A Carbon-neutral built environment by 2050
Cement, alongside its downstream product concrete, has underpinned our way of life for the past two centuries. Concrete vital attributes – safety, durability, affordability and versatility – make it indispensable in construction. From the buildings in which we live and work, to the infrastructures facilitating clean water, public transportation and carbon-free electricity, the ubiquity of cement and concrete is often overlooked.
The EU cement industry was one of the first industrial sectors to unveil its Carbon Neutrality Roadmap following the publication of the European Green Deal. Currently, there are 86 innovation projects underway in Europe aimed at decarbonising cement production through various technologies. Change is happening at a fast pace in our sector, as demonstrated by the fact that no less than 8 projects to decarbonise cement production have recently been awarded financial support by the ETS innovation fund.
Our industry welcomes this additional focus on embodied emissions, as an indispensable step towards our collective EU Green Deal goals. Several points are however critical to make the future WLC Roadmap effective to decarbonise EU buildings.
First, the interplay between operational and embodied CO2 should be addressed. For instance, using concrete thermal mass activation in buildings offers significant potential to reduce energy demand which could further reduce CO2 emissions by 25% per dwelling, cut the need for peak electricity supply capacity by 50%, and increase renewable energy penetration by 25%.
Second, building policies should be based on a full life-cycle analysis and circular economy principles. Tomorrow’s buildings need to be built to last as long as possible with a view to their future uses and deconstruction. Typically, concrete is durable and 100% recyclable – from structural components remaining to concrete waste that can be recycled into aggregates, or as recycled concrete fines in new cements, thereby reducing the use of primary materials.
Fourth, material efficiency can be an additional way to reduce the embodied carbon of buildings. Designers and buildings regulations are key to enable a more efficient use of concrete for the same performance.
Generally, we firmly believe that durability, resilience, and the need for adaptation of our buildings and infrastructures should be key considerations in the WLC Roadmap. That is why on the debate around renovation versus reconstruction, while we uphold the importance of durability and resilience, we believe that a life cycle assessment should be conducted before deciding to renovate, as rebuilding might sometimes be a more environmentally sound choice.
Last but not least, legislation must remain material neutral. This is a particularly important point, given the intricate interdependencies in the construction ecosystem. There is no silver bullet to decarbonise the sector; all options come with their trade-offs, whether in biodiversity loss or scalability constraints. Conversely, all materials have a role to play in combination with each other. Therefore, sustainability assessments should be carried out at the building level with all materials subject to the same regulations.
In conclusion, we call for the forthcoming Commission Roadmap to offer a balanced, material neutral policy framework that will not only decarbonise our building stock but also enhance sustainability in broader terms: environmental, social and economic. After all, buildings and infrastructures are built for the wellbeing of their residents and users.
For further insights, please see our joint position paper together with our concrete partners associations on the Whole Life Carbon Roadmap. CEMBUREAU is also organizing on 24 October 2023 an event “Cementing Europe’s Future: Buildings for a Net Zero Age” to further discuss these issues – we would be most delighted to see you there.