Nature and Biodiversity

Low carbon design can reduce cement emissions by 40% - here’s how to deploy it at scale

Low carbon design can help reduce cement emissions by up to 40% by 2030.

Low carbon design can help reduce cement emissions by up to 40% by 2030. Image: Unsplash/C Dustin

Yvonne Leung
Global Strategic Engagement Lead, Philanthropy for Nature and Climate, World Economic Forum
Marta Guzzafame
Managing Director & Partner, Boston Consulting Group
Andrew Minson
Concrete and Sustainable Construction Director, Global Cement and Concrete Association
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  • Cement emissions from construction projects can fall by up to 40% by 2030 with low-carbon materials and design techniques.
  • Today, systemic challenges across the construction value chain prevent low carbon design and materials from being deployed at scale.
  • A new report provides a framework that design and construction firms, materials producers, project owners, investors and governments can use to scale low carbon design and construction.

As the second most consumed resource on Earth after water and a critical material for buildings and infrastructure, concrete plays an important role in the modern built environment and our increasingly urbanized societies. Demand for concrete thus continues to grow with economies and standards of living worldwide.

At the same time, concrete is a hard-to-abate sector, with cement, the primary ingredient in concrete, responsible for around 7% of global emissions. Decarbonizing the industry is crucial to achieving net zero and action is needed urgently.

Have you read?

The low carbon design opportunity

A new report, Scaling low carbon design and construction with concrete: Enabling the path to net-zero for buildings and infrastructure, published by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group with industry input from the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) – states that there is a massive opportunity to reduce carbon emissions from concrete in the near-term through scaled deployment in low carbon design techniques and the use of low-carbon concrete products.

The report explains that emissions from concrete in construction projects can be reduced by up to 40% by 2030 through three key levers:

  • Manufacturing process decarbonization, including tactics such as production efficiency and renewable electricity in line with GCCA’s 2030 forecast published in its 2050 net-zero roadmap (excluding widespread deployment of carbon capture utilization and storage or other breakthrough technologies).
  • Specifying lower-carbon cement blends, which use supplementary cementitious materials to reduce the volume of cement in production, reducing the blend’s carbon footprint.
  • Optimizing the volume of material used in projects by applying design techniques which reduce the overall volumes of material required (narrower column spacing, using hollow spaces etc.) and balancing trade-offs between carbon intensity of cement products and volumes required.
From the report, Scaling low carbon design and construction with concrete: Enabling the path to net-zero for buildings and infrastructure, World Economic Forum.
From the report, Scaling low carbon design and construction with concrete: Enabling the path to net-zero for buildings and infrastructure, World Economic Forum. Image: World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group.

Systemic challenges stand in the way

Unfortunately, several barriers across the construction value chain prevent low carbon design and construction practices from being achieved at scale. Challenges include:

  • Carbon assessment practices and data inputs are insufficient. Measuring projects’ carbon footprints and setting targets to reduce emissions are natural first steps toward scaling low carbon design practices. However, most design and construction firms do not consistently conduct carbon assessments for projects. Furthermore, providing detailed cement and concrete emissions data in the form of environmental product declarations (EPDs) can be cumbersome and expensive for manufacturers.
  • Fragmentation exists across the value chain. Delivering a built project typically requires efforts from multiple firms, teams and types of experts, which often make decisions independently and are not structured for collaboration toward low-carbon outcomes. Furthermore, this inhibits visibility into local supply chains to identify available low-carbon product solutions (critical for concrete which is a locally sourced product).
  • Project owners don't make demands. Reducing emissions from concrete in projects requires effort and sometimes additional costs. Architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms delivering projects, struggle to prioritize low carbon design when customers don't value it. Without clear demand signals, cement and concrete producers hesitate to allocate the capital investments required to decarbonize and scale supply of low-carbon materials. Some governments have launched green public procurement programmes and corporations have set commitments to procure low-carbon materials but most project buyers have not instituted such practices.
  • Norms and standards are outdated. Low carbon design techniques and products are not always aligned with industry norms and documented codes and standards, introducing risk and requiring firms to buck the status quo to deploy them.

A path to scaling low carbon design

There are actions, which can be taken across the value chain to overcome these obstacles. The report, which was developed with input from a dozen global organizations across the AEC and cement production industries, presents a framework for scaling low carbon design to reduce cement and concrete emissions. The framework outlines the contributions needed by different players across the built environment value chain. Among them:

  • Design and construction firms should conduct whole lifecycle emissions assessments, pilot new low-carbon solutions, and prioritize low carbon design and construction within their own firms, altering the operating model and culture to fit.
  • Cement and concrete producers must increase the support and education provided to design and engineering firms, invest in EPD production and scale the supply of low-carbon materials.
  • Project buyers (public and private) must prioritize low carbon designs in their requirements, bid selection and design process.
  • Governments can play a role in accelerating progress and closing economic gaps through supportive policy.
A framework for scaling low carbon design with concrete.
A framework for scaling low carbon design with concrete.

No one player can achieve the necessary actions alone. Scaling low carbon design will take action and collaboration across the built environment value chain. Now is the time for public and private sector leaders to act.

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