As the UK Gears Up for the Latest Round of UN Climate Talks, Here Is a Review of Recent Environmental Performance in the UK Cement Industry.

By Jonathan Rowland

UK production of cement stood at almost 9.2 million metric tonnes in 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, on 7.7 million metric tonnes of clinker production. When imports are added to the mix, cement sales were 11.7 million tonnes – about level with the previous year. Include consumption of other cementitious materials in the mix – which at 3.4 million metric tonnes was at its highest recorded level – and total UK consumption of cementitious materials stood at almost 15.2 million metric tonnes, the second highest level after the peak of 2007.

In comparison, the largest cement consumer in the United States is California, which took 10.2 million metric tonnes in 2018, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). The UK is roughly level with the combined consumption of the South Atlantic states (as defined by the USGS: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and South Carolina), which stood at 15.5 million metric tonnes in 2018.1

Domestic production is dominated by five major manufacturers: Breedon Cement, CEMEX UK, Hanson Cement (HeidelbergCement), Lafarge Cement, and Tarmac (CRH). In total, these companies operate 11 integrated plants (see Table 1) and 11 grinding/blending sites. In addition, Imerys operates an aluminate cement plant at Purfleet.

UK Cement and the Environment

According to Dr. Richard Lee, cement director at the Mineral Products Association (MPA), which represents a range of building materials producers, including all five major UK cement producers, in 2018 the UK cement industry continued, “the long-term trend to improve their environment, while facing increased international competition and a recently challenging market.”

Of particular significance is the industry’s performance in the area of climate change and energy. According to a recent MPA report,2 in 2018, CO2 emissions were down 25% on 1998, a result of increased energy efficiency, as well as alternative fuels and renewable energy replacing traditional fossil fuels.

Table1

Reducing Emissions

Process emissions of CO2 per tonne of portland cement equivalent (tPCe) have dropped from 520 kg to 467 kg, while CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels have dropped from 387 kg/tPCe to 166 kg/tPCe. Meanwhile, indirect emissions related to electricity use has fell from 55 kg/tPCe in 2010 (data for 1998 is not available) to 30 km/tPCe in 2018, as the UK energy sector underwent a rapid shift away from coal to natural gas and renewable sources (Figure 1).

The UK industry has now reached a point where “further decarbonisation will be challenging and will require innovations, such as carbon capture and utilisation/storage (CCU/S),” according to the MPA. CCU/S was identified as a vital technology in a 2017 roadmap to decarbonization and energy efficiency in the cement, which was jointly prepared by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the MPA.3

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Figure 1. Reduction in direct emissions of CO2 by the UK cement industry (1998, 2010 – 2018). Source: MPA
 

“CCS is the most important technology to decarbonize cement manufacture,” the report noted, as there are “currently no other technologies that offer the same level of decarbonization potential in the cement industry.” CCU was meanwhile “an important option and offers economic opportunities, but is unlikely, on its own, to be sufficient, as not all CO2 usage technologies lead to permanent CO2 reductions.” However, CCU can help “reduce the costs of capture technology and can be tested at existing UK industrial sites. [It] can also lower the carbon footprint of products and provides opportunities for industrial symbiosis with commensurate economic benefits.”

Although no large-scale CCS/U project is underway in the UK – major European projects are taking place in Norway (Norcem), Belgium (LEILAC) and Italy (CLEANKER)4 – technology to capture CO2 from the flue gas of a cement has recently been demonstrated at Hanson Cement’s Ketton plant. Developed by Carbon8 Systems, the CO2ntainer is a mobile unit that takes flue gas CO2 and uses it – along with other industrial byproducts, such as residual material from cement manufacture – to produce an artificial calcium carbonate.

There is also a current joint project underway by MPA and BRE Group that is working to change concrete standards to allow a wider-range of lower-carbon cements to be used in concrete. Changes to the standards are expected in 2023, although there is a will from the MPA Cement Management Committee to push this at a quicker pace, a source familiar with the situation told Cement Americas.

In addition to tackling its CO2 emissions, the UK cement industry has reduced its emission of NOX, SOX and particular matter (PM) to the point where the industry “has negligible impact on air quality,” the MPA said (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Emissions or NOX, SOX and particulate matter (PM) (1998, 2005-2018). Since 2008, emissions have been at a steady low level with only minor fluctuations. Source: MPA
 

Emissions of NOX are down 68% on 1998 levels to 1.07 kg/tPCe, SOX emissions are down 84% to 0.42 kg/tPCe, and emissions of PM are down 87% to 0.04 kg/tPCe. “In 2018, MPA actively engaged with [government] on development of its Clean Air Strategy for England and the UK-wide National Air Pollution Control Programme, building on the industry’s investment in cleaner processes,” added MPA.

Separately, there have also been some questions relating to emissions control raised by Brexit. Up to this point, the UK has been a part of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) for CO2. It is UK government policy, however, that the UK will leave the EU ETS when Brexit is finally concluded and establish its own ETS. The exact form and what impact that will have on the UK cement industry is yet unknown. While a member of the EU, the UK was also bound by its industrial emissions regulations – which again could be now be the target for change by the politicians in Westminster.

Resource Use

In addition to reducing its emissions, the UK has also made significant improvements to its use of natural resources. The total amount of waste and industrial by-products used by the industry as alternative fuels and raw materials stood at 1.41 million metric tonnes in 2018. Alternative raw materials now comprise 5.8% of total raw material usage. Alternative fuels make up 43.15% of the thermal input into the cement manufacturing process, slightly lower than its peak of 44.08% in 2014 but significantly above the 5.73% substitution rate of 1998 (Figure 3).

Overall, the recycled content of UK-produced cement was just under 10% in 2018, a demonstration of the cement industry’s key role in the development a circular economy (Figure 4). On a similar theme, the industry has sent zero process waste to landfill since 2011.

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Figure 3. Waste-derived fuel use (1998, 2005-2018) as a percentage of thermal input. Source: MPA
 

Beyond the cement industry, the UK construction industry has been leading the way in the recycling of construction and demolition waste. According to the MPA, in 2017, a total of 248 million metric tonnes of aggregates were produced in Great Britain (UK excl. Northern Ireland), of which 72 million metric tonnes – or 29% – were from recycled or secondary sources, well above the European average.5

In comparison, in 2016, only in the Netherlands and Belgium was the percentage of recycled and secondary aggregate over 20% of the total produced, and in only in a further seven countries was the amount higher than 10%.

Conclusion

Later this year, the UK will host the latest round of UN climate change discussion at COP26 in Glasgow. Indeed, according to Michael Gove, a cabinet minister and close ally of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the successful delivery of the conference is one of the government’s top three priorities for this year, alongside preparing for life outside of the EU and improving infrastructure and opportunities.5

There should “be no doubt that the government recognises there is much more to do in order to demonstrate leadership – it is not just enough to celebrate progress in the past, we need to be even more ambitious in the future,” the minister said.

Among the measures already announced is the phase out of coal-fired power a year earlier than expected in 2024 and banning of sale of petrol and diesel cares by 2025. “There are other initiatives being planned this year […] in areas like construction and house building, and high energy-intensive industries,” concluded Gove. “We are serious about transformation.”

Against this green push, the strong environmental performance of the UK cement industry will stand the industry in good stead. But as Dr. Leese of the MPA noted, “it is clear that our stakeholders, customers and communities want further environmental action […] In the years ahead the challenges will become tougher and require coordinated effort from the industry, the supply change, Government and its agencies”. The last 20 years may have been positive but perhaps, in many ways, they were only just the beginning.

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Figure 4. The recycled content of UK-produced cement. Source: MPA
 

References

1. USGS, Mineral Industry Surveys, October 2019, (USGS, 2019), Table 1A-Continued, p. 3.

2. MPA Cement, “Sustainable Development Report 2019” (MPA, 2019).

3. Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and MPA, “Cement Sector: Joint Industry – Government Industrial 4. Decarbonisation and Energy Efficiency Roadmap Action Plan, October 2017” (DBEIS, 2019), p. 12.

5. For more on European research into carbon capture in the cement industry, see: ROWLAND, J., “At the Cutting Edge”, Cement Americas (Fall 2019), pp. 30 – 34.

6. MPA, “The Contribution of Recycled and Secondary Materials to Total Aggregates Supply in Great Britain” (MPA, 2019).

7. Murray, J.S., “Michael Gove Declares UK has a ‘Moral Responsibility’ to Lead Global Green Industrial Revolution”, Business Green (11 February 2020): https://www.businessgreen.com/news/4010465/michael-gove-declares-uk-moral-responsibility-lead-global-green-industrial-revolution

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