Green concrete transition has path to credibility in climate law

A provision inserted into the 730-page tax and climate law, valued at just 0.05% of the total price, has the potential to trigger big changes in one of the world’s most carbon-intensive processes: cement production .

The law gives the EPA $250 million to help companies measure, verify and report the carbon content of the building materials they manufacture.

Concrete is responsible for at least 7% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to clean energy research group BloombergNEF. And the United States will use even more, as last year’s infrastructure act and this month’s climate measure authorize billions of dollars in new construction across the country.

If the Environmental Protection Agency’s new product declaration program takes off like its Energy Star program, these products could become more attractive to buyers, possibly pushing carbon-intensive competitors out of the market, Andrew Himes said. , Director of Collective Impact Initiatives at the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum.

“If I’m an engineer and my client asks me to design a low-carbon building, and I go to market and ask suppliers for this information, and one of them doesn’t have it , they’re going to be a question mark,” said Eric Dunford, senior director of government affairs at CarbonCure Technologies, a sustainable concrete company. “You don’t want to be left behind.

Several companies have started offering green building materials, removing carbon through advanced manufacturing techniques or even integrating it into the materials themselves.

But for the program to be accepted, it must be seen as legitimate and trustworthy, according to Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied voluntary government programs.

“You don’t want to give the public image that this is an industry full of unreliable claims,” ​​agreed Russell Hill, CEO of Solidia Technologies LLC, which created technology to manufacture low-carbon building materials. “It sows confusion. One company can harm the whole industry.

That means the EPA will have to find a way to verify company claims, Coglianese said. It’s a tricky challenge because only 5% of the $250 million can stay within the agency to administer the program, with the rest coming out as a grant.

Cradle to Grave Accounting

An EPA spokeswoman said the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is “in the early stages of developing a plan to implement these programs.” This work includes “determining resource requirements and program objectives and working with our federal partners, like the Environmental Quality Council, as needed,” she said.

A good program should include an independent, third-party assessment of company claims, Hill said, a potential solution to the credibility issue raised by Coglianese.

It should also require suppliers to consider the carbon emitted during the extraction of raw materials, the transportation of those materials through production, and the manufacture of the finished product itself, said Dunford of CarbonCure.

Ultimately, the program’s success is based on the idea that concrete buyers want green materials. Dunford said many private companies do this, often because it helps them meet their sustainability goals or because their shareholders demand carbon reductions. Government buyers, who account for 40% of all concrete sold in the United States, also find them attractive because “voters care,” he said.

These factors raise the possibility that green manufacturers could charge a higher price for their product, especially if they can show their customers an EPA seal of approval.

Even so, “it would help a lot if there was an economic incentive to accept the moral equation,” Himes said. For example, there is some evidence that adding carbon to a concrete mix increases the strength and flexibility of the finished product, which means builders don’t have to use as much, he said.

Considering the cost

There is also a cap on how high prices can go.

“Everyone wants their concrete to be eco-friendly, but are they going to pay 30% more for it? I would say no,” Hill said. “A 5% bonus? Yes, it is very likely.

The grant money will be especially helpful to smaller manufacturers who cannot afford to create their own product declarations, according to Christina Theodoridi, policy advocate for heavy industry at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Spending $10,000, $20,000 or $30,000 to create an environmental product declaration for a single product might have been prohibitively expensive,” she said.

The Inflation Reduction Act also includes several other articles that will boost the use of green building materials. One section sets aside $2.2 billion for the federal government to buy low-carbon materials for use in federal buildings; another earmarks $2 billion for the Federal Highway Administration for states to do the same in road construction.

Because the federal government is the nation’s largest buyer of building materials, these and other measures will help the government “harness its purchasing power to create markets for these low-carbon building materials,” Theodoridi said. “It will drive innovation in many of these industries.”

The Biden administration has already taken steps to push for change. In April 2021, the White House issued a statement mentioning the need to use carbon capture technology and green hydrogen to reduce the carbon footprint of cement manufacturing.

In February, the General Services Administration also issued two market information requests on the nationwide availability of concrete and asphalt materials with environmental product declarations, low-carbon or “superior environmental attributes.” “.

The cement is part of the mix that binds the crushed stone to the concrete. The production of cement releases carbon in two ways: through the chemical reaction that results from the breakdown of calcium carbonate and through the enormous levels of heat that must be achieved.

Catch-22

As it sets out to develop its disclosure regime, the EPA will also have to navigate a pitfall common to voluntary programs: the more credible a program becomes, the more valuable its imprimatur is to businesses, which means agencies must consider closer to the disclosures. closely, according to Coglianese.

“But the more validation and verification you demand from companies, the less interested they are in participating,” he said. “It’s the paradox. You are discouraging companies from participating.

The solution would be a regulation mandating what types of concrete can be used, Coglianese said – something he acknowledged would be an extremely heavy burden.

For Himes, a lack of interest from the building materials industry would significantly weaken the program.

“It can’t be a few people getting money to produce environmental product disclosures,” he said. “It needs to be a global collaboration across the industry – by developers, materials manufacturers and building consumers, including ordinary voters.”

About Geraldine Higgins

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