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Environmental impacts and decarbonization strategies in the cement and concrete industries

Abstract

The use of cement and concrete, among the most widely used man-made materials, is under scrutiny. Owing to their large-scale use, production of cement and concrete results in substantial emission of greenhouse gases and places strain on the availability of natural resources, such as water. Projected urbanization over the next 50–100 years therefore indicates that the demand for cement and concrete will continue to increase, necessitating strategies to limit their environmental impact. In this Review, we shed light on the available solutions that can be implemented within the next decade and beyond to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cement and concrete production. As the construction sector has proven to be very slow-moving and risk-averse, we focus on minor improvements that can be achieved across the value chain, such as the use of supplementary cementitious materials and optimizing the clinker content of cement. Critically, the combined effect of these marginal gains can have an important impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50% if all stakeholders are engaged. In doing so, we reveal credible pathways for sustainable concrete use that balance societal needs, environmental requirements and technical feasibility.

Key points

  • Large-scale replacement of cement by other materials is not possible within the next decade.

  • The environmental impact of cement and concrete production is low per unit volume of material, but the amounts used make the impact of the concrete sector highly important.

  • Reductions in CO2 emissions are possible through the introduction of improvements across the cement and concrete value chain.

  • By engaging all stakeholders in the construction sector, immediate greenhouse gas savings on the order of 50% could be reached without heavy investment in new industrial infrastructure or modification of existing standards.

  • Research and development are urgently needed to allow post-2050 construction to meet future emissions-reduction targets.

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Fig. 1: The contribution of cement and concrete production to global warming.
Fig. 2: The cement value chain.
Fig. 3: Carbonation profile through concrete.

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Acknowledgements

The work of A.F., G.H. and K.L.S. has been supported by the European Climate Foundation for a project on “a sustainable future for the European cement and concrete industry”. The work of V.M.J. is supported by the National Institute on Advanced Eco-Efficient Cement-Based Technologies - CEMtec (FAPESP grant no 2014/50948-3 and CNPq grant no 465593/2014-3).

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All authors contributed to the writing of the article. All authors made a substantial contribution to the discussion of content and reviewing the early version of the article. A.F., S.A.M. and G.H. researched data for the article. G.H., S.A.M., A.H. and J.L.P. reviewed and edited the last version of the manuscript before submission.

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Glossary

Plaster

A mixture of hydraulic cement, fine aggregate and water that hardens; used for coating surfaces, such as ceilings, walls and partitions.

Portland cement

A cement constituted by 90–95% clinker, 2–3% gypsum and minor additives. It is the most common cement type.

Clinker

The active part of Portland cement. It is a dark-grey, nodular material made by heating ground limestone and clay at a temperature of about 1,400–1,500 °C.

Ready-mix concrete

Concrete manufactured and delivered to a purchaser in a fresh state.

Cement kiln dust

Collected during the firing of raw materials during the clinker manufacturing process. Consists of four major components: unreacted raw feed, partially calcined feed and clinker dust, free lime and enriched salts of alkali sulfates, halides and other volatile compounds.

Aggregate

A granular material, such as sand, gravel or crushed stone, used with a cementing medium to form hydraulic-cement concrete or mortar.

Filler

A finely divided mineral product, at least 65 % of which passes the 75-μm sieve.

Supplementary cementitious materials

An inorganic material that contributes to the properties of a cementitious mixture through hydraulic or pozzolanic activity.

Fly ash

Mineral residue of coal combustion composed of the fine particles driven out of coal-fired boilers, together with the fuel gases.

Blast-furnace slag

By-product of iron-making and steel-making, obtained by quenching molten iron slag from a blast furnace in water or steam.

Dead load

Loads that are relatively constant over time, including the weight of the structure itself and immovable fixtures.

Post-tensioning

Action of tensioning tendons of reinforced structure after the surrounding concrete has been cast. It is applied for prestressed concrete and reduces tensile forces in the structure.

Carbonation depth

Depth within the structure at which the pH is greater than 9.

Subbase

The subbase is the main load-bearing layer of the pavement, usually composed of unbound aggregates, while the base and the wearing course are asphalt-bound layers positioned above the subbase.

Oxyfuel

Combustion process, where fuels are burnt in a nearly pure oxygen environment, as opposed to air, resulting in a CO2-separation efficiency theoretically close to 100%.

Exposure class

The exposure condition of a concrete structure, which defines the concrete prescription required to assure the durability of the concrete structure over its life cycle.

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Habert, G., Miller, S.A., John, V.M. et al. Environmental impacts and decarbonization strategies in the cement and concrete industries. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 559–573 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0093-3

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