
  • It will require strong demand-side signals to demonstrate there is a market for low-carbon cement and concrete; collaboration between customers and regulators; and to be used more efficiently

Further details:

Concrete will provide the foundations for green energy systems, for climate-resilient infrastructure, for safe, healthy, and secure housing, for clean water and for low-carbon transportation around the world. It will be central to meeting many of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. A sustainable, zero-carbon global economy will, literally and figuratively, rest on concrete.

The industry has long recognised it needs to act. Since 1990, it has reduced the carbon intensity of its product by 20%. Last year, the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) published its Climate Ambition Statement, which sets a target of delivering carbon-neutral concrete by 2050. It brought together 40 of the world’s leading cement and concrete companies (accounting for around 40% of global clinker production), signing up for what will be a challenging transition to eliminate the sector’s climate impact. This statement is a recognition of the growing urgency of the climate crisis.

Opportunities from innovation

The sector has a suite of options that can help to bring down its carbon footprint. Alternative fuels and the electrification of kilns can drive fossil fuels out of its energy use. Its transport infrastructure can be decarbonized.

Efficiency of material use can be maximised, buildings repurposed, and recycling can be promoted (concrete is 100% recyclable). Clinker (the main emitting ingredient of cement) is already being substituted with alternative materials where possible, and this can be extended in the coming years along with novel cement use. Carbon-capture technology can also be employed to manage unavoidable process emissions.

But the goal the industry has set is not one it can reach on its own. That is why the GCCA has joined forces with the World Economic Forum to launch the Concrete Action for Climate (CAC) initiative as part of the Mission Possible Partnership.

Collaborating to create demand

Reaching net-zero emissions in concrete will, as in other carbon-intensive sectors, require more than commitments from producers. It will require strong demand-side signals to demonstrate there is a market for low-carbon cement and concrete.

It also needs the collaboration of customers and regulators. There is enormous potential for innovation in the built environment to use concrete more efficiently, for example by city planners, designers, and architects, and this could be underpinned by greater clarity around low-carbon label claims and a material-neutral set of standards. Government regulators could ensure that building codes focus on sustainability as well as safety. They could help incentivise circularity.

The effort will involve working across the entire built-environment value chain, with a goal of delivering the vision of net-zero concrete in a circular economy, whole-life context.

The Mission Possible Partnership approach focuses on this sort of collaborative approach. It has a four-step theory of change: create a coalition of leading companies committed to action; develop a roadmap that sets out how the sector will reach net-zero by 2050; help critical stakeholders develop commitments to action; and build the market infrastructure needed to track and support implementation.

The initiative is one of seven high-ambition platforms the Mission Possible Partnership is creating with carbon-intensive but essential industry sectors. Each of these platforms is designed to trigger transformational change by bringing together industry-leading companies, their customers, suppliers, investors and policy-makers through cross-industry and multi-stakeholder collaboration.