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Climate and Environment

Santiago Saez Moreno
Journalist
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piqer: Santiago Saez Moreno
Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Concrete: A Ticket To Environmental Catastrophe?

Talking about hazards to climate and the environment immediately summons images of gases and, at most, liquids. But what about one of the most 'solid' (and ubiquitous) substances we see around in our daily lives? Let's talk about concrete.

The title of this podcast already sets the scene. Is concrete really the most destructive material on Earth? I'm not sure I'd agree to that extreme, but it certainly is a first-level concern, side by side with plastics or pesticides. And this podcast outlines why.

To set the scene, a bit about quantity. If you thought we were producing a lot of plastic, then think again: Gram by gram, we produce around 30 times the concrete. We may have even produced enough to outweigh the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. 

And producing concrete is really polluting. The industry is behind up to 8% of global CO2 emissions, and it's particularly difficult to decarbonize. This is because it's produced through a calcination reaction, as we saw a while back. To meet the 2ºC goal of the Paris Agreement, we'd need to cut down cement-related emissions 24%.

Concrete also destroys the natural medium, including fertile soil, and makes it hard for nature to reclaim space. That's why we love it so much, but also the reason it's so dangerous.

But the main thing around concrete is that it's so linked to economic growth that it's almost a certainty: If your country is developing, you'll have a lot of construction going on. And construction is almost invariably linked to corruption, so concrete production creates a vicious cycle, encroaching by keeping elected officials artificially in office through kickbacks.

This excellent podcast by The Guardian goes over different case studies of countries bound to the cement industry at different points in history, such as the US, Japan or Brazil. It's a scary, but necessary look at a worldview where growth is king, and it's built on concrete. A worldview we'll need to change in order to survive.

Concrete: A Ticket To Environmental Catastrophe?
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