Outdated rules hamper concrete’s potential for climate change
Updating alternative fuels regulations could reduce production emissions, making cement-based concrete the sustainable building material of choice. Revising the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by updating current definitions to allow materials defined as “recovered material” or “recovered resource” to be recycled as fuel would allow cement manufacturers to significantly reduce emissions of production.
In addition, allow the use of non-hazardous secondary materials (NHSN) such as non-recycled paper, plastics and fibers, either through an exemption or amendment to the EPA’s NHSM rule, would provide even more access to alternative fuel sources.
Today, alternative fuels represent around 13.5% of the fuel used by national cement plants, compared to over 36% in the EU and even up to 60% in Germany. American cement factories began to adopt alternative fuels as early as the 1970s.
So why are we lagging behind other regions? Outdated regulations, which currently prohibit increased use of materials such as fuel derived from tires, non-recycled plastic and other secondary materials as fuel are the reasons for this. Using these materials as fuel would divert them from landfills, preventing decomposition and the release of methane.
At the same time, cement manufacturing is one of the very few markets for the millions of tonnes of low carbon fly ash generated and stored each year in landfills and impoundments. Cement and concrete made with fly ash can reduce emissions by up to 30%, but current federal regulations limit the storage of these coal combustion residues at manufacturing sites..
Federl or local assistance can eliminate inertia
Institutional and governmental inertia is the other major obstacle to the immediate reduction in cement and concrete emissions. Many actions and opportunities to reduce emissions are ready to be implemented and only require federal or local assistance.
For example, Portland-Limestone Cement (PLC), a cement blend that reduces emissions by up to 10% without sacrificing performance or durability, is widely available today at cost parity, but demand is n is not there. If state departments of transportation (DOT), which are among the largest consumers of cement in the country, encouraged increased uptake of PLC by just 10% by 2030, we could reduce nearly 10 million metric tons of CO2 during this period.
Over 30 state DOTs already allow the use of PLC, but we need them to actively specify it as a requirement for their infrastructure projects to reduce emissions.
These short-term actions will be key to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of halving emissions by 2030.
Increase emission reductions
The United States is expected to build the equivalent of another New York City every year until 2041. The federal government is also poised to spend trillions of dollars on infrastructure revival, road rehabilitation. and existing bridges and expansion of construction in growing cities.
Development on this scale means we have a unique opportunity to lead by example globally in sustainable construction. Concrete, made with cement, is the only material that can meet the demands of paving and large-scale infrastructure rehabilitation and expansion while providing resilience and mitigating the effects of our changing climate.
The Biden administration has said every dollar spent on infrastructure will be used to prevent, reduce and resist climate change, but this directive lacks specificity when it comes to reducing construction emissions.
Rather than asking every contractor, local regulator and developer to interpret this guideline, the Portland Cement Association (PCA), which represents over 90% of the US cement production capacity and has member facilities in 50 States, is developing a roadmap to achieve carbon neutrality throughout the concrete value chain. This roadmap is a plan for the industry to deliver “low carbon” and “greener” cement on a large scale, now and in the future.
We also need to invest in long-term strategies
While these short-term solutions may progress towards reducing emissions by 2030, cement and concrete cannot achieve carbon neutrality without carbon capture technologies. Simply put, the chemical process of heating limestone to make cement releases CO2 as a by-product. PCA continues to be heavily involved in the research and development of emerging and innovative technologies such as Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS).
However, there are many regulatory issues and obstacles that discourage the development and adoption of CCUS. We still need to find out how best to install CCUS technology in cement plants to maximize effectiveness and efficiency. We also need to know where and how the captured broadcasts will be stored. The answers to these and other questions are often difficult to find, and lengthy and complicated authorization processes can take years.
Government collaboration is needed to expand these technologies as well as to create a national system of transportation, use and / or sequestration.
A partnership for a greener future
Funding for CCUS and other carbon neutral building materials is essential, but it is unlikely to make breakthroughs in time for the country’s next major infrastructure investment. Considering the scale of the envisaged development and that of the cement and concrete industry, we need a complete set of short and long term solutions.
PCA’s roadmap will guide what could be the most ambitious journey to carbon neutrality ever attempted by heavy industry. But we can’t do it alone, and there is no quick fix.
However, we can reduce emissions much faster through collaboration with industry and private partners. And we need the alignment of government, industry, and technology leaders on solutions, regulations, and short- and long-term policy changes.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Michael Ireland is President and CEO of the Portland Cement Association, which includes companies like LaFargeHolcim, Cemex and Oldcastle / Ash Grove.