SOURCE: The Outline
DATE: June 28, 2018
SNIP: Not many want to fret over cement, the world’s second-most consumed material behind water, and how its use in this economic transition might prevent our society from achieving its climate goals.
Because there are just so many opportunities, they say, for savvy investors and conservationists alike: renewable energy projects; new energy grids; updates to our nation’s battered piped water system (which leaks enough drinking water a day to serve 15 million households). Governments and environmentally minded investors luxuriate in these types of projects because they can help prevent human-caused, or anthropogenic, global warming without sacrificing economic growth.
The problem is that many of these projects require concrete. A lot of concrete. This worries Law and her colleagues at the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit that tracks industrial greenhouse-gas emissions and promotes proper carbon disclosure. The CDP recently released a report, “Building Pressure: Which cement companies will be left behind in the low-carbon transition,” warning the cement industry — cement being the main binder in concrete — that “in its current form, it will not be compatible with” any nation’s commitment in the Paris agreement; and if radical changes do not occur the world will “risk missing [its] climate goals.”
Cement is perhaps the most essential ingredient in an economy’s growth. According to the CDP report, the cement industry is the second-largest industrial emitter of carbon after the steel industry. And when accounting for its use in human-made structures, it is responsible for more than a third of the world’s carbon emissions. But unlike the transportation sector, in which a new type of fuel can dramatically decrease the sector’s pollutants, cement’s problem is, well, cemented in its formulation: Limestone is mixed with other raw materials in an immense kiln at high temperatures; as the kiln separates the limestone’s calcium carbonate structure, an extremely dirty strand of carbon is emitted by the ton.
The average wind turbine…needs about 12,400 to 17,700 cubic feet of concrete made with cement. On the conservative end, that’s 57 trucks worth of concrete.
Concrete is needed to upgrade all our roads to accommodate the autonomous vehicles being developed by tech companies, to construct and upgrade buildings to be LEED certified, to secure all the solar panels being fitted here and abroad, and to build desalination plants for water-stressed communities. The report exposes quite the paradox: We desperately need these infrastructure projects to transition to a carbon-neutral world, but in doing so we will have to emit a massive amount of carbon.
No one in the cement industry has seriously engaged in the herculean task of enhancing the material’s molecular chemistry, nor have they looked to use Ulm’s alternative at scale, according to the professor. Why introduce a new product if everyone is already buying your old one?
Ultimately, the wider consequences of the CDP’s findings are hard to predict. But its conclusions savagely lay bare the fallacy that, at our current state, we can solely use large scale infrastructure to develop ourselves out of the problem of anthropogenic global warming.