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Update on cement at COP28

The Global Cement & Concrete Association (GCCA) has been cheerleading at the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai this week with the release of a progress report on the sector’s work towards reaching net zero by 2050. The headline figures are that net CO2 emissions per tonne of cementitious material fell by 23% in 2021 compared to 1990 based on Getting the Numbers Right (GNR) data. Energy efficiency improved by 19% and the fossil fuel component used by the cement sector has fallen to 80% from 98% in 1990. The GCCA has described 2020 – 2030 as the “decade to make it happen” and has set some targets to back this up. Its members intend to reduce CO2 emissions per tonne of cement by 20% by 2030 compared to 2020 levels and concrete CO2 emissions per m3 by 25% over the same time-frame.

The new developments for the cement sector at COP28 so far have been the launch of separate but apparently similar initiatives to help decarbonisation through coordination between nations. The Cement Breakthrough Agenda, backed by the government of Canada and other partners, follows the creation of the Breakthrough Agenda at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) whereby designated governments lead so-called ‘Priority Actions’ to decarbonise various sectors. The idea is to collaborate on measures such as policies, regulations and technologies to help reduce the cost of future investment in decarbonisation. The priority actions will be developed in 2023, worked towards in 2024 and then revised on a regular basis thereafter. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also launched the so-called ‘Climate Club’ on 1 December 2023 to help developing nations invest in technologies to decarbonise sectors such as cement and steel production. The intention is to set up the technical groundwork for a standardised calculation of CO2 intensity in selected products, such as cement and steel, set definitions on what net zero is for these sectors and then set up a platform to connect countries with funding and technical support from governments and the private sector. Neither the Cement Breakthrough Agenda nor the Climate Club has mentioned funding though.

Additionally, Holcim announced that it had become a founding member of the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s SMI Circularity Task Force. The group aims to promote the circular economy to the private and public sector. Holcim was keen to point out that it is already recycling nearly 7Mt/yr of construction and demolition waste, with a target of 10Mt/yr pencilled in by 2025.

Other groups are not as upbeat as the GCCA though. The Global Carbon Project, for example, has estimated in its annual Global Carbon Budget that global fossil CO2 emissions are set to rise by 1.4% year-on-year to 36.8Bnt in 2023. This figure includes both the CO2 released by cement production and the CO2 uptake from cement carbonation. Ongoing research by Robbie Andrew, a greenhouse gas emissions scientist at the CICERO Center for Climate Research in Norway and the Global Carbon Project, found that process emissions by the cement sector fell for the first time since 2015 in 2022, to reach 1.61Bnt. This decrease was most likely due to China’s falling cement production in 2022, stemming from a downturn in the local real estate sector. However, both the data from GCCA and the Global Carbon Project may be right simultaneously as they look at the emissions of the cement sector in different ways.

The GCCA’s job is to advocate for the cement and concrete sector and it is presenting itself well at COP28. Since its formation, it has set up roadmaps, encouraged collaboration and innovation, and is now reporting back on its progress. Net zero remains the goal by 2050, but the GCCA is being upfront about the role carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is expected to play after 2030 and the lack of any full-scale CCUS units so far. Yet it is tracking what has happened so far through the Green Cement Technology Tracker in conjunction with Leadership Group for Industry Transition (LeadIT).

As for the rest of COP28, various reports have been aired in the international press about whether the conference will call for a formal phase out of fossil fuels in some form or another. Whether it actually happens is another matter entirely, especially considering that the president of COP28 is the chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, and any eventual language would likely be vague. Yet the work by the GGCA and others has started to make the unthinkable a little more thinkable.

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