When it comes to creating a sustainable future for the cement industry, there is no easy answer. No silver-bullet to solve all of the challenges, all at once. There are instead a range of possible solutions and actions available that the industry could take to help meet global sustainability ambitions. With our MissionZero, we have made a commitment to deliver solutions enabling our customers in the cement industry to move towards zero GHG emissions, zero fossil fuel use and zero waste. 

The urgency of climate change is accelerating and our commitment to the Paris Agreement calls for actions – unbiased and with a scientific view on tangible options. We do this by decoupling economic growth from growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, there is a need to decouple economic growth from a number of other environmental and social impacts as well.  This broader understanding of responsibility towards sustainable development is well reflected in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, which calls for a more holistic understanding of the impacts from different solutions, which may offer competing priorities. 

Environmental and social risks 

How companies choose between the different options and opportunities is therefore going to become an increasingly important factor in success. Particularly as environmental and social risks are becoming more widely recognised as part of determining the financial performance of a company, or even, their license to operate. 

In this context, life cycle assessment (LCA) offers a holistic, quantitative and standardised method of analysing current processes to identify and measure the environmental impacts associated with cement manufacturing. Not just from the production process itself, but e.g. including environmental impacts from the excavation and processing of raw materials as well. Depending on the aim of the study, an LCA can be made for an entire lifecycle – the so-called ‘cradle-to-grave’ or for all impacts up to and including the production process – which is called ‘cradle-to-gate’ – or a variant in between. Therefore, an LCA involves the option to consider a wide range of potential environmental impacts, such as global warming, ozone layer depletion, acidification, abiotic resource depletion and primary energy demand, divided between fossil and renewable resource use.  

Know your ‘hotspots’ 

ISO standards, like the ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, guide companies in their data-collection and analyses, and ensures that companies within an industry compare apples to apples. 

“LCA helps companies to understand where there are ‘hotspots’ within their processes – places of high environmental impact – and therefore to prioritise where to make changes to the process or where to invest in order to have the most impact.”

Diana EggersSenior Sustainability Consultant at the sustainability consulting group, Quantis

Based on this initial assessment, scenarios can be drafted and analysed to help decision makers choose the option that will bring the greatest positive impact, while still balancing other business requirements.

So, if an LCA identifies the incineration of coal as the cause of much greenhouse gas emissions, it can also help analyse the alternatives to reduce these emissions. Alternative fuels may be the preferred option. But if these are not available locally, does it still make sense to bring them in from further afield or will the emissions in connections with their transport counterbalance those that are saved by switching from coal? LCA can help answer that question, as well as which alternative fuel option gives the highest benefits, not only for greenhouse gas emissions, but for other environmental impacts as well. 

Cheaper access to finance 

LCA also helps companies to understand potential future risks, such as those posed by tightening environmental regulation, whether that be carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes or limits to fresh water extraction. “This active risk management is not only important for the future health of a business but will be an increasingly important assessment criterion for investors when looking at where to put their cash,” continues Diana Eggers. “Companies with the most advanced procedures for risk analysis and management are much more likely to find investors and secure cheaper access to finance.” 

Essentially, it comes down to data and enabling data-based decision-making when it comes to moving the cement industry towards sustainability.  “While it does not provide all of the answers, LCA is able to provide a more data-driven approach to the different assumptions and scenarios, and indicate what the best overall decision may be,” says Eggers, whose company has worked across multiple industries, including cement - Argos and Votorantim to name a few, and is now partnering with FLSmidth on a project to determine the LCA of the cement-making process.  

What to prioritize? 

With FLSmidth committed to offering zero-emissions cement plants by 2030 as part of its MissionZero ambitions, data provided by LCAs are going to be critical in determining the most viable way of reaching the goal.

“LCAs enable us to further validate how and how much our solutions can reduce the environmental impact of the cement process.”

Susanne Vedel HjulerSustainability Manager at FLSmidth

"As such, it can be a tool to make decisions on investment and R&D and it enables us to consolidate the road to achieve our MissionZero goals. And it’s important that we get it right. Not just for us but for the industries that we serve,” continues Susanne Vedel Hjuler.

“From a consultant’s perspective, we could call FLSmidth an enabler,” concludes Eggers. “Through the provision of technologies and services, FLSmidth has the potential to help other industries – including the cement industry – work more sustainably. Achieving MissionZero could therefore be an important catalyst for the industry as a whole to achieve its sustainability ambitions.” 

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