1. Cement, the most widely used construction material in the world, is a major source of CO2 emissions.

As a key input into concrete, every year over four billion tonnes of cement is produced, contributing to around eight per cent of global CO2 emissions. With global cement production projected to increase to over five billion tonnes by 2050, cement is expected to play a key role in the expansion of the built environment particularly in developing countries. This potential increase comes at a point when, according to a number of scenarios, cement sector emissions need to fall — fast.

The city of Shanghai.

The city of Shanghai
The city of Shanghai. In recent years, a large number of architecturally distinctive buildings have sprung up throughout Shanghai, China. Image: Frédéric Soltan/Corbis/Getty Images.

Reason 2

2. Reducing cement sector emissions is more challenging than it is for other sectors.

More than 50 per cent of cement sector CO2 emissions are intrinsically linked to the cement production process. Abating these emissions requires transforming cement itself either by blending it with alternative materials or by developing novel low-carbon cements.

Cement factory in Palestine

A cement factory in Palestine
A Palestinian labourer works at a cement factory in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip Image: Abed Rahim Khatib/NurPhoto/Corbis/Getty Images.

Reason 3

3. The development and deployment of low carbon cements is happening too slowly.

There has been lots of R&D, particularly in China, but only some low carbon cements have reached commercialization while none have reached widespread application. Cement sector R&D expenditure as a proportion of sales is low compared to other sectors. Sustained funding and government support will be needed to get the next generation of low carbon cements out of the laboratory and into the market.

Cement and concrete laboratory at the Grozny State Oil and Technology University

The cement and concrete laboratory at the Grozny State Oil and Technology University
A technician in the cement and concrete laboratory at the Grozny State Oil and Technology University (GGNTU) in Russia. Image: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images.

Reason 4

4. Well-known barriers stand in the way.

Alternative materials are often not readily available at the scale required and the cement sector is dominated by a handful of major producers who are cautious about pioneering new products that challenge their existing business models. Customers are also often reluctant to use novel building materials.

ENCI quarry in Maastricht

ENCI quarry in Maastricht, Netherlands
ENCI quarry in Maastricht, Netherlands. Image: Geography Photos/UIG/Getty Images.

Reason 5

5. However, not all of these barriers affect all low carbon cements equally, nor do they apply in all locations.

Overcoming these barriers will require finding the right combination of technology and practice-related policy solutions for a given location. In China, for example, a track-record of using belite clinkers in major infrastructure projects, a large stockpile of bauxite waste and ambitious climate targets mean that belite clinkers may have more potential here than in other markets.

Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, China

Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, China
A night view of the illuminated Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, China. Various lamps were installed at Three Gorges Dam to increase its night charm. Image: VCG/VCG/Getty Images.

Reason 6

6. Disruptive trends surrounding the sector are creating new opportunities to accelerate the use of low-carbon cement technology.

The sector is far from immune from the disruptive effects of digitalization, the introduction of new business models and the sustainability expectations of investors and consumers.

Enhanced connectivity, remote monitoring and predictive analytics, machine learning, 3D printing and innovations in design are already starting to transform traditional supply chains within the construction sector. Such changes could feed back into cleaner cement and concrete consumption as well as lower overall demand.

Intelligent inspection robot at an Underground Pipe Gallery project site in China

Intelligent inspection robot at an Underground Pipe Gallery project site in China
An intelligent inspection robot is used here as a ‘security guard’ at Xi’an Underground Pipe Gallery project site on in May 2018 in China. The intelligent inspection robot is 0.8 meters tall, and can carry out 24 hours of continuous intelligent patrol inspection with a navigation error under 10 millimetres. Image: VCG/VCG via Getty Images.

Reason 7

7. If we are to achieve deep cuts in emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, there can be no sectoral exceptions.

The cement and concrete sector needs to act now. Shifting to a Paris-compliant pathway, will require going further and moving faster on all available levers. Revolutionary thinking and significant disruption — including to the current business model — will be required, and a whole host of stakeholders along the construction value chain will need to be engaged. There are many potential pathways and not all are likely to succeed. But there are clear approaches that can help create the conditions for low-carbon materials and private-sector leadership.

Governments should signal a clear commitment to decarbonize the cement and concrete sector by setting sectoral emissions reductions targets, supporting technology piloting and demonstration at scale through public procurement, and by developing regulations aimed at achieving carbon neutrality of the built environment over its entire life cycle.

This article was based on the findings of a new Chatham House report ‘Making Concrete Change: Innovation in Low-carbon Cement and Concrete’ by Johanna Lehne and Felix Preston.