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HeidelbergCement: leading the way to carbon neutrality

A thought leadership piece from Elena Lenz, HeidelbergCement

HeidelbergCement is one of the leading companies in the construction industry. Our building materials and solutions shape significant development worldwide: They are used for the construction of houses, infrastructure and commercial facilities, thus meeting the demands of a growing world population. At the centre of our actions lies our responsibility for the environment.

The power of concrete

Concrete is the most-used building material in the world, thanks to its many benefits: It is locally sourced and affordable, and 100% recyclable at the end of its service life. It is very durable and absorbs and retains heat, which contributes to the energy efficiency of concrete buildings. It is fire resistant, can minimise the effects that produce urban heat islands, and its pervious structure can help to prevent flooding. And it is a carbon sink during its lifetime, since it naturally absorbs CO2 from the air.

Our path towards CO2 emissions reduction…

However, the manufacturing of cement, the glue within concrete, is an energy-intensive process: And although the carbon emissions per unit are relatively low for concrete, which is in fact a comparatively low-carbon construction material already, the sheer amount of roughly 25 billion tonnes per year produced worldwide leads to a significant carbon footprint. Therefore, climate protection is at the core of our sustainability strategy and we invest a lot of resources into lowering our CO2 emissions. We are convinced that concrete has the potential to become the most sustainable building material.

We at HeidelbergCement make very good progress in this regard: we will reduce our specific CO2 emissions per tonne of cement by 30% (compared to 1990) until 2025 – initially, we wanted to achieve this by 2030. This goal made us the first cement company to receive approval from SBTi for our CO2 reduction targets. Furthermore, the CDP verified our progress results as well and rated HeidelbergCement with an A score in 2020.

Our new commitment to reduce our specific net CO2 emissions to below 500kg per tonne of cementitious material by 2030 is based on concrete bottom-up measures on plant and product level and underpinned by detailed country roadmaps. Our measures include conventional reduction levers (e.g. increased use of alternative raw materials and alternative fuels such as biomass) and build on localised low carbon and sustainable product portfolios.

HeidelbergCement`s groupwide R&D and product innovation departments developed products such as

  • TioCem®, a photocatalytic cement that decomposes NOx in the surrounding air
  • Ecocrete®, concrete with up to 100% recycled aggregates and low CO2 cement
  • Cemflow®, a self-levelling cementitious screed enabling optimum embedding of floor heating pipes and leading to significant energy and CO2 emission savings during a building’s life
  • Powercrete®, concrete with exceptionally high thermal conductivity, which allows high-voltage cables to be laid underground that support the energy transition

We work towards transparent promotion and declaration of our products. As a founding member of the Concrete Sustainability Council (CSC), we played an integral role in creating and establishing a certification system for responsibly sourced concrete. Recognition of the CSC system in Green Building Labels enables certified concrete plants to deliver “certified concrete” into green building projects, and hence to provide their customers with the opportunity to gain extra points in the respective Green Building Label. Furthermore, we aim at providing Environmental Product Declarations for our main cement types in many European countries by 2030 as we have recently done for example in Sweden.

​….to carbon-neutral concrete

Besides these conventional levers, HeidelbergCement investigates and will implement a variety of new approaches on our journey to carbon neutrality in concrete by 2050 at the latest. These measures include the use of alternative cementitious materials to replace the carbon-intensive clinker portion in cement, the use of recycled aggregates as well as Carbon Capture and Utilisation/Storage (CCU/S).

For recycled aggregates, a number of projects and cooperations are already underway and more are in piloting phases. Our Australian subsidiary Alex Fraser, for example, recycles more than 3 million tonnes of demolition concrete and several hundred thousand tonnes of asphalt and glass waste every year.

Alongside the circular economy, carbon capture and usage or storage (CCU/S) technologies will play an essential role in making concrete carbon-neutral. HeidelbergCement and its partners investigate three different technologies to capture CO2 at the following locations, with further projects to come:

  • Post Combustion Capture in Brevik, Norway and Edmonton, Canada
  • Direct Separation Technology in Lixhe, Belgium
  • Oxyfuel Technology in Germany (planning stages)

The captured CO2 can be utilised, e.g. for re-carbonation, the deliberate facilitation of CO2 re-absorption into fresh or demolished concrete, or to grow algae as high-quality animal feed. CO2 that cannot yet be utilised, can be safely stored underground for a limited period of time.

Collaboration is key

The construction industry is facing a new set of sustainability-related challenges: besides climate change, the way we do business will be affected by digitalisation, resource scarcity and modular construction. At HeidelbergCement, we want to lead the way to carbon neutrality, and we will work closely with our stakeholders to tackle future challenges by offering new products, technologies and building solutions. To be successful, cooperation with policy makers and other relevant industrial players is more important than ever – and the reason why we have joined the Europe Regional Network of the WGBC and why we are active in industry associations such as CEMBUREAU and the GCCA. In addition, we further intensify cooperation with universities, start-ups and third parties to develop “out of the box” solutions.

Together, we will have to ensure that we will be able to act under comparable and fair competitive conditions on regional and global level playing field. Fundamental for the change of cement industry is a predictable and reliable long-term legislative environment, which will support the shift to a climate-neutral industrial production and society.