Concrete vs. Climate

Why climate finance for the cement industry is a terrible idea
In 2003, Lafarge Cement took over a 130-year-old cement plant in Trbovlje and began burning petcoke. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

by Claire Arkin, Global Communications Lead

When Uroš Macerl took over the family farm, nestled in the small hilltown of Trbovlje, Slovenia, he was in for an unpleasant surprise. The world’s biggest cement producer, Lafarge, soon took over the local cement plant and started to burn “green alternative fuels,” aka 100 tons of hazardous industrial waste a day. Uroš and his community became deeply concerned about the threat of worsening air pollution. The existing emissions from the plant already made growing crops impossible, and Uroš had to switch to raising sheep. Children who lived in the area were twice as likely to suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses than the rest of the country. 

The cement industry has been progressively switching from burning traditional fossil fuels like petcoke to burning waste, which still emits greenhouse gases, along with a host of other toxic pollutants. Their main interest is economic, as they profit from carbon credits (in Europe), and from “tipping fees” from municipalities and businesses for burning waste. Moreover, the cement industry claims that burning waste is part of their decarbonising strategy on the grounds that they are avoiding the use of fossil fuels – so it’s also a greenwashing strategy to appear to be working on its carbon footprint.  

Now the cement industry is poised for another major win: Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI), a think tank that aims to “mobilise global capital for climate action,” according to their website, is considering recommending that governments and financial institutions give climate funding to cement kilns to burn waste. This is great news for the industry because it means that they’re going to get paid to burn toxic trash to power their kilns, instead of actually confronting the devastating climate costs of their business model.

The climate cost of the cement industry is staggering. If the industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. The full scope of this industry’s cost to humanity and the planet is next to impossible to truly fathom, but the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts does a fair job of it: “In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete,” he writes in his 2019 investigative report: “Concrete: the most destructive material on earth.” “In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.” Take a moment to let that sink in. It truly gives life to Joni Mitchell’s famous lyric, “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.” 

In many ways, the cement industry is very much like the fossil fuel industry– both are taking massive subsidies to fuel their devastating business models. Both are hellbent on burning as much as possible despite (in some cases quite literally) the planet being on fire. Both are getting richer and richer by polluting low-income and marginalized communities. (Uroš’s largely working class community lived under the shadow of the coal and cement industry for generations.) And both industries have long had governments and financial institutions in their pockets. Desperate to be heard by the Slovenian government, Uroš and other activists lay down in the road that the Prime Minister was set to traverse through the region. “Run over us and step on us,” he dared the Prime Minister. “We will sit here and you can continue to treat us as you’ve always had.”

With help from legal experts at Eko Krog, a local environmental group, Macerl challenged Lafarge in Slovenian and European courts. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Telling the cement industry to swap out coal with waste is like telling an alcoholic to swap out vodka for tequila– it’s still going to wreck the alcoholic’s liver, and in this case, it’s still going to wreck our planet. Much of the waste cement kilns want to burn is plastic, and plastic is made of 99% fossil fuels, so it’s just substituting one fossil fuel for another. 

Bizarrely, the technical review board responsible for developing CBI’s cement kiln financing criteria decided to completely ignore emissions from burning waste, because apparently, “their use leads to equivalent emissions reductions in the waste management industry.” This is puzzling logic, because it seems to be unaware of the emissions that it takes to create the plastic in the first place. By 2050, it is estimated that the greenhouse gas emissions from the entire plastic life cycle could reach over 56 gigatons—10-13 percent of the entire remaining carbon budget. 

And of all the ways to “manage” plastic waste, burning it is the worst option, from a climate perspective, as it releases the embedded carbon into the atmosphere, to the tune of 1.1 tons for every ton of waste burned, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. As if that weren’t bad enough, the cement industry also releases an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emissions from limestone as it is heated to form the glue that holds concrete together, so changing the fuel source is failing to get to the root of the problem. 

To make matters worse, cement plant emissions are often not well-regulated; heavy metals, particulates, and semi-volatile persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as dioxins and furans (PCDD/PCDF) are released when waste is burned. POPs are what scientists call “forever chemicals”– once they’re released, they are with us forever, traveling long distances and accumulating in our food chain. You can’t put this cat back in the bag. 

Unlike CBI, many are not fooled by this cement industry greenwashing scheme– GAIA delivered a letter to CBI signed by a community of scientists, practitioners in the field of waste management, policy-makers, and 175+ environmental NGOs in 35+ countries, stating their opposition to CBI’s move. Communities across the world impacted by cement kilns are standing in solidarity with one another to fight against this gross mismanagement of climate funding. Ricardo Navarro of Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology, El Salvador, a group that has long fought cement kilns, has a message for CBI: “Giving climate bonds to the cement industry for co-generation [co-incineration] is the moral equivalent of giving awards to people who have committed a crime.” 

Enormous amounts of climate finance investments are needed to create the essential just transition as the world faces up to impacts from climate change. In fact, developed countries’ commitment to provide $100 billion a year up to 2025 to do climate reparations to those most affected but least responsible for climate change in the global south is far from being met. There is a stark need to build up climate funds and ratchet up climate action to stay below 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature rise, but it’s important to get it right. This means that we can’t keep giving money to some of the world’s most polluting industries to tinker around the edges, while the problem is at the core. 

Macerl took over his family’s farm, but began raising sheep when air pollution made growing crops impossible. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

CBI and other climate financing institutions have a tremendous responsibility to cut through the industry greenwashing and make sure funding is going to the right place, and they are failing. If they approve this draft financing criteria for the cement industry, their reputation is on the line and they will appear to be an industry puppet instead of the independent judge that they are claiming to be. The cement industry, as one of the most polluting industries on the planet (with a long track record of human rights abuses), should not be incentivized to tinker at the margins. That’s the same as subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to make “slightly less polluting” gasoline. 

The solutions to both waste, the cement industry and climate change are right in front of us, and they are fast, cheap and affordable; switching to reusable alternatives, funding innovation in green building materials, and financing better separate collection, recycling, and composting can all have a tremendous impact on our climate. 

Big Cement likes to make it seem like their industry is as solid, inevitable, and immovable as the concrete walls that are increasingly closing in on us. But this is simply not true, and Uroš Macerl can prove it: after years of battling in the courts, national authorities ordered Lafarge to halt production in Zasavje in 2015. Since the plant’s shutdown, the spruce trees are growing again on Uroš farm. Migrating birds that hadn’t been spotted in the region in decades have since returned. 

Let’s put our money on a liveable future, not a concrete block.