Grey or green?: Cement and sustainability in Germany, Poland, and Norway

Thomas Sattich
Associate Professor
University of Stavanger

Stella Huang
University of Stavanger

A Stavanger perspective on cement

Cement production is an important factor for reaching higher levels of sustainability. A look at the Norwegian city of Stavanger helps to illustrate this:

From here, the operations of the Norwegian oil and gas industry are being directed. Yet the worldwide trend to renewable energy confronts the city with a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the oil industry provides the city with the financial means, the knowledge, and the skills for developing new, greener businesses. On the other hand, Stavanger’s economy remains locked in an economic legacy that is difficult to overcome.

The city’s construction sector is an indicator of this in-between situation. During the oil boom, Stavanger has developed from a relatively small municipality into an industrial base. Consequently, the demand for new buildings was very high. Moreover, at the time, Condeep platforms were built at Stavanger, that is massive deep water structures made of concrete used for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

Today, the development of new construction projects remains important for the city’s economy, with ever more and ever higher buildings being planned and built. Yet cement – the most important materials to produce concrete, second only to water – contributes to about 8% of global CO2 emissions; it is thus not very difficult to see how grey concrete puts green development at Stavanger into question.

But does more concrete necessarily equal less sustainability?

Cement and sustainability: Some concrete facts

Cement is an essential construction material in infrastructures such as pavements, bridges etc. Annually, up to 5 billion tonnes of cement are being produced worldwide. This makes the industry responsible for 7% of industrial energy use worldwide and the second industrial emitter of CO2. For example, as of 2021, German cement clinker production is the country’s third-largest source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, with 20 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent annually. In many other countries, the cement industry is the main contributor of industrial CO2 emission.

The cement industry therefore plays a pivotal role when exploring CO2 emissions reduction options. The following options are available: i) increase energy efficiency, ii) use of alternative fuels, iii) carbon capture, storage and/or use, iv) substitution of clinker, or v) recycling of materials.

Some of these alternatives are long-established. The substitution of fossil energy and raw materials, for example, has a 40-year long tradition in the cement industry. It produces a triple win for the environment: emissions reductions, decrease of natural resource extraction, and enhancement of waste management. Yet each of these achievements has narrow limits. For example, the chemical suitability of waste used as alternative fuel for the production of clinker represents an issue in terms of sustainability. Similarly, it is questionable whether co-processing of waste will enable the CO2 reductions that are required. Therefore, newer technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) are currently being seen as a solution for the cement industry.

The future of cement – experiences in Germany, Poland and Norway

Norway, Poland, and Germany are important centres for developing and testing the practices that help to improve the environmental performance of the cement industry.

Germany has a long history in the usage of waste-based raw materials and fuels. Since at least the 1970s, the German cement industry has gathered experience with the use of secondary materials in production processes, emission control, and the necessary regulations. As a result, the use of alternative fuels in the German cement industry has developed significantly, from circa 5% in the 1980s to about two thirds of total fuel energy demand. However, this includes fuels sources such as used tires and waste oil, which limits the effect on CO2 emissions. In Germany, CCS is therefore being seen as a possible technical solution for achieving the ambitious CO2 reduction goals. A first plant is being scheduled for 2022. But questions regarding cost-effectiveness remain. Moreover, societal acceptance is an issue as the CCS technology is controversial in Germany.

In Poland, one of Europe’s most dynamic economies, the construction industry contributes significantly to the development of the national economy – in 2021 it was responsible for 6.7% of national GDP. Compared to industry production (25%) or trade and repair of vehicles (15%), this may appear low. Yet, the carbon intensity of the industry makes further decarbonisation efforts a pressing issue. In the past, the use of alternative waste fuels has increased dramatically, from about 1% at the end of the 1990s to circa 70% today. This rapid progress resulted in some insecurity regarding the stability of supply of suitable waste. Consequently, the integration of CCS in the Polish cement industry is attracting attention. For example, the EU Innovation Fund decided to co-finance the capture and storage of CO2 from a cement plant in Kujawy offshore under the North Sea.

Norway could be a beneficiary of the abovementioned developments. Its expertise in co-processing, for example, is important for its relationship with emerging countries. This group of countries is currently introducing the use of alternative fuels, and therefore welcomes expertise from the outside. Moreover, Norway is a potential beneficiary of developments in Germany and Poland. The Longship project is central in that regard. In this project, CO2 from industrial sites (including cement) will be liquified and permanently stored under the North Sea. It does not seem impossible that at some point Germany and Poland will link up to this new CO2 infrastructure. Plans for such a move already exist. Whether and how their implementation will affect construction activity in Stavanger remains to be seen.

Expert article 3319

>Back to Baltic Rim Economies 5/2022

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.