Major Cement, Concrete Manufacturers Make 2050 Net Zero Pledge

Long-term plan could reduce the industry’s climate change impact, but may not address all air pollution issues affecting Indiana.
November 1, 2021

Many of the world’s major cement and concrete manufacturers have recently pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, but their long-term plans may not sufficiently address air quality issues and other health risks from industry operations in Indiana.

Dozens of international companies, including two companies that operate in Indiana, and their subsidiaries, have signed on to net zero commitments from industry trade organizations to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Global Cement and Concrete Association’s Concrete Future roadmap and the Portland Cement Association’s Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality plan would meet that commitment through the transformation of cement and concrete production and the methods used to create buildings and other infrastructure.

The plan would directly affect cement production plants, terminals and quarries in Indiana owned by Buzzi Unicem USA and Lehigh Hanson Inc.

“There is currently no single process, product or technology that can get our industry to carbon neutrality, but even if there was, looking at clinker, cement and concrete in isolation does not get us to the desired end – a durable, safe, resilient and energy efficient low-carbon built environment. This is why PCA member companies are embarking on this journey to carbon neutrality as a full industry and inviting others across the entire value chain to join the effort,” said Massimo Toso, CEO of Buzzi Unicem USA.

Cement and concrete are used to build structures, roadways and other infrastructure important to the U.S. economy. The cement industry makes up about 6% of the gross domestic product.

About 4.6 billion tons of cement were made globally in 2020, producing about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Cement is made by mining materials like limestone, shale, iron ore and clay, then crushing them and heating them at high temperatures to form clinker, marble-sized pieces of fused material. Clinker is then very finely ground to produce Portland cement, which is mixed with water and other ingredients to make concrete.

According to the Portland Cement Association, the chemical reaction that transforms the calcium carbonate in limestone into the calcium oxide used in clinker is responsible for 60% of carbon dioxide emissions from cement manufacturing. The energy-intensive combustion used to heat up the clinker is responsible for the remaining 40%.

“There is no way around that step and there is no viable alternative that can be produced at the scale needed,” the PCA said.

The industry climate roadmap plots changes to the production process that would modestly reduce carbon emissions in the next decade, but could set the stage for further reductions between 2030 and 2050.

The plan would require cement manufacturers to use already-processed decarbonated raw materials instead of newly mined materials. The PCA believes decarbonated raw material use could double by 2050.

The roadmap also calls for replacing traditional fossil fuels like coal and petroleum coke in the combustion process and improving energy efficiency. The PCA said it currently takes 3.84 metric million British thermal units, or about six times the average energy used in a household in one year, to produce one metric ton of clinker.

The plan also involves embracing “beneficial use” of coal combustion residuals, also known as coal ash, and technological advances that have not yet proven viable, like carbon capture and sequestration.

Major cement manufacturers have previously attempted to adopt long-term plans for sustainability.

In 2002, 10 major cement manufacturers, including Lehigh Hanson parent company HeidelbergCement, published their Agenda for Action on Sustainable Development, a plan that sought to address climate change and other issues related to cement production. The agenda met with limited success.

“The reality is that the cement and concrete industry will still be emitting CO2 in 2050; however, through direct reductions, avoidance measures and the attributes of utilizing concrete structures, the industry can completely offset their CO2 emissions,” said Toso.

The cement industry’s roadmap may result in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in the long term, but it’s unclear whether the plan would also address other health issues currently affecting Hoosiers and other Americans.

Besides carbon dioxide, the cement manufacturing process also emits large amounts of other greenhouse gases and pollutants, making it the third-largest industrial source of pollution in the U.S.

The industry has been accused of multiple Clean Air Act violations at its facilities in Indiana and elsewhere in the U.S.

In June, a Greencastle cement plant owned by Buzzi Unicem USA subsidiary Lone Star Industries Inc. paid $729,000 in fines and millions of dollars in plant upgrades to settle alleged CAA violations involving excess emissions of particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Particulate matter can enter the lungs or bloodstream and aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular health issues in humans or cause other issues like irregular heartbeat, airway irritation, coughing and breathing difficulties.

Carbon monoxide can reduce the amount of oxygen transported to the blood stream and vital organs and aggravate the health of people with heart disease, including causing chest pains. At very high levels indoors, carbon monoxide can also cause death.

In December 2019, Lehigh Hanson Inc. paid $1.3 million in civil penalties and $12 million in plant upgrades to settle alleged CAA violations related to excess sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at its cement plant in Mitchell and 10 other plants in various other states.

Sulfur dioxide can make breathing difficult and can harm trees by damaging leaves and decreasing growth.

Nitrogen oxide can irritate airways and lead to other respiratory symptoms. Long-term exposure to nitrogen oxide can contribute to asthma development and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Together, the gases can form acid rain, an acidic form of precipitation that can damage buildings and other manmade structures and corrode metal.

In 2016, HeidelbergCement acquired the company that owned the Essroc Cement Co., which in 2011 settled alleged CAA violations involving excess sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions at six plants, including two plants in Logansport and Speed. The settlement cost the company $1.7 million in civil penalties and $33 million in plant upgrades.

Researchers have found cleaner concrete production could cut air pollution by 14% and costs from climate and health damage by 44%.

Major Cement, Concrete Manufacturers Make 2050 Net Zero Pledge