Climate activist Greta Thunberg memorably summarised the outcome of the 2021 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP26) as “blah, blah, blah” but what did it mean for the cement and concrete industries?
Making sense of the diplomatic language the UN uses is a full time job due to its impenetrable jargon. This is partly why climate activists and others may have become jaded about the outcome of the world’s biggest climate change jamboree. The conference of the parties (COP) tried desperately to hang on to the 1.5°C warming aim set at the Paris event (COP21) in 2015. This is dependent though on countries sticking to their 2030 targets and becoming net-zero by 2050 or earlier. Unfortunately, both China and India, two of the world’s current top three CO2 emitters, have announced net-zero dates of after 2050. Those two countries also drew fire in the western press for weakening the language used in the COP’s outcome document about the ‘phasing out’ or ‘phasing down’ of coal use. However, simply getting coal written on the final agreement has been viewed as a result. Other positive outcomes from the event included commitments for countries to review their 2030 targets in 2022, progress towards coordinating carbon trading markets around the world and work on adaptation finance from developed countries to developing ones.
The headline results from COP26 carry mixed implications for the building materials sector. The Paris agreement (COP21) has already achieved an effect in the run-up to COP26 by prompting the cement and concrete industries to release a roadmap from the Global Cement and Concrete Association (GCCA) in October 2021. Now it’s down to whether individual governments actually follow the targets and how they enforce it if they do. If they don’t, then the response from building material producers is likely to be mixed at best.
What may have a more tangible effect is the work on carbon markets at COP26. Countries were finally able to complete technical negotiations on the ‘Paris Agreement Rulebook,’ notably including work on Article 6, the section that helps to govern international carbon markets and allows for a global carbon offsetting mechanism. The European Union (EU) Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has shown over the last year how a high carbon price may be able to stimulate companies to invest in mitigation measures such as upping alternative fuels substitution rates and developing carbon capture and storage/utilisation projects. Critics would argue that it may simply be offshoring cement production and closing local plants unnecessarily. Making a more global carbon trading scheme work amplifies both these gains and risks. Either way though, having an international framework to build upon is a major development. Finally, work on adaptation finance could have an effect for cement producers if the money actually makes it to its destination. The big example of this announced at COP26 was a US$8.5bn fund to help South Africa reduce its use of coal. It is mainly targeted at power generation but local cement producers, as a major secondary user of coal, are likely to be affected too.
Alongside the big announcements from COP26 lots of countries and companies, including ones in the cement sector, announced many sustainability plans. One of these included the launch of the Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative (IDDI) during COP26 by the governments of the UK, India, Germany, Canada and the UAE. This scheme intends to create new markets for low carbon concrete and steel to help decarbonise heavy industry. To do this it will disclose the embodied carbon of major public construction projects by 2025, aim to reach net zero in major public construction steel and concrete by 2050, and work on an emissions reduction target for 2030 which will be announced in 2022. Other goals include setting up reporting standards, product standards, procurement guidelines and a free or low-cost certification service by 2023.
All of this suggests that the pressure remains on for the cement and concrete sector to decarbonise, provided that the governments stick to their targets and pledges, and back it up with action. If they do, then the industry will remind legislators of the necessity of essential infrastructure and then continue to ask for financial aid to support the development and uptake of low carbon cements, carbon capture and whatever else. Further adoption of carbon markets around the world and global rules on carbon leakage could help to accelerate this process, as could adaptation finance and global standards for low carbon concrete. The next year will be critical to see if the 1.5°C target survives and the next decade will be crucial to see if global gross cement-related CO2 emissions will actually peak. If they do then it will be a case of ‘hip hip hurrah’ rather than ‘blah blah blah’.