European cement producers not joking about implications of climate change legislation

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Well, it turns out that the European cement industry wasn’t kidding when it raised the risks of the climate mitigation on the sector. This week three (!) integrated plants have been earmarked for closure.

Cementa in Sweden said that it was considering closing its Degerhamn plant due to increased environmental regulations. Today, local press in Spain is reporting that Cemex España is planning to shut down two of its plants. These are plants in different parts of Europe with different local market dynamics but both are within the European Union (EU). That’s three plants closing out of 219 in the EU, or a loss of around 1% of production capacity.

Last week’s column on the United Nations’ (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming raised the way the cement sector is tackling climate change and the existing and impending legislation. President of the German Cement Works Association (VDZ) Christian Knell’s opening words at the VDZ Congress in September 2018 seem prescient. He said, “To be able to realise our efforts in terms of climate protection and at the same time not to lose competitiveness, we need research policy-related support for our investment in breakthrough technologies and the corresponding demonstration projects.” The add-on was that the industry needed to focus on how the development of carbon abatement technologies can meet the 2050 climate goals and, specifically, that suitable boundary conditions would have to be created. The press releases accompanying his speech emphasised that, “on-going trends in European emissions trading and the ‘rapidly increasing’ price of CO2 were already today leading to considerable costs for cement manufacturers.”

These words are similar to the comments Albert Scheuer, a board member of HeidelbergCement, made at the Innovation in Industrial Carbon Capture Conference early in 2018 about dividing the mounting environmental costs of cement and concrete between producers and society in general. Considering how much cementitious building materials most people use throughout their lives compared to the relative low price of cement, this argument carries some weight. In addition, the sustainability credentials of concrete buildings through longer lifespan and durability through extreme weather events is another argument that industry advocates such as the Portland Cement Association (PCA) in the US have been hawking in recent years.

Cementa, a subsidiary of HeidelbergCement, blamed anticipated tightening of environmental regulations for its decision. Although it said that the plant had made improvements over the years, the expected difficulty (read: cost) to make further improvements was becoming too hard. Shifting production to the company’s other two plants in the region, Slite on Gotland and Brevik in Norway, will reduce CO2 emissions by 260,000t/yr.

In Spain, the news from Cemex follows a half-year report from Oficemen, the local cement association, that predicted growth for the year but not as fast as previously expected. The problem was that continued declines in the export market, the 13th decline month-by-month in a row, offset the domestic growth. Oficement president Jesús Ortiz also took time to blame rising electricity costs, expected to rise by 20% year-on-year by the end of 2018.

Market issues in Spain aren’t in doubt, but the real question for both Sweden and Spain is whether EU CO2 legislation right now is causing cement producers to shut plants. The CO2 emissions allowance price hit a high of Euro22/t in September 2018, the highest price in a decade. Allowances have stayed below Euro10/t since 2011 and the price has more than doubled in 2018. Throw in the mood music of the IPCC and the trend seems irresistible. How many more plants in Europe are at risk to shut next? No doubt the European cement producers have charts marking the viability of their plants against the CO2 price. This would be a very interesting graph to get our hands on.

The 2nd FutureCem Conference on CO2 reduction strategies for the cement industry will take place in May 2019 in London, UK

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