12 September 2023

Green cement? Redesigning production processes from the perspective of sustainability

Mauricio Paz, Industry Banker of Construction & Infrastructure

Concrete literally holds the modern world together. This material and its binding base, cement, are one of the key raw materials used in homes, buildings, bridges and roads, which are essential for economic activity and for the generation of sustainable growth.

However, the cement industry is also responsible for generating approximately 7% of greenhouse gas emissions, the main cause of today's global warming. Although the main players in the sector worldwide have chosen to reduce these emissions in recent years, the industry needs to accelerate decisively these efforts to meet its 2050 carbon neutrality commitments.

On a recent visit to the Cementos Argos plant in Rioclaro, Colombia, we found out first hand about something that is well known across the industrial sector: cement production requires very high temperatures and chemical reactions to calcine limestone rock to convert it into clinker, in the process releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. Globally, this industry generates the highest volume of emissions for every dollar of revenue it generates, compared to similar sectors that also struggle to reduce emissions. The cement industry generates 6.9 kg of CO2 per dollar compared to 1.4 kg in steel industry and 0.8 kg in the oil and gas industry.

This is exactly why achieving the decarbonization of the cement industry is such a pressing issue. If major cement companies are serious about meeting the growing demand for cement in a sustainable way, they will have to step up the adoption of business models that seek energy efficiency from the design phase of their products. This is now a reality in the case of the calcined clays used in green cement, which reduce not only the amount of clinker used but also the energy needed for the process and, therefore, the volume of emissions released into the environment.

Decarbonizing the cement industry requires large-scale investments estimated at around US$70 billion per year.

Furthermore, cement companies must start to employ circular economy strategies, use cleaner energies and improve waste management. Specifically, and with a view to complying with the protocols signed in Paris, the sector needs to reduce the clinker/cement ratio, replacing clinker with alternative materials, such as fly ash or metal slag, or demolition material that, when used in the production of cement, would no longer occupy space in landfills. This would fulfill the imperative of recycling and reusing usable materials. 

Decarbonizing the cement industry requires large-scale investments in new technologies to reduce emissions generated as part of production processes and the fuels used in them. It has been estimated that achieving these goals will entail investments of approximately 70 billion dollars per year in the coming years.

At BBVA, we are aware of this crucial challenge, which is why we are committed to mobilizing a large amount of resources to sustainably finance customers who set real and challenging goals to reduce their emissions. With this in mind, we have proposed channeling up to 300 billion euros between 2018 and 2025 to projects that satisfy these requirements; one of the aims of this initiative is to contribute to fulfilling the Paris agreements, which seek to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels.