California producers’ carbon volley

Two years of major gestures surrounding greenhouse gas emissions in cement and concrete production or procurement solidify California’s reputation for incubating policy. In October 2021, the California State Senate passed SB 596, charting a regulatory course for Golden State cement producers to attain net-zero carbon operations by 2045. The California Nevada Cement Association concurrently published an SB 596 action plan, “Achieving Carbon Neutrality in the California Cement Industry.” It complemented the Portland Cement Association Roadmap to Carbon Neutrality, also released in October 2021. State officials and agencies are implementing SB 596 measures on a targeted timeline, while CNCA and PCA apprise stakeholders of action plan and Roadmap progress. 

Golden State ready mixed concrete producers are following cement counterparts’ lead, sending their own message to public and private construction parties weighing procurement or specification decisions on GHG emissions factors. With annual output in the 35-40 million cubic yard range, they characterize their industry as large, diverse and—for proponents of emissions caps—beyond a “’one size fits all’ solution … [The] industry recognizes that its best role is as an advocate, facilitator, and accelerator of broader value chain decarbonization efforts.”

That observation sets the tone for “Achieving Net Zero Concrete in California – Pathways, Opportunities & Barriers,” a new California Construction and Industrial Materials Association (CalCIMA) report noted this month in Government Affairs (page 14). Like the CNCA plan and PCA Roadmap, “Achieving Net Zero Concrete” outlines what participants can achieve on their own and what assistance they need from upstream and downstream parties in the cement-concrete-construction value chain. “Charting a path to carbon neutrality,” CalCIMA concrete producers contend, “requires a flexible approach that recognizes the unique challenges facing communities and the industry, including prescriptive specifications, limited control over the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of raw materials, existing regulations and regulatory programs, and a limited supply and availability of alternative raw materials.”

“Achieving Net Zero” envisions a carbon neutrality route along five Pathways: Implement Performance-Based Specifications; Use Less GHG-Intense Raw Materials; Optimize Design, Decrease Waste, & Increase Circularity; Increase the GHG Efficiency of Concrete Operations; and, Increase the Recarbonation Potential of Concrete. Pathway 1 stresses the long-sought principle of letting concrete producers determine the best means of attaining engineer, architect or owner specifications. Arguing for performance versus prescriptive specifications, “Achieving Net Zero” authors cite a likely procurement circumstance for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which is poised to advance SB 596, CNCA and PCA objectives: “Even if a concrete batch plant can provide a mix for a project that fulfills performance requirements with significant GHG savings relative to regular concrete, it cannot supply the lower carbon concrete mix unless it convinces Caltrans to explicitly change its specifications.”

A prescriptive concrete ordering and production approach constrains CalCIMA producers’ ability to minimize the GHG footprint of ready mixed specified for a given project and serves as a disincentive for the industry to innovate. “By accelerating the transition toward specifications that focus on the performance characteristics of the product, policymakers have an opportunity to empower concrete producers to design and deliver products that meet customer needs while minimizing embodied emissions,” affirm “Achieving Net Zero” authors. A performance-based specifications transition would be an enabler of other Pathways, they observe, adding critical mass to the use of lower carbon cement, expanded SCM adoption, and concrete mix design optimization. 

CalCIMA concrete producers couple a credible proclamation with cement-concrete-construction value chain stakeholder challenge. They demonstrate their role as “one of many important actors in the value chain” with “a limited ability to unilaterally drive progress.”