One of the most versatile materials on the planet, concrete is also one of the most polluting. But pressure is growing on the cement industry to come up with ways to reduce its carbon footprint
Without concrete, the world as we know it would not exist. Most of the structures we take for granted rely on concrete for their construction. Some could be built from steel, but this would in many instances be more difficult and expensive, particularly in the case of foundations and large pieces of infrastructure.
Concrete is incredibly versatile – it can be moulded into complex shapes, is immensely strong and extremely durable, and can look good too. These qualities, and the fact that it is readily available and cheap, mean that – after water – it has become the most widely used substance on earth.
Unfortunately, these benefits come at an enormous environmental cost as cement production (4 billion tonnes of it is made every year) is responsible for 7% of global carbon emissions. As a proportion of the UK’s emissions it is less, at 1.5%, because we are not building at the same rate as countries such as China and India, and the UK cement industry has made big strides to reduce its emissions, cutting them by 53% since 1990. But there is no getting away from the fact that 1.5% of the UK’s emissions still represents a big number, over 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
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