Carbon, climate and corruption coalesce in concrete

Carbon, climate and corruption coalesce in concrete


Posted on: March 8, 2019 3:22 pm
by: David Suzuki

Reducing dependence on private automobiles could help curtail construction of the widespread infrastructure required to support them. (Photo: Arizona Department of Transportation via Flickr)

Most of us rarely think about concrete, but it’s the foundation of modern society — from roads, buildings and bridges to the economy, political power and crime. We use more of it than anything except water.

Concrete has been a great driver of human progress. It’s allowed us to build up instead of out, made transportation and trade easier, protected us from the elements and even disease, and spurred economic growth and job creation — as well as population growth.

But it’s one of many innovations we adopted wholesale without fully understanding the consequences. Producing and transporting it emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. It also destroys natural ecosystems — including carbon sinks like forests and wetlands — and consumes huge amounts of water and other resources. Even global sand supplies are dwindling, thanks to its use in concrete. And it doesn’t always do as good a job as nature at protecting us from natural forces. Massive barriers sometimes offer less protection against tsunamis and flooding than the coastal mangrove swamps they displaced.

Even the recent scandal facing Canada’s government has concrete at its base. As one of Canada’s largest engineering and construction companies — employing 50,000 people through offices in over 50 countries and operations in more than 160 countries — SNC-Lavalin uses a lot of concrete. Infrastructure projects are important to industry and governments. They provide employment, keep GDP and the economy growing and offer “concrete” proof that progress is being made.

Concrete is one of many innovations we adopted wholesale without fully understanding the consequences. Producing and transporting it emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.

But, as the Guardian points out, “As well as being the primary vehicle for super-charged national building, the construction industry is also the widest channel for bribes. In many countries, the correlation is so strong, people see it as an index: the more concrete, the more corruption.”

SNC-Lavalin, which has already been sanctioned by the World Bank for bribery and corruption, faces similar charges at home. But as a major Quebec-based employer with its hand in some of the country’s largest infrastructure projects, it’s seen by provincial and federal governments as too important to fail.

One problem is that we’re basing economic decisions and government policy on economic systems that were designed when natural resources were abundant and built infrastructure was lacking. The opposite is now true, but to satisfy an appetite for continuous, rapid economic growth, we construct more roads, bridges, parking lots, dams and buildings without considering alternatives for progress and building materials.

To a large extent, it’s about maintaining our fossil-fuelled car culture. And it could get worse as developing nations scramble to catch up, building their own massive infrastructure projects and facilitating increased automobile use.

We’re basing economic decisions and government policy on economic systems that were designed when natural resources were abundant and built infrastructure was lacking. The opposite is now true.

The Carbon Disclosure Project estimates that cement production produces six per cent of global emissions, slightly behind steel production. Concrete, made from cement, is second only to coal, oil and gas for emissions. According to a Guardian article, “Its wider effects are even more problematic, as the built environment accounts for more than a third of the world’s carbon emissions.” Shipping the heavy product also emits greenhouse gases, and the industry accounts for 10 per cent of global industrial water use.

With urbanization, population growth and economic development rapidly increasing concrete use, ecosystem destruction and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise. A Carbon Disclosure Project report, “Building Pressure”, concluded, “Cement companies urgently need to more than double their emissions reductions or risk missing climate goals.”

It noted that regulation and technological innovation are key, not just to reduce emissions but also to find ways to capture and sequester them.

Although the report notes that carbon capture and storage “is an important technology for creating low-carbon cement,” progress has been limited, in part because the technologies haven’t yet proven to be viable. Carbon pricing and regulation, along with use of alternative fuels sourced from organic waste collection, are showing greater benefits.

We also have to find alternatives to massive concrete-based infrastructure projects and the economic systems that drive them. Reducing dependence on private automobiles could help curtail construction of the widespread infrastructure required to support them. Using renewable materials like wood for some construction is a step but comes with its own problems. Better concrete recycling and diversifying energy sources to reduce emissions from production and transport are also important.

It’s time for concrete solutions.

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About the Author


David Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.

Education

As a geneticist. David graduated from Amherst College (Massachusetts) in 1958 with an Honours BA in Biology, followed by a Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961. He held a research associateship in the Biology Division of Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Lab (1961 – 62), was an Assistant Professor in Genetics at the University of Alberta (1962 – 63), and since then has been a faculty member of the University of British Columbia. He is now Professor Emeritus at UBC.

Awards

In 1972, he was awarded the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship for the outstanding research scientist in Canada under the age of 35 and held it for three years. He has won numerous academic awards and holds 25 honourary degrees in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. Dr. Suzuki has written 52 books, including 19 for children. His 1976 textbook An Introduction to Genetic Analysis(with A.J.F. Griffiths), remains the most widely used genetics text book in the U.S.and has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Indonesian, Arabic, French and German.

Find Out More

Head over the the David Suzuki Foundation website to find out more at http://ibew993.org/faq/

 

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