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Climate killer concrete: How the construction sector could become climate-neutral


Highlights: Report shows how construction industry could become carbon neutral globally by 2050. Building materials such as concrete and steel are produced in a more climate-friendly way and more renewable raw materials are used. Wood and bamboo also have a significant effect, as they convert carbon dioxide into biomass in the course of their growth. The use of biomaterials such as wood and agricultural by-products could lead to savings of up to 40 percent of CO₂ emissions in many regions, even compared to low-emission concrete.

Status: 09.10.2023, 18:00 PM

By: Lisa Mayerhofer


Concrete is a building material that is harmful to the climate. (Symbolic image) © Soeren Stache/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa/Symbolbild

Germany needs more housing – but the construction industry emits many greenhouse gases that fuel climate change. A report shows how the industry could become carbon neutral globally by 2050.

Berlin – 400,000 new apartments are to be built in Germany every year – but our country is a long way from this goal. The construction industry is in crisis, with rising interest rates and material costs taking a heavy toll on it. At the same time, however, the industry should be made fit for the future – and become more climate-friendly. It is not only the German government that is currently working on this – a report by the United Nations also outlines a vision of how the construction industry could become climate-neutral.

Construction sector as a whole responsible for 37 percent of CO₂ emissions

Currently, the construction sector as a whole is responsible for 37 percent of CO₂ emissions, according to the report published in September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Center for Ecosystems and Architecture (CEA) at Yale University in the US.

The report looks at how the construction sector can become climate neutral globally by 2050. This is possible if materials are saved, building materials such as concrete and steel are produced in a more climate-friendly way and more renewable raw materials are used.

Experts: Wood instead of concrete, existing buildings instead of new buildings

The problem: Apart from Germany, so many new buildings are currently being built worldwide that a city the size of the French capital Paris is added every five days. By 2060, it is estimated that the area of land and the use of raw materials will almost double.

"Until recently, most buildings were built from locally sourced soil, stone, wood and bamboo. But modern materials such as concrete and steel often only give the illusion of durability, mostly end up in landfills and contribute to the growing climate crisis," said Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, Director of UNEP's Industry and Economic Affairs Division. "Net zero emissions in construction are achievable by 2050 if governments put in place the right policies, incentives and regulations to push the industry into action."

The experts' approach is to avoid new buildings as much as possible and to promote the reuse of building materials, to use biological raw materials such as timber, bamboo and biomass from sustainable sources, and to produce building materials such as concrete, steel or glass in a more climate-friendly way, for example through the use of renewable energies in production as well as through recycling and innovative technologies.


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Industrialised countries should focus more on the conversion and reuse of existing buildings rather than demolition and new construction. Even before construction, it is possible to plan how a building can be dismantled again and how the elements can then be reused.

Concrete, steel and aluminium responsible for almost a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions

If building materials were even used that store carbon dioxide themselves, buildings could even become CO₂-negative in the future – i.e. mathematically save more greenhouse gases than they emit in their formation. Wood and bamboo also have a significant effect, as they convert carbon dioxide into biomass in the course of their growth and are thus CO₂ reservoirs themselves.

The use of biomaterials such as wood and bamboo and agricultural by-products may be "our best hope for radical decarbonization," the authors say. The shift towards bio-based building materials could lead to savings in this sector of up to 40 percent of CO₂ emissions by 2050 in many regions, even compared to savings from low-emission production of concrete and steel.

The three materials concrete, steel and aluminium alone are responsible for almost a quarter (23 percent) of greenhouse gas emissions. The use of concrete has increased tenfold in the past 65 years. In 2020, 4.3 billion tons of cement, the most important component of concrete, were produced worldwide.

Cement production in Germany: When will CO₂-neutral concrete be introduced?

In Germany, too, about 20 million tons of CO₂ are produced every year by the production of cement, reports ARD alpha. This makes concrete a real climate killer. But solutions are also being worked on in this country. These include, for example, the "Carbon Capture and Storage" (CSS) project, with which the cement manufacturer HeidelbergCement aims to offer CO₂-neutral concrete by 2050.

With CSS technology, the CO₂ produced during the production of cement is first bound by a liquid and then separated again. According to Peter Lukas, engineer at HeidelbergCement, 99.9 percent of the CO₂ could be "taken out" of the exhaust gases produced during combustion, reports ARD alpha. However, this technology requires a lot of energy consumption.

The government also wants to make construction more climate-friendly and had planned additional climate targets for the construction industry – but is now refraining from demanding them due to the major construction crisis and the housing shortage in Germany.

Instead, the traffic light enacted a series of measures to promote climate-friendly housing, among other things, such as the "Young buys old" funding program, in which families receive financial support for the purchase of existing properties instead of investing in new construction. The transformation of the construction sector to become more climate-friendly is still in its infancy in Germany – and there is still a lot to be done worldwide. But the UN report and new projects show that it could be done.

Source: merkur

All news articles on 2023-10-09

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