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Cement manufacturers offer up 'interesting' plan to cut emissions: use less cement – Yahoo Canada Finance

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A lobbying group for Canada’s cement industry has proposed a tried-and-true, if unusual, method to cut its carbon emissions in the next seven years: use less cement.
Using cement and concrete “more efficiently,” reducing waste and co-ordinating better with other industries and government regulators represent just a few of the pillars from the Cement Association of Canada’s action plan to cut their industry’s emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.
Released May 2, the plan is packed with data on the expected emissions reductions that could be achieved from using less carbon intensive materials, fuels and electricity along with carbon capture technology and storage.
A large share of the cement industry’s carbon emissions come from the chemical process used to make “clinker,” a critical ingredient. The action plan calls for improving the clinker manufacturing process and suggests carbon capture technology will be ultimately necessary to achieve net zero. But it also says using less clinker overall, less cement and less concrete will lead to substantial emission reductions at less cost in less time.
“They could have said, ‘one, two, skip a few, someone’s gonna invent a net-zero clinker and we’ll be good,’” said Bentley Allan, research director at the Transition Accelerator, a think tank focused on Canada’s energy transition, who peer reviewed the plan. “But they didn’t say that. They did something ambitious and interesting instead … and a lot of the stuff that is in here doesn’t have technological solutions.”
Of course, the cement industry isn’t planning to shrink itself out of existence. On the contrary, Allan noted that the emissions reduction plan still calls for one per cent annual growth.
“There is no silver bullet, no one magic solution that will get us to zero,” the action plan states. “Rather, it will take many actions.”
Cement, which acts as a glue that holds concrete together, creates a challenge for global net-zero ambitions. Cement creates a large amount of carbon dioxide and is the second-most widely used material in the world, next to water. No one expects it will be phased out anytime soon.
In 2020, cement manufacturers in Canada created 9.7 megatonnes of CO2, representing about 1.4 per cent of Canada’s emissions.
Carbon dioxide is a critical byproduct of the cement-making process. To make cement, limestone must be heated to around 1,500 C in a kiln. That produces lime and releases CO2, helping create the product known as clinker, which is a foundational ingredient of cement.
Carbon capture could also come into play, and Canadian cement producers are certainly hoping the technology will take a bite out of their emissions. Last month, Germany’s Heidelberg Materials announced it is building the first net-zero cement plant outside Edmonton, at a cost of $1.36 billion, to which the Canadian federal government is expected to contribute a substantial amount. That would knock out close to one million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide if operational by 2026 — about 20 per cent of the 5.4 megatonnes in reductions that the CAC is aiming for by 2030.
But Adam Auer, president of CAC, the cement group, said not every province has suitable geology for storing carbon dioxide in underground aquifers, nor is there pipeline infrastructure to transport carbon dioxide from cement plants to such storage sites.
“We need CCUS to get to zero at the end of the day,” Auer said. “But we don’t want to wait for CCUS to do the things that we can do right now, some of which is very low hanging fruit.”
For example, cement manufacturers burn coal and petroleum coke, a byproduct of oil refining, to achieve the required heat in the kiln. Switching to natural gas is more expensive, but less carbon intensive. In the future, the industry hopes to find even less carbon intensive alternatives to fossil fuels.
Of course, with the carbon tax set to increase during the next 30 years, Auer acknowledged that switching to less carbon intensive fuels is as much a smart economic choice as anything else.
But burning fossil fuels only accounts for one-third of the 9.5 megatonnes of carbon emissions that were released in Canada in 2020 from producing clinker. The other two-thirds come from the chemical process of producing clinker, according to the report.
Auer said using new cement blends, including Portland-Limestone Cement, which is less carbon intensive, could lower emissions by 10 per cent.
He said changing the building code in Canada to include cement made from Portland-Limestone took about seven years. But market acceptance takes time because construction projects, whether a bridge, a high-rise tower or even a single family house, tend to be high stakes for builders who may not want to experiment with a new product.
“It’s not always about making the economics work,” said Auer. “It’s also just about overcoming inertia, changing cultures and changing the way people think about very entrenched construction practices.”
For that reason, education and outreach is part of the road map. So is co-ordinating with construction companies who often err on the side of caution and order more concrete than may be necessary so as not to run out and stall progress.
But cement also can be made using less clinker and substituting other materials with a lower carbon footprint. Likewise, concrete can be made using less cement.
Concrete can also be used more efficiently. Auer said there’s already a high recycling rate, but the process can be improved. For example, concrete from a building contains a lot of “cementitious material” that could be used to reduce the amount of cement needed by the industry.
His organization’s action plan also offers up creative ideas. For example, many municipalities still operate waste incinerators. Auer said some of the material destined for the incinerator could be diverted to cement plants instead, where it could be used to heat kilns.
“People often think of combustion of waste materials in a kind of monolithic way, but they’re actually very different,” said Auer. “Incineration is not what we do. We’re taking both the energy and the materials in those waste fuels and incorporating them into a product.”
That may work as an offset, although it’s not a critical component of the emissions reduction plan.
One other pillar is carbon uptake: concrete absorbs carbon dioxide over time and Auer said a study is underway to learn more about how that works. Allan said there are a number of startups in Canada working to improve this technology so that it makes sense from an investment perspective.
Ultimately, companies such as Heidelberg, which operates the $1.36-billion facility outside Edmonton it hopes will be the world’s first net-zero cement plant, want to sell their product for a premium.
At the moment, Canada’s 14 cement plants are spread out across the country, and largely support domestic demand, although exports to the United States have increased from $840 million in 2016 to $1.1 billion in 2019, according to the action plan.
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For now, Auer said the industry is looking for low-hanging fruit, such as behavioural changes that will wipe out more than five million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2030.
“That’s one of the things that I’m actually quite proud of the sector for,” said Auer. “We’re not waiting for that complete solution. We’re saying there’s a lot of things we can do today on our own, and we’re already investing in those things.”
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