The Environmental Impact of Concrete

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence. It is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet. But, while it may have shaped most of our built environment, it also has a huge carbon footprint.

According to Chatham House, cement is the source of about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. To put that into perspective, if the cement industry was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel and isn’t far behind the global agriculture business. Following this research, architects have been urged to reconsider their use of concrete given that the UK has set a 2050 target to reduce its carbon emissions to 80% less than it was in 1990, so we need to be doing everything we can.

It’s no surprise that cement is so widely used, it’s a remarkably good construction material. A mix of sand, gravel, a cement binder and water, concrete is widely embraced by architects, structural engineers, developers and builders. It’s affordable, which is always a bonus, and you can produce it almost anywhere. Perhaps it’s not about reducing how much cement we use but more looking into how it is produced. Research from Chatham House found that more than 50% of emissions are linked to the process for producing clinker, one of the main ingredients involved in the manufacture of cement. There are alternatives to cement such as the waste from steel production, although there is not a huge supply. Obviously, I don’t think we need to stop using it, but I do think the industry needs to take this into consideration and industry workers need to be more efficient when using it.

The IPCC’s latest report warned that the world has just 12 years left to moderate CO2 emissions and halt devastating global warming, so it’s not just a case of ‘trying’ to be green, it’s getting pretty serious and I certainly don’t want our industry to be the one of the main causes given everything we’ve been doing over the years to improve.

We recognise that we work in one of the biggest industries in the world, and because of what we do, we have potential to cause a lot of damage but that means we also have the most potential to make a difference on protecting the environment. Companies are always thinking of new innovative ways of being efficient and we’ve really stepped up our game in the last few years. Offsite construction is now becoming the norm, we’ve got PopUp Houses, plastic roads, even a ‘bubble’ building here in Newcastle, all of which are slowly making a difference.  While the aesthetics of a building are still important, we need to consider the materials we’re using and their wider impact – hopefully we’re all in agreement on that.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.