The role of cement in the
2050 Low Carbon Economy


Concrete Action for 2050

Mr Peter Hoddinott, President of CEMBUREAU

Mankind’s invention of concrete has been a key event in evolution. Its simplicity, durability, strength, affordability and infinite ability to be moulded provide the solid foundations and essential built environment for society. Some call it ʽliquid stoneʼ allowing architects, community planners and homebuilders to realise their dreams, including the creation of spaces of beauty and light. But it goes beyond that. Concrete works equally well underwater, underground, in Arctic conditions and on the top floors of skyscrapers. It has high fire resistance. It absorbs and releases heat, acting as a natural air conditioner due to this ʽthermal inertiaʼ. The result of all this is that concrete is the third most used substance in the world after air and water, a staple of modern life and society.

Of course, there is a catch. The special ingredient or glue which makes all this possible is a rather ordinary-looking grey powder called cement, the production of which typically produces 600-700kg of CO2 per tonne. This is because it needs energy (both fuel and electricity) and the production process releases CO2. Globally, cement production accounts for around 5% of man-made CO2 emissions. The industry recognises this responsibility and embraces its commitment to reduce this markedly, especially by contributing to the circular economy. This document will focus on what can be done to reduce CO2 in cement production using today’s technology, and will speculate on what could be achieved by 2050.

But there is a secondary responsibility for the industry. For example, around 18% of global energy (with resultant CO2) is consumed by conventional buildings during their life – and this figure rises to over 35% in Europe. Depending on design, concrete buildings and structures can be supremely elegant. The same goes for energy efficiency, where concrete has a major role to play. Its thermal inertia means that intelligently-conceived modern concrete buildings can use 75% less energy over their whole life cycle. Thus, how and when concrete is used can have a profound effect on global emissions. The cement industry is a leader in concrete research, development, production and technology. Through innovative application and concrete products, the contribution of the industry to the low carbon economy of 2050 can and will go beyond reductions in emissions from cement production.

Predicting the future is a notoriously hazardous activity. What is certain is that the world in 2050 will be a very different place from today.  Just look at how people 40 years ago imagined the world in the 2010s to be. Few predicted that China would be on its way to overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy, nor foresaw the shale gas revolution nor the importance of Moore’s Law. Today, we have access to virtually all global knowledge using a device that fits in our pocket, even though its most popular use is to share one’s life with 500+ friends. Nevertheless, there are a few distinct trends:

  • Between 2011 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion.1
  • At the same time, the urban population will increase from 3.6 billion in 2011 to probably over 6 billion in 2050.
  • A world economy four times larger than today’s is projected to require 80% more energy.
  • The volume of travel within urban areas is anticipated to triple by 2050, with the number of cars worldwide doubling to more than 2 billion.
  • Innovation in construction will make buildings more energy efficient and could turn them from energy consumers into energy producers.

This increase in population and economic growth will place added strain on already limited resources, and will require sustained efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. Cement, as a key component of concrete, will have a very important role to play in managing resources and providing solutions to deal with increased population and urbanisation, with possible levers including:

  • Innovative buildings to provide energy-efficient housing solutions or work spaces that will double as platforms to generate renewable energy.
  • New transport solutions to minimise their environmental effects and congestion.
  • Vertical buildings to reduce space needed to house 9 billion people.
  • Large-scale projects to help capture the power of wind, tides and the sun.
  • Infrastructure to help protect us from a possible rise in sea levels.

Concrete will be the main material of choice for most of these solutions. As an industry, however, we will not focus only on the solutions we provide, but also continue to act responsibly to manufacture with maximum care.  This roadmap explores different routes and possibilities for achieving a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions in cement production. Moreover, their impact will not be limited to reducing CO2 emissions, but can also lead to a meaningful decrease in other greenhouse gas emissions, as well as energy and use of natural resources. We are confident that a combination of parallel routes will result in a sustainable cement industry in Europe.

It is important to remember that the cement industry does not stand alone; it is part of the European construction sector. In this context, it is useful to look beyond the factory gate and see how innovation in concrete and building techniques can contribute to more sustainable construction and buildings.

We look forward to working with the construction sector, policy makers, research communities and civil society in the course of this journey. We hope this document will inspire a dialogue that will result in an increasingly sustainable European cement and concrete industry for the world we live in today and will share tomorrow.