Driving the change to net zero concrete

6 min read

As the literal foundation of so many game-changing developments, there’s no doubt that concrete is a material that has offered so much to the built environment. But in its current form, there’s no ignoring its drawbacks. Concrete may well have helped to deliver centrepiece projects within communities across the globe but within the industry it is also a major component of our carbon footprint - accounting for about 8% of global carbon emissions each year.

Despite this sobering statistic, global demand for concrete remains incredibly high. Data from the Climate Group forecasts that over the next 40 years, a city the size of Paris will be built every week. If we are to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we must do more.

Addressing the concrete issue is one way in which we can bring about significant change. The Global Cement and Concrete Association has estimated that aiming to reduce concrete-related emissions by just 25 per cent between now and 2030, would prevent almost 5 billion tonnes of carbon entering the atmosphere. The opportunity for the built environment make an impact is clear to see - and, at an industry level, the shift has already begun.

But what can we as businesses do to accelerate that shift and help facilitate our industry’s move to low carbon concrete?

Creating the right conditions 

Organisations with strong commitments to sustainability are already calling for change and using their influence to challenge concrete specifications across the industry. However, working with other like-minded organisations such as ConcreteZero provides the opportunity to collaborate and combine our efforts to achieve greater impact more quickly.

An immediate response can be to focus purely on developing concrete and cement alternatives. But really that is just the beginning. For projects to use these low carbon cement alternatives, we must also to get them to market, a process which requires change to regulations, engineering standards and a thorough understanding of the new material properties.

There are financial, economic and risk considerations, all of which have significant implications for programmes. We also need to prepare to navigate the commercial, cost and regulatory factors along the way. As a result, there are many stakeholders across industry, academia, and government who need to play their part to bring net zero concrete successfully to market and make it the first choice for sustainable construction. And this is why cross-industry collaboration groups can bring about change. Bringing parties together to share knowledge will accelerate the process of getting concrete alternatives to market.

Setting new standards

There are several exciting prospects on the horizon, with low carbon concrete alternatives in development; Earth Friendly Concrete and Cemfree are two great examples. However, as it stands, these alternative formulations do not yet meet current specifications.

That’s why, as an industry, we need to create new engineering standards and policies, making way for new products. Removing the blockers, to make cement-free concretes the products of choice. How do we unlock these engineering standards? Trialling and testing are vital. We must prove the viability of alternatives in the real world, over extended periods of time - piloting new formulations, like at HS2 Euston Station for example, where the largest pour of EFC was recently carried out for a temporary foundation slab.

In terms of delivery impact, there are curing and strike time implications we need to adapt to too. Traditional concretes have well established strike times in order to achieve the required strength. But net zero replacements tend to have longer strike times and as such we will need to build programmes which factor in those longer curing times. So as we build our collective understanding of how different formulations perform in the real world, we also must design programmes which take that into account.

Sharing our insights

The fact of the matter is that research and development will not happen if there is no potential for a return on investment. That’s why it’s so crucial that the industry prove the demand for net zero concrete and cement alternatives.

Part of that challenge is for us as consultants to share our insights. We must give the signal to the market to demonstrate that demand, and so support start-ups and researchers to develop new products and formulations.

In the pursuit of a sustainable world, knowledge sharing is now more key than ever. What alternative options are available today? What should clients be asking for? What new alternatives are coming to the market? And what is coming up in research and development for the concrete alternatives market? This information must be put into the ether - from thought leadership to international webinars to global events.

Influencing our partners, clients and the supply chain to move to cement free alternatives plays a huge role in bringing them to the market successfully, as well as signalling to the market that there is major demand. As a consultant or as a project manager, large organisations sit in an influential position between clients, designers and contractors, with both the opportunity and responsibility to challenge specifications and create demand for more low or net zero carbon concrete.

As with any significant shift or major innovation, there is risk involved. New specifications and formulations may not yet be readily accepted under current engineering specifications. But part of our role is to help facilitate that, engaging in trials and holding discussions with clients, designers, suppliers, and contractors to improve the availability and acceptability of new products.

The power is in the industry’s hands. And the sooner we move, the faster we will achieve our net zero carbon goal and build a more sustainable construction industry.

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