Energy Transition

Here's how India can reduce its cement-related emissions

Approximately 40% of India's bagged cement is mixed by hand for small-scale construction projects. This often leads to over-use

Approximately 40% of India's bagged cement is mixed by hand for small-scale construction projects. This often leads to over-use Image: Rodolfo Quirós for Pexels

Yvonne Leung
Global Strategic Engagement Lead, Philanthropy for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Andrew Minson
Concrete and Sustainable Construction Director, Global Cement and Concrete Association
Vikram Janakiraman
Managing director and partner, Boston Consulting Group
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  • India is the second-largest market for cement in the world, and it is growing rapidly.
  • Like many other emerging markets, much of India's cement is used for small-scale residential construction.
  • To reduce emissions, emerging markets like India must focus on both small-scale builders, and larger infrastructure projects.

India is the second-largest market for cement in the world, and it is predicted to more than double between 2020-30. At the same time, addressing climate change is becoming an urgent priority. India's use of cement will have clear implications for its ability to decarbonise the economy. There are many steps needed to reduce the carbon footprint of cement. These include manufacturing process decarbonization, using carbon capture technology and alternative fuels, and also efficiency in design and construction. The latter is much needed, but often receives less attention. It will require education and training for decision makers, supportive codes and policies from the government, and action from manufacturers.

Achieving efficiency in design and construction requires an understanding of how cement is used. And historically, there has been limited available data about India's use of cement. A total of 75-80% of cement in India is sold as bagged cement, typically in 50kg bags. Producers, retailers and distributors who sell the bagged cement have little insight into where it goes, what it is used for and how it is mixed.

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To better understand cement use in emerging markets – and the implications for decarbonisation – the Mission Possible Partnership’s Concrete Action for Climate initiative, co-led by the World Economic Forum and Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA), supported by the GCCA team in India, conducted a study in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group covering India, Brazil, Indonesia and Egypt.

Educating small-scale cement users

Our research showed that most homes are built using bagged cement. Approximately 40% of bagged cement in India is mixed by hand, while the rest is mostly done with mechanised mixers. When cement is mixed with water, sand and other additives to form concrete, it is common, especially when mixing by hand, to use more cement than necessary – it gives the builder more confidence that the structure will be sturdy, and cement is relatively inexpensive. However, this excessive use is problematic when it comes to reducing emissions from cement and concrete.

Reducing emissions from cement in India and other emerging markets will involve educating those involved in this type of construction about cement use. They need to know the importance of avoiding excessive use of cement, and have access to accurate information about what cement recipes are appropriate for different components of residential structures. They also need to be encouraged to use design techniques that use less cement. It is unclear, however, which organisations will take on this important effort and how they will reach these key stakeholders. One solution could be to introduce embodied carbon labels and information on cement bags.

A total of 75-80% of cement in India is sold as bagged cement, typically in 50kg bags
A total of 75-80% of cement in India is sold as bagged cement, typically in 50kg bags Image: Concrete Action for Climate – Mission Possible Partnership, Boston Consulting Group

Addressing the transition to bulk cement

Bulk cement now makes up 20-25 % of cement consumption in India, up from almost none 20 years ago. This figure is expected to continue to rise as the economy grows, which creates both challenges and opportunities for the country’s pathway to net zero cement and concrete. Larger projects often have significant structural requirements and require the use of higher-strength concrete, which is more carbon intensive than lower strength concrete. Such projects may also be subject to conservative specifications, which often do not allow the use of lower-carbon cement products. Cement produced in bulk is more easily mixed with supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs), which lower the carbon intensity of cement.

Government leadership across national, regional, and local levels will be critical for decarbonising cement sold in bulk. Industry and government should revise the codes that prohibit the use of blended cements and SCMs. The government can also help the industry transition by using green public procurement policies, which incentivize use of lower-carbon concrete.

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A holistic plan

India is a large and geographically dispersed market, and some areas are likely to continue to rely heavily on bagged cement in the decades to come. Since it is typically impractical for ready-mixed concrete to travel long distances, some areas will continue to lack access to ready mixed concrete until many more plants are built around the country. Rural areas are likely to see less investment in large-scale projects and thus less demand for the construction of ready-mixed concrete plants.

The problem of cement emissions is too urgent to ignore these areas in which the change in cement usage will be slower. Decarbonisation roadmaps must be tailored to address both the current use of bagged cement and the evolution to more industrialised cement products. To achieve net zero cement and concrete, both government and industry must consider how they can support the decarbonization of bulk cement and large projects and also how they can best impact the behaviours and decisions of the masons, contractors and homeowners tasked with constructing housing for much of the nation.

This article originally ran in the November 2022 issue of International Cement Review and has been condensed for this format.

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