If you've passed a construction site this summer, you've brushed up against one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions facing the planet.

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The concrete industry is responsible for about 7% of global emissions, and that’s set to rise sharply over the next quarter-century as cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America balloon and create new demand for high-rises, highways and hydro dams. A new study by the World Economic Forum says emissions from cement could rise 23% by 2050, eating into possible gains made by energy and agriculture.

A bold engineering effort to recycle that carbon – literally burying it in concrete – may be the best hope to offset that growth.

Think of it as a blue box for carbon.

“Carbon utilization” involves sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and injecting it into concrete. It’s a rapidly growing practice.

Rob Niven, a Canadian pioneer in the field, sees the technology as an economic opportunity as much as an environmental one.

“Instead of throwing (carbon) away, you’re actually turning it into something valuable,” Niven says on the latest episode of RBC Disruptors, our weekly podcast on how technology is changing everything around us.

Niven’s Halifax-based company, CarbonCure, has its technology installed in more than 250 sites worldwide. As countries like China and India spend heavily on urban infrastructure, Niven believes there could be 100,000 sites globally in need of the Canadian technology.

“We’re building a New York City every month for the next 40 years,” says Jennifer Wagner, CarbonCure’s president.

According to a recent study by McKinsey & Co., new technologies could help the cement industry cut its 2017-level emissions by more than three-quarters by 2050.

A coalition led by the World Economic Forum is trying to get major emitters to commit to targets and put the concrete and cement industry on a path to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But they’ll need breakthrough technologies to get there.

“If you can find alignment between the economic gain and the environmental benefit, then you have something that’s truly scalable in a global fashion,” Niven says.

Some other highlights from our conversation with Niven and Wagner:

1. The world won’t get to Net Zero without concrete

A lot of the climate debate focuses on oil and gas, as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete plays a critical role, too, as a major source that could increase in the decades ahead without new technologies.

2. Industry needs change

The cement and concrete industries are among the least efficient users of energy, and will need to become much more cost-effective as governments push builders to do more with less.

3. Technology is key

The McKinsey study found process improvement might account for only 20% of the needed emissions cuts in the sector. Every cubic yard of concrete that uses carbon utilization technologies, on the other hand, can save 25 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. A highrise can do the work of nearly 900 acres of forest.

4. Governments can shift markets

Government is the biggest buyer of concrete, largely for big infrastructure projects. In the U.S., many states and municipalities now require builders to commit to lower emissions – something Canadian governments are starting to do, too.

5. It’s not just about future emissions

Even if the world shut down the use of fossil fuels and concrete today, there’s enough carbon sitting in the atmosphere to still cause problems. Carbon capture, utilization and storage can pull those old emissions back, and stick them in the ground – or in concrete.

Updated to clarify references that are to concrete instead of cement.


John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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