CRH announced changes to its structure this week. The changes to its divisions follow the rapid growth of the company and may also anticipate the new cement assets it is about to take on-board once its acquisition of Ash Grove Cement completes in the US. Buried in one its regulatory filings covering the news were two graphs of changes in cement demand in the US and Europe through various financial depressions since the 1930s.
Graph 1: Changes in cement demand in US and Europe during financial depressions. Source: CRH with data from US Geological Survey, PCA, United Nations, Morgan Stanley etc.
The graphs serve their purpose for a public company as they show both markets in the current downturn starting to rise again. In other words it looks like the perfect time to invest in a building materials company! However, thinking more broadly the graphs give a timely reminder of how bad the last decade has been for the cement market, particularly in Europe. The period only really compares to the 1930s in decline and duration if the figures are accurate. It must be considered though that while the West has suffered, markets in the East, notably led by China and India, have boomed.
The financial crash in 2008 was precipitated by the US subprime mortgage market. Other potential market killers lie ahead no doubt. One such might be the so-called ‘Carbon Bubble.’ This idea has gained media traction this week with the publication of a paper in the Nature Climate Change journal examining the economic impact of decarbonisation, if or when it happens.
It’s not a new argument but it makes the assertion that as new technologies that replace fossil fuels start to influence the markets, traditional fuel producers like oil companies may face being stuck with ‘stranded’ assets as legislation toughens up and technology mounts. This in turn could cause a financial crash and it’s this aspect that the paper has looked at.
The ace in the hole from the Nature Climate Change paper is that the modelling here suggests a way out of the usual prisoner’s dilemma approach to climate change action. Once sufficiently-low carbon technologies hit a certain level of adoption, then any country holding out and using fossil fuels instead of taking of action may start to suffer economically. Or in other words cheating won’t pay.
The carbon bubble theory is pretty convenient for the climate change lobby as it gives it a financial reason to fight its enemies by targeting investors. One counter argument is realistically how fast and deep would the decarbonisation technologies actually have to be to cause significant financial disruption. Surely the oil producers would get out of risky assets before it was too late. Then again, maybe not.
The cement industry is in exactly the same situation as the oil producers as it too depends on carbon rich assets, in this case limestone, for its business to operate. If limestone assets become ‘stranded’ due to toughened legislation then how can production continue? In addition though, volatility in the fuels and secondary cementitious materials (SCM) markets already being observed from the cement industry may make one wonder about the existence of the carbon bubble. Markets for waste-derived fuels and granulated blast furnace slag are currently changing in the wake of the tightening of Chinese legislation both in and out of the country. In theory this could mean cheaper inputs for cement production but the market is hard to predict. The other classic recent example is how the US natural gas boom from fracking has reduced global oil prices with further effects on the coal and gas that cement producers use. This in turn has placed pressure on various countries that are reliant on their petrodollars and caused pain to their local cement industries, like Saudi Arabia for example. The price of Brent Crude may be rising at the moment but once it hits a certain threshold, the hydraulic fracking of gas wells in the US will resume pumping. Of course both waste inputs and fracking could just be attributable respectively to market distortions by a large country changing policy and a new technology finding its feet.
If the carbon bubble theory carries any weight then CRH’s cement demand graph during recessions may carry a warning to producers about what might happen if decarbonisation leaves the fossil fuel producers behind. With good timing for this theme South Korea’s Ssangyong Cement announced this week that it is close to completing a waste heat recovery (WHR) unit at its Donghae plant, one of the biggest in the world with seven production lines. The interesting detail here is that the WHR unit will work in conjunction with an energy storage system to form a microgrid. This kind of setup is well suited to using energy from renewables as well as from conventional sources like a national electricity grid. In other words, this is exactly the kind of development at a cement plant that might in a small way lessen its reliance on fossil fuels in the face of any potential supply issues.