Concrete carbon emissions: Real challenges, real opportunities

The Vancouver House building in Vancouver, British Columbia utilized 52,653 m3 of low-carbon Portland-limestone cement during construction to lower its embodied carbon footprint. Photo courtesy Cement Association of Canada

In Europe, some cement mixes may contain even higher PLC content (up to 35 per cent of the overall cement), and LC3 combines both finely ground limestone and calcined clay to replace as much as 50 per cent of the Portland cement. While calcined clay does require energy to heat and activate the material, the temperatures required are around 600 to 800 C (1112 to 1472 F) as compared to ordinary Portland cement where temperatures need to reach around 1450 C (2642 F).

LC3 also greatly reduces carbon emissions from the concrete¡¯s chemical reactions as the clay contains very little carbon to begin with. The net effect is that LC3, as currently formulated, can impact concrete GWP reduction, approximately 30 per cent.

In the future, high-reactivity metakaolin, derived from purified kaolin clay, will further push the boundaries of curing possibilities to produce high performance, lower carbon concrete in geopolymer concretes. However, it is not yet commercially available to all markets.

Nano infused cements (NICs) are from the family of nano silica admixtures technologies. Like silica fume, NICs are highly reactive when used in concrete construction and produce very durable, strong concrete with increased hydration cycles. However, while silica fume engages with cement on the micro scale, NIC like all nano silica admixtures operate in the nano scale, closing capillaries and reducing porosity to the point of slabs acquiring natural moisture mitigation attributes and thus shorter mobilizations to construct concrete on the job site. NIC is an SCM that can be used as a cement replacement, but also allows for increased use of other SCMs making it easy to reduce global warming potential (GWP) on a project. Labor and material cost impacts of NIC are par for the course with traditional methods, but with reduced schedules provide the opportunity to lower overall project costs. Combining internal curing with NIC, PLC, and increased SCMs would allow for GWP reductions well beyond 30 per cent in most parts of North America.

Sourcing strategies

As a locally produced and sourced product, strategies for reducing concrete’s footprint vary by region.  In some of the largest and most progressively sustainable concrete markets, many suppliers have commissioned Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) to measure the GWP of their products. The most typical and useful EPDs are third-party certified and utilize product category rules (PCRs) specific to concrete, to provide a reasonably accurate and comparable life cycle assessment (LCA) of their product. While it can be somewhat costly for a supplier to generate an EPD (some programs start at $3000), as it involves an assessment of each component of a concrete mix, once they do, the study can typically apply to all their products, as mixes typically just vary the quantity of the components.

For markets with sophisticated producers with available EPDs, best practice is to directly specify a maximum GWP, as evidenced by an EPD, like any other desired performance requirement. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), a free database of construction EPDs, is quickly becoming leveraged by the industry, and concrete is among the first of the material sections to contain a large amount of product EPDs. It is quite simple to register for the free web-based database tool, search for suppliers within a geographic limit, and identify not only the compliant producers, but to report median and achievable GWP values for particular concrete strengths and other properties.

In areas with less sophisticated producers, project teams will need to be more active. It is possible to specify maximum cement content limits as a proxy for GWP. Another approach is to work directly with suppliers to measure and optimize GWP of proposed mixes. The Concrete LCA Tool, a simple concrete GWP calculator, does just this using general industry LCA data from Tally (the North American GaBI LCA database) for common concrete ingredients, which allows direct comparison of proposed mixes against published NRMCA regional averages for various strength classes.

While the results are not specific to particular materials or any one supplier, they are good enough for comparing relative impacts of mixes from a single producer.

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