A book called How the World Really Works argues that “we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon. The author, the polymath Vaclev Smil, declares it will take at a minimum several decades, but perhaps well over a century, to move away from our dependance on fossil fuels. This conclusion is based on a scientific examination of industries that rely on carbon-based fuels, the importance of those industries to modern life, and the massive emissions these industries generate.
Mr. Smil is contemptuous of techno-optimism – the idea that we are on the verge of inventing new technologies that will solve our problems. But he is equally disdainful of the idea that if we don’t immediately solve the global warming problem large swaths of the world will be uninhabitable. He is not saying global warming is not real, or that efforts to drive carbon emission reductions are not warranted – he believes in these efforts – but he is saying forecasts around complex systems are close to worthless.
The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization
When it comes to indispensability, ubiquity, and the demand for the materials, the author argues that ammonia (used in modern fertilizers), plastics, steel, and cement are indispensable to modern civilization. The global production of these four materials accounts for 25% of all carbon emissions. There are not readily deployable, mass-scale alternatives to these materials.
For the rest of the article, the focus will be on examining Smil’s arguments by looking at the cement industry. Cement is an indispensable material for supporting our metropolitan and transportation infrastructures. Energy from cement production comes mostly from coal dust, petroleum coke, and heavy fuel oil. Cement is the indispensable component of concrete, and it is produced by heating – to at least 1,450 degrees centigrade – ground limestone, clay, shale, and various waste materials. The heating is done in kilns that are at least 100 meters long. This high-temperature sintering produces clinker (fused limestone and aluminosilicates) that is ground down to produce powdered cement.
There were an estimated 4.4 billion tons of cement produced in 2021. According to Professor Smil, it is highly unlikely that the cement industry will eliminate its dependence of fossil fuels and cease to be significant contributors to CO2. Is he right?
Holcim’s Sustainability Plan
Holcim might beg to differ. Holcim, headquartered in Switzerland, is one of the world’s largest producers of cement. They produced over 280 million tons of cement in 2020. In their annual report, they tout their net-zero target by 2050 as validated by the Science Based Targets initiative.
The company has significantly reduced their carbon emissions by replacing the clinker in their cement products with alternative mineral components. Construction and demolition waste and calcined clay are the main alternatives. Holcim has also increased their use of fuels derived from biomass to reduce the CO2 associated with heating their kilns to extremely high temperatures.
Ultimately, reaching net zero in cement production will require cost effective carbon capture and storage at scale. Carbon capture involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from production and then storing the carbon so that it does not enter the atmosphere. This is the only viable path to achieving net zero in the cement industry. Holcim is currently piloting over 20 carbon capture projects. The company is forecasting that carbon capture can begin at scale in 2030 and ramp up from there.
The Carbon Capture Debate
Thus, the key question for the cement industry is this, is cost effective carbon capture a pipe dream? Or is it possible to innovate our way out of this?
Here is Professor Smil’s analysis – mass scale carbon capture of over 1 gigaton of gas per year “would necessitate the creation of an entirely new gas-capture-transportation-storage industry that every year would have to handle 1.3-2.4 times the volume of current US crude production, an industry that took more than 160 years and trillions of dollars to build.” In short, getting to net zero production by 2050 is probably infeasible for an individual company and all but impossible for the cement industry as a whole.
The lay person who reads a company’s sustainability report may feel optimistic. But a scientist who looks at sustainability from a macro point of view ends up with a different point of view. Professor Smil’s inconvenient truth is that no matter how much investment society makes, it will be impossible to achieve our sustainability goals by 2050.