In an environmentally focused interview, Song Zhiping, President of World Cement Association, addresses the global cement industry’s role in tackling global climate issues, and explores possible new business opportunities that a low-carbon economy can bring.

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2018 was a productive year for the World Cement Association (WCA). In six months alone, the Association welcomed 16 cement producers as new members, with total associates now representing over 1 billion tons capacity. Do you think this quick expansion points towards a more conscious and engaged global cement industry?

Registered in London on May 2016, WCA is the first organization working on a global basis to represent the cement industry. WCA is committed to leading and guiding the cement industry and its stakeholders to undertake social responsibilities with more positive attitude and practical solutions. And it commits itself to providing all-round value-added services to its members, including reinforcing the connectivity of members and sharing and promoting of new technologies, new equipment, new business models through such platforms as the four professional committees (the Environment and Climate Committee, the Safety and Health Committee, the Technology and Innovation Committee and the Market and Logistics Committee) and the World Cement Conference.

The philosophy and purposes of WCA have been recognized by cement practitioners and stakeholders. The membership of WCA has grown rapidly, with 66 members in 35 countries representing more than 1 billion tons of annual cement production capacity.

At present, the world cement industry is facing challenges from the market, capital, technology, environmental protection and other aspects. Through the platform of WCA, the industry will be more conscious and engaged in the transition to a low-carbon and circular economy, actively respond to social responsibilities and environmental challenges, achieve sustainable development and realize the integration of economy and the nature.

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WCA constantly urges the industry to adopt a proactive posture towards tackling climate change. As such, WCA has devised The World Cement Association Climate Action Plan. What are its core guidelines?

Climate change has brought significant challenges to the planet and society. In June 2018, WCA held the first Global Climate Change Forum, at which the WCA Climate Action Plan was extensively discussed and a feasible action plan was made. The main aim is to accelerate the decarbonization process. The core guidelines are:

1)As a global organization, WCA will take on its responsibility and mission. WCA is fully committed to the Paris Agreement objective of limiting global climate warming well-below 2 degrees versus preindustrial times and to increasing resilience of human communities to climate events.

2)No more words, actions are needed. WCA will deepen cooperation at the industry level and explore cross-industry symbiosis model to promote the efforts in the innovation of cement technology and product application, to find good solutions and to achieve a balance between carbon emission reduction and economic benefits. Through the guidance of WCA, we would like to make cement enterprises voluntarily and conscientiously participate in the actions against climate change in a more broad and deep way.

 

How far do you think the global cement industry has come towards becoming green and sustainable?

Over the past 40 years, the cement industry has made great progress in environmental protection and sustainable development:

1)Environmental protection: take China as an example, the dust emission is less than 1/5 of that in the past and the emission of other pollutants are also greatly reduced:

china dust emission evolution table cemweek magazine 50

 

2)Energy consumption: cement production process has been upgraded and modified through technological research and development. The energy consumption per unit product of emerging market countries represented by China has been reduced by 30% compared with the past:

china energy consumption evolution table cemweek magazine 50

 

3)Development of waste heat recovery (WHR): by the end of 2018, 95% of China’s cement clinker production lines have been installed with low-temperature WHR systems. The power generated by these WHR systems amounts to 40 billion KWH per year while an annual clinker output of 1.3 billion tons is taken into account. This is equal to the amount of 17 million tons of coal saving and emission reduction of 35 million tons of CO2, 280,000 tons of SO2 as well as 42,000 tons of dust.

4)We promote circular economy in the use of raw materials and fuels. For example, we promote the use of industrial by-products as alternative materials to save the natural resources to the greatest extent.

5)Use of cement kilns to co-process various wastes such as municipal waste, sludge, solid wastes, etc. Taking the lead in this field, European cement enterprises already made mature application of cement kiln co-processing technology on a large-scale 10 to 20 years ago.

6)Clean energy becomes effective. Explore the use of clean energy such as solar power, wind power and other clean energy to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

7)Construction of green quarries. Promptly improve the restoration of the ecological environment, boost efforts in quarry reclamation, and restore the quarry ecology.

8)Improve quality and eliminate low-grade cement.

9)Attach importance to safety and health: increase safety input and raise safety level by equipping on-site facilities, personal protection equipment and safety training. More and more cement plants value the importance of the environment and they have made the plant areas alike gardens.

 

What do you think are the main obstacles preventing better results?

1)Insufficient communication: The cement industry in the world is currently not sharing enough new technologies, equipment and business models due to existing barriers. Through regular knowledge dissemination activities and global climate change conferences, WCA gathers well-known experts in technology fields and equipment suppliers to enhance knowledge exchange and increase innovation.

2)Insufficient policy support: European environmental protection policies are strict while in underdeveloped countries policies are more tolerant. The degree of emphasis on environmental protection and the strictness of policies will directly determine the motivation of enterprises in energy conservation, emission reduction and sustainable development. The current actions of the industry focus more on technology, and the work on environmental protection and sustainable development lags far behind that on the development of technology and equipment. WCA will strengthen dialogue with governments and strive for policy support to promote energy conservation, emission reduction and sustainable development of industries.

3)Technical feasibility needs to balance input and output: The cement industry has developed advanced production technology and equipment, carbon capture and storage facilities, WHR facilities and measures of using alternative materials and fuels to reduce carbon emission intensity. But their application feasibility is restricted by the economic output. How to balance the input-output ratio remains a challenge. WCA will strengthen the technical feasibility and promote its implementation.

4)The difficulty of promoting new technologies: the cement industry is constantly developing new technologies. For example, the world’s first demonstration project of cement kiln CO2 capture and purification system constructed by Anhui Conch Group Co., Ltd has been successfully put into operation. But it is currently facing challenges in the marketing, sales and promotion of CO2 products.

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How can innovation play a role in shrinking the cement industry’s carbon footprint?

The carbon footprint of the cement industry mainly involves raw material extraction, cement production, product application, logistics and transportation, circular economy, etc. By deploying and launching innovative solutions, carbon emission can be reduced:

1)Raw material exploitation: search for alternative raw materials

At present, the major raw material for cement production is still limestone, and roughly 60% of the total CO2 emission for cement production is derived from decomposition of calcium carbonate. To cut carbon emission, the cement industry is actively seeking alternative raw materials such as industrial by-products to replace natural limestone.

2)Cement production: reduce the consumption of fossil fuels

The fuels used in cement production are mainly coal, natural gas and oil, and the CO2 emission during the combustion process accounts for about 32% of the total. At the same time, cement production requires a large amount of power. Most countries in the world still use coal and oil for power generation. Therefore, CO2 is emitted indirectly for cement manufacturing, accounting for 8% of the total. The carbon emission in cement production can be reduced mainly through the following two aspects: first, the energy consumption per unit product can be reduced through the innovation of process, technology and equipment and the improvement of management. Second, making full use of the waste heat recovered, solar power, wind power and other clean energy to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.

3)Product application: adjust product standards and building codes

WCA is committed to sustaining and whenever possible enhancing their efforts in the education and training of concrete producers and users, as well as in supporting the professionalization of the construction sector working collaboratively with the other players along the value chain. To lower the comprehensive carbon emission for buildings, WCA promotes the use of low carbon standards and building codes, including those requiring using cement to replace steel and asphalt which are of high-pollution and high-energy-consumption.

4)Logistics and transportation: Develop “Cement +”

Develop the “Cement +” business, expand the industrial chain and realize the integrated planning and reasonable layout of quarries, clinker production lines, grinding stations, ready-mix concrete batching plants and aggregate production lines, vigorously develop e-commerce to reduce wasting of resources for the transportation of limestone, additives and cement products.

5)Circular economy

CO2 emitted can be collected, stored and utilized through carbon capture technology. In addition, co-processing by cement kilns not only makes the wastes harmless but also recycles and saves resources, resultantly eliminate CO2 impact on the environment.

 

What new business opportunities and revenue streams could the low-carbon transition bring to the global cement industry?

As a global cement industry platform, WCA has the ability, willingness and resources to find the most innovative products, solutions and business models to create new business opportunities and new revenue sources while supporting the low-carbon transition of the cement industry.

1)   Equipment optimization: in order to reduce energy consumption, the clinker grinding process equipment has been constantly adjusted from tube mill, vertical mill to roller press system. The preheater has been upgraded from 5-stage to 6-stage. However, on average the main production lines of some established cement enterprises still use old equipment installed in the 1980s.  So there is a huge room for upgrading.

2)   Waste heat recovery: 95% of China’s cement plants have been equipped with WHR system. WHR system generates 25-40kWh/t power per ton of clinker, which reduces energy costs and CO2 emission. However, WHR system needs to be widely promoted in other countries.

3)Co-processing by cement kilns: co-processing by cement kilns is recognized as the safest technology with the most thorough treatment results. There is no need for secondary treatment and it can treat various wastes in large quantity. By using certain municipal solid waste co-processing technologies, above 60% kiln fuels can be substituted with alternative ones. Economic benefits are reaped for cement enterprises. At present, co-processing by cement kiln has become a common disposal technology in the developed countries, but the technology has just been launched in the emerging countries.

4)Technology of “carbon capture”: in October 2018, the world’s 1st cement kiln CO2 capture and purification demonstration project built by Anhui Conch Group Co., Ltd was successfully put into operation. The system collects residual carbon emitted which can be recycled and used as resources in agricultural and other industrial fields. The commercialization of such technology will help to turn waste into treasure and generate profits.

5)Digital technology: data exchange of artificial intelligence and manufacturing technology has begun to take shape. This technology has the potential to improve resource efficiency and bring new opportunities for energy conservation and emission reduction in the cement industry.

6)Carbon emission trading: the World Bank predicts that the global carbon emission market will exceed US$3.5 trillion by 2020, and the carbon trading market will become a gathering place for investment and financing capital at domestic and abroad. Considering that the cement industry is a major carbon emitter and most of the emerging countries have not been officially included in the carbon emission trading system, the carbon trading volume and amount will be huge.

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A large proportion of the World Cement Association’s comprehensive membership hails from emerging markets. What role can these markets play in tackling the industry’s main challenges?

Most members of WCA come from emerging markets, such as China, India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, Africa, etc. The cement production lines in these regions and countries were built in recent years, so they have unique advantages such as more advanced equipment and technology level and low upgrading and modification cost. In contrast, established enterprises in mature markets have old technologies and equipment and high reconstruction costs due to their early start. With the globalization of trade and the strengthening of information exchange, enterprises with backward technology will be urged to make equipment upgrade and modification. The process will accelerate the pace of global technological innovation.

However, the management level of cement enterprises in emerging markets is relatively low. Moreover, the emerging market countries are still economic development-oriented and the environmental protection policy is not so strict. Therefore, the cement enterprises over there are not strongly motivated to pursue energy conservation and emission reduction continuously. On the other hand, after a hundred years of development, the management system of established enterprises has become mature and developed countries pay more attention to the balance between economy and environmental protection. Through learning from them, the enterprises in the emerging markets will make more improvement in energy conservation, emission reduction and sustainable development.

From the perspective of the development trend of globalization and the impact of the Paris Agreement, cement enterprises in emerging markets and mature markets will jointly face the challenges of environmental and economic challenges. WCA is committed to promoting connectivity, sharing and promoting new technologies, new equipment and new business models and guiding global cement enterprises to jointly fulfil responsibilities and make efforts to promote sustainable development.

 

WCA expects global cement demand growth to slow in 2019, driven by escalating trade wars between the US and China, and a slowdown in construction activity in key European countries, like Germany and France. Do you think these developments can dampen global cement companies’ efforts in meeting their environmental agenda?

There will be repercussion, but the overall benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The slowdown of the total demand for cement will intensify the market competition. The weak enterprises with high energy consumption and high cost will be phased out while the advantageous enterprises will actively upgrade and modify technologies. Thus, the entire industry will be inspired to accelerate the environmental-friendly transition and achieve sustainable development.

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How do you envision the global cement industry in the next decade? Does cement have a place in the low-carbon economy of the future?

Compared with copper having a history of 4,000 years and steel with a history of 2,500 years, cement has a history less than 200 years. But cement is an indispensable fundamental raw material and has made a great contribution to the development of human society. No alternative products up to now can effectively replace it, and it will continue to play an important role in the construction in the foreseeable future. As the world economy continues to move forward and urbanization forges ahead, the demand for cement remains relatively high and technological innovations in cement production and application are promising.

However, cement production also brings heavy load to the environment. In 2018, the world produced 4.1 billion tons of cement and generated 22.5 billion tons of CO2 accounting for about 7% of the total global CO2 emission (data from CSI “Technology Roadmap: Low-Carbon Transition in the Cement Industry.”). The cement industry is the third largest energy consumer. In the face of severe global climate issues, the cement industry, like all energy and CO2-intensive industries, needs to face climate change challenges and undertake relevant social responsibilities. It will play an important role in the low-carbon economy in the future.

The cement industry has been committed to reducing the consumption of coal, oil and other fossil fuels as much as possible through various strategies such as technology upgrading and new energy development. At the same time, we are looking for revolutionary solutions through the technology innovation in cement production and application. The case in points are as follows: using by-products from other industries to produce high-grade and special cement, replacing steel and asphalt (which are of high-pollution and of high-energy-consumption) with cement for constructing traditional buildings so as to lower the comprehensive carbon emission for buildings, applying carbon products obtained by adopting carbon capture technology to agricultural and other industrial fields. In this way, win-win situation for the cement industry, economic and social development and the ecological and environmental protection will be attained.

 

This interview originally appeared on CemWeek Magazine #50

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