Episode 559 The Concrete Business

Robert Cumming is with the Lafarge company, which manufactures concrete, the most common building material in the world and the source of about 8 percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions per year. The industry is trying hard to find ways to create strong concrete that does not emit carbon, and Lafarge has invested in a California-based company, Blue Planet, which makes concrete that is strongly carbon-negative — it sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted in the process of manufacturing it. Adele Buckley questions Cumming about the commercial viability of such products. He says that the engineers who design concrete structures are notoriously conservative and slow to pick up new possibilities. For the video, audio podcast, transcripts, and comments: https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-559-the-concrete-business.


Robert Cumming

Adele Buckley


concrete, carbon, calcium oxide, work, product, co2, cement, limestone, building, industry, world, develop, talked, people, called, government, planet, blue, strength, embodied carbon


Metta Spencer, Robert Cumming, Adele Buckley


In this conversation, Metta Spencer, hosts Dr. Adele Buckley, a physicist, engineer, and environmental scientist, and Robert Cumming, the head of Sustainability, Environment and Public Affairs at Lafarge Canada, about the development of carbon-negative concrete. The interview delves into the potential of creating concrete that not only avoids carbon dioxide emissions but also captures carbon from the atmosphere.

Cumming explains that concrete production involves the conversion of limestone into calcium oxide, which releases carbon dioxide. This process can be reversed through mineralization, where carbon dioxide reacts with unreacted cement components to reform limestone. Blue Planet, a California company, has developed a method to convert calcium oxide back into limestone. Lafarge is exploring a business partnership with Blue Planet to incorporate their technology into their concrete production.

The conversation highlights the significance of concrete in the construction industry and its contribution to carbon emissions, with the cement industry accounting for approximately 7-8% of global CO2 emissions. The potential of carbon-negative concrete lies in the integration of negative carbon gravel, produced from recycled concrete, with high-carbon cement. This circular solution allows for the offsetting of carbon emissions and minimizes the need for new quarries.

The interview acknowledges the challenges of obtaining sufficient calcium oxide, the key ingredient for carbon-negative concrete. The availability of old concrete and its suitability for reuse varies geographically. The guests express concerns about the rapid expansion of concrete usage in regions like Asia.

Cumming emphasizes the need for a multifaceted approach to decarbonization, mentioning the importance of replacing fossil fuels used in the cement production process with lower carbon alternatives. Canada is already making progress in this regard, with around 20% of fuels being low carbon and a goal of reaching over 70% by 2030.

The conversation explores the potential of carbon-negative concrete and highlights Lafarge’s interest in collaborating with Blue Planet to incorporate their innovative technology. The interview emphasizes the importance of addressing carbon emissions in the cement industry and adopting various strategies, such as alternative fuels and recycling old concrete, to achieve sustainable concrete production.

There are various strategies and technologies related to reducing the carbon emissions associated with concrete production. Here’s a summary of the main points discussed:

  • The aim of the concrete industry in Canada is to have around 70% of fuels come from lower carbon alternatives by 2030.
  • While there is some early research on electric power processes for concrete production, the technology readiness level is currently low.
  • One approach to reducing carbon emissions is the use of biogenic fuels, which are considered carbon neutral because the CO2 emitted during their use is part of a natural cycle. These fuels have less heat value but can be used with some technical changes in the production process.
  • Reusing materials such as concrete and wood structures as fuel sources can also contribute to carbon neutrality.
  • Grinding the product finer and adding more limestone can result in a 10 to 15% lower carbon intensity product without compromising performance. This approach is known as limestone cements.
  • Exploring alternative cementitious materials and using the right strength concrete in the right places can lead to further carbon emissions reductions.
  • Performance standards and adjusting construction schedules to allow for longer curing times can result in 30% lower carbon intensity concrete.
  • Concrete typically reaches sufficient strength within 24 hours, allowing for basic construction to proceed, but it continues to harden over time.
  • Embodied carbon refers to the total CO2 emissions associated with the production of concrete, including emissions from cement plants, transportation, and aggregate production.
  • Strategies for reducing embodied carbon include optimizing concrete formulations, using concrete analyzers to determine strength requirements, and minimizing concrete waste.
  • The cost implications of adopting lower carbon concrete vary. Higher carbon concrete may become more expensive as carbon pricing takes effect, while some measures can be implemented without additional costs. Offsetting embodied carbon through carbon offsets is another option.
  • Achieving carbon neutrality and potentially negative carbon concrete requires further research and development, such as the use of alternative cements and negative carbon aggregates.
  • Blue Planet is mentioned as a promising technology for carbon negative concrete. While it shows potential, scaling up to replace all concrete production is a significant challenge that will require further development and time.

The conversation touches on the importance of using up all the CO2 captured or used in the concrete production process and considering the handling of excess CO2, either through storage or other means, to effectively address the carbon problem.

Despite challenges and potential solutions related to reducing carbon emissions in the concrete industry. Robert Cumming emphasizes the need for multiple strategies and collaborations to address the complex issue of carbon emissions. He mentions that there is a lot of research happening in various industries and emphasizes the importance of innovation, policy instruments, and collaboration to drive change.

They discuss the role of building codes in promoting sustainability in the construction industry. While the federal government may issue building codes, the implementation and adoption of these codes are dependent on the provinces. Adele raises concerns about the slow pace of implementation and the need for incentives to push the industry towards adopting sustainable practices. They also discuss the importance of third-party verification and testing to ensure the performance and quality of new products and technologies.

Robert Cumming mentions the concept of carbon offsets and how they can incentivize the adoption of greener practices. He highlights the need for carbon pricing, investments in new technologies, and the development of performance-based quality standards to drive innovation and create a competitive environment for low-carbon solutions.

The conversation touches on the conservative nature of the engineering industry when it comes to adopting new technologies. While testing methods exist, engineers may be reluctant to take risks with new products, especially when it comes to public safety. Adele and Metta discuss the importance of testing and verification by independent third parties to build confidence in new technologies.

They briefly mention the involvement of universities, such as Queen’s University, in developing computational methods to optimize concrete design and reduce carbon emissions. The conversation concludes with Adele mentioning a specification (CSA 111221) related to concrete carbon intensity quantification and verification, but Robert Cumming indicates that he may not have specific knowledge about it.

Overall, the conversation highlights the need for collaborative efforts, policy interventions, innovation, and verification processes to drive the transition to a more sustainable concrete industry.


The following transcript has been machine generated using “otter.ai.” Prior to using information from the transcript, please watch the video to catch any obvious errors.

Metta Spencer  00:00

The following transcript has been machine generated using “otter.ai.” Prior to using information from the transcript, please watch the video to catch any obvious errors. Hi, I’m Metta Spencer. We’re going to have a really interesting time today talking a little bit about business. Because I don’t know anything about business, but I’ve gotten very interested in concrete. So we’re gonna go to the biggest concrete businessman in Canada. Sort of, I mean, Lafarge is really a powerful outfit. I know they have, they have factories all over the country making concrete, and there’s an awful lot of concrete being used. So we’re going to have a conversation with a man named Robert Cumming, who is a big honcho in the business, the Lafarge business, which is somehow affiliated I understand with another outfit that mostly I think it’s in Europe named Holcim, is that right, Rob?

Robert Cumming  00:50


Metta Spencer  00:50

Is that how you pronounce it?

Robert Cumming  00:51

So Lafarge Canada is a member of Holcim, Holcim group based out of Switzerland.

Metta Spencer  00:57

Yeah. All right, that sounds right. and that’s sort of at least consistent with what I thought I’d learned. So, Robert Cumming is the head of Sustainability, Environment and Public Affairs, as well as government relations for Lafarge throughout Eastern Canada. So he does a lot of work in environment and communication with people. So thank you for communicating with us this morning, or this early afternoon Rob.

Robert Cumming  01:27

Glad to hear and looking forward to the conversation.

Metta Spencer  01:31

Yeah, good. All right. and let me also introduce somebody who’s maybe familiar to many of you, because she, she always answers my call when I want somebody to talk on my show, and that’s Dr. Adele Buckley, who is a physicist an engineer, and an environmental scientist. And she’s the past chair of the Canadian Pugwash group, and actually was on the, a member of the International Pugwash council for a long time. And she leads a campaign for a nuclear weapon, free Arctic and runs, posts a lot of information and videos, and mostly articles about Arctic security. and she’s an inventor she developed and manufactured mass spectrometry systems that have been installed worldwide. So I’m really always glad when Adele can join me and help me interrogate people that about topics of which I know little. Now what has intrigued me most. and what got me started on this really was a couple of years ago or more, I discovered that there, there’s an outfit in California called Blue Planet, and these people are headed by a man named Brent Constantz. And I’ve interviewed him twice on the show, so we have long, a good long friendship by now. He is a developer of system. He’s, he apparently, he started off inventing adhesive and glue and things for bones for surgeons to glue people back together. But now he makes concrete, and he makes amazing concrete that is apparently carbon negative. And that was the amazing thing because carbon concrete is a big source of carbon dioxide emissions in in the world about, I think it’s something like 8% Is that right 8% Rob?

Robert Cumming  03:44

Worldwide, yeah the cement industry represents about seven to 8% of the world’s co2 emissions.

Metta Spencer  03:52

Okay, so we have every reason to want to stop that, you know, we have to stop emitting carbon. But the amazing thing is that apparently, it’s possible not only for carbon for concrete to be manufactured, that will not be a net emitter of of carbon dioxide but will actually be negative and will take carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it up where it’ll stay put for a long time. So, they, I understand that they have been working out a business deal with you folks. and that’s really what I want to know, we want to talk today. We’ve already discussed other kinds of low carbon concrete, and we’ve with other other conversations earlier, so if people want to know about that they can find those, those videos, but I want to look at it from the practical standpoint. As a businessman, is this a practical thing to do? Please explain it, tell us why and how it works, and whether you think you can make it on a scale that will, will make any difference and whether you can make a profit doing it and all those things that an industrial magnate has to think about. So you’re on, explain it to us.

Robert Cumming  05:21


Metta Spencer  05:22

What are you guys up to?

Robert Cumming  05:24

All right? Well, I’m going to take you back to the cement plant itself, where it all begins in terms of production. So we do make cement from limestone. It is ground into fine powder, and we add it to, to stone, and sand and water, and that’s what concrete is, which is the sidewalks you see, it’s the pillars you see. Bridges, whatever it might be, there’s more concrete sold, then all other building materials combined, and by double. So a significant portion of our built environment is concrete. If you ever been to the say Mexico or South America, you can see concrete everywhere people build their homes out of it. So let’s go back to that cement plant, and the limestone, which is calcium carbonate, and I promise I won’t get too much chemistry here. But I do need to walk through a little bit about the chemistry so that it makes sense later. Taking calcium carbonate, yeah, a lot of heat in energy. and that knocks off the co2 molecule off the calcium carbonate. There’s that word carbon in carbonate. So it doesn’t surprise you that that would happen. That leaves calcium oxide, which in the big production processes that are cement plants is continues to react with aluminum, silica and other materials to form what’s called clinker eventually made into cement. So I won’t really want to just focus on that limestone to calcium oxide reaction, which produces co2 because that can be reversed, in fact, naturally happens already. and if you look at a concrete building any exposed area to to air, the co2 in the air will slowly, naturally react with the unreacted cements that or those components to reform limestone. So that process is called mineralization. It’s essentially taking a mineral oxides such as calcium oxide, that’s the most obvious one, but it could be other oxides. You mix it with co2, and what’s called a exothermic reaction, which means it doesn’t require energy to make it happen. It happens naturally, being speeded up. But it happens naturally, to reform limestone. So Blue Planet is one of the startups in North America that is taking forms of calcium oxide and converting it back into limestone. And remember, I said that we take cement, mix it with gravel, sand and water. So what if that gravel was made of lime, which is made of limestone primarily? What if it was negative carbon stone mixed in with our high carbon cements, and they offset each other potentially. So that’s kind of the simple overview, if you will. But it is a very exciting field for us. It’s because Lafarge and Holcim the cell aggregates we sell sand and gravel and cement and concrete. So for us, this could be a very interesting integrated solution that takes advantage of our natural business cycle to start with. It also means we aren’t potentially having to create new quarries which everyone loves quarries, and that’s a sarcastic comment. We can make use of our any demolished building that, that concrete that rubble that’s formed. That’s a form of calcium oxide, there’s calcium oxide in there, we react all that calcium oxide into limestone, and you’re left with the original sand and gravel from the original concrete from 50 years ago. and so it’s very circular solution that could be very effective, especially with the built environment. Now the, I’m gonna go back to something else I said that there’s more concrete sold than all other building materials combined. So the trick is to find enough oxides to react with co2 to offset all the co2 in the cement industry. and that’s very, very difficult. So,…

Metta Spencer  10:08

Hold on, to find the oxide?

Robert Cumming  10:12

So calcium oxide.

Metta Spencer  10:13

I think it’s a calcium we want isn’t it isn’t the problem, where do you get the calcium? Is it calcium oxide? Or I’m confused about the word oxide here.

Robert Cumming  10:23

It’s, it’s just the form of minerals. So calcium, CaO, or calcium oxide.

Metta Spencer  10:31

We have to get the calcium.

Robert Cumming  10:34

Yes, yes. But you’re forming limestone, ultimately, which is CaCO3, for the chemists in the crowd. So you need co2 and need calcium oxide to make the thing work right. So where do you find calcium oxide? There’s a lot of it in the old buildings. So when we demolish old buildings, we can create new, new limestone out of that. But it’s, there’s only so much calcium oxide in concrete, because remember, there’s a lot of sand and gravel in there as well. So the challenge we’re facing is where we get all the calcium oxide. and sorry about all the chemistry here. But when you look at Blue Planet, going back to that you’re essentially making negative carbon gravel to mix in with your new cement in the sand, and water. So Blue Planet process is very efficient at extracting all the calcium oxide of the concrete. There are others.

Metta Spencer  11:41

I’m not totally clear on how you do that. You take the demolished concrete, and you smash it up. Now, do you chemically separate these things? Or do you just mush it back together into little pellets to make sort of like gravel?

Robert Cumming  11:58

Well, through the proprietary Blue Planet process, they’re essentially forming a paste if you will. So it’s it is a liquid process, you’d have to get more information on them on that proprietary process. But it essentially you can take your flue gas from cement plant, run it through this process, and it forms a limestone paste, and the co2 is stripped out of the flue gas and the rest of the gases then go on their merry way back to the plant for discharge,  and they produce a paste, which then can be formed into different shapes.

Metta Spencer  12:44

I’ve seen some of the little shapes, they’re like little pellets of half an inch long or something mostly aren’t they? Or maybe they’re maybe make them into different shapes according to what you want. Anyway, I’m distracting you. Adele, can I ,do you have a question that you want to put to him so far?

Robert Cumming  12:56


Adele Buckley  13:01

Yep, well, I keep wondering if there’s sufficient old concrete to have any effect. I mean, it’s useful, where it’s available, but either it’s in the wrong place, or the world in Asia is rapidly expanding and using huge amounts of concrete. And I don’t know how much old concrete they’ve got.

Robert Cumming  13:25

But that’s exactly the question we’re asking as well. So I there’s an old expression, I’ve been in this the world of decarbonization now for almost 30 years. There’s no silver bullet, there’s silver buckshot. So this is one technology that we’re using. So Blue Planet has got some very innovative technology. It’s still in the development stage, we’re still trying to work out some of those questions, looking for other calcium sources, for example. It’s working on the final product formulation, those sorts of things. I have to be careful because it’s it’s Blue Planets development, so they would know more about where they’re at from a technology perspective. But mineralization is a broad category of technologies will have a role to play. But that does not mean that we should not be doing other things. For example, replacing our fuel member that energy you need to knock off the co2 molecule from the limestone. That energy is coming currently from fossil fuels typically, 1/3 of the co2 emissions from cement comes from fossil fuels and two thirds from the limestone to calcium oxide reaction, right. So we can we be replacing those fossil fuels with lower carbon alternatives. That’s an active process in Canada. I think we’re already across Canada in the neighborhood of 20% of our fuels are low carbon. And we’re well on our way to get it over 70% by 2030. So those things have, the act of reducing the carbon concentration of co2 that’s emitted per ton of product, if you will.

Metta Spencer  15:15

Would you say that again, something about 70% by such is that what is it this, you’re, you’re aiming at again?

Robert Cumming  15:22

So our industry across Canada’s is aiming that by 2030, around 70% of our fuels would come from lower carbon alternatives.

Adele Buckley  15:32

Well yeah, but that’s just like going to natural gas is that I am kind of wonder is, maybe this is really stretching it? Is there anything about electric power as as a source of energy?

Robert Cumming  15:48

Well, there is some early research on electric power processes here. But it is very early, it’s the technology readiness level is quite low. So for actions we can take today. That replacing, coal and petcoke, and even natural gas, there are lower carbon alternatives than natural gas out there, for example, biogenic fuels that we can use that that are some of them are near zero in terms of their net emissions, right? That’s one initiative…

Metta Spencer  16:25

I’m not sure. I think that’s new to me, tell me, what are those we’re better than natural gas?

Robert Cumming  16:31

So it’s, IPCC has recognized that when we are using biogenic materials were that co2 was captured to the organic cycle recently. And it goes back into the atmosphere, atmosphere through the carbon cycle, that on a national or global basis, it’s it’s essentially a cycle. So those are called biogenic fuels, and are considered carbon neutral, they tend to have more water, they tend to have less heat value, but they can be used but some technical changes in our process. But what it also means is that we can take an older building, we can take the concrete, we talked about the concrete, we can also take some of the wood structures that are there, and reuse those materials as well as our fuel source, because it’s considered carbon neutral at that point. But there’s more that we can also do by grinding our product finer, and adding more limestone to our product. and that can be a 10 to 15% lower carbon intensity product going into the market, same performance. So it’s something called limestone cements are most of our plants across, our the forest plants across Canada, have no longer produce ordinary Portland cement, we know solely produce limestone cements as part of our drive towards net zero. Fuel replacement is another technology. We’re also looking at other materials that have a cement-like property. They’re called cementitious materials for the technical people out there. We can replace that cement with these other materials to some extent, not fully. But as a blend, they can often provide even better performance in a building environment than cement alone. So that’s another, another option as well. And I’ll keep going. Something we’re working on. and this is where why I’m very interested in participating in this discussion with you is I’m hoping there are builders, architects and designers out there listening. So everything I talked about so far are things that we can do behind the the black box, behind the curtain, and they get a product delivered to them. At this point, there’s so much more we could do today, if companies would partner with us on what we call performance standards. So rather than for example, if you really could wait another day to reach your, your 24 hour strength. So it’s kind of a little strange way to say it. But if you wait 48 hours to get your 24 hour strength, we can do things in the product formulation to give you that strength you need it’ll just take longer to get there. And if you’re able to accommodate that in a building schedule, for example, that could be a 30% lower carbon intensity concrete to start with.

Metta Spencer  19:38

May I interrupt because I in one of the conversations they were talking about carbon, about cement, concrete having to cure for months or something like that. You’re talking about 48 hours you don’t get me straightened out on this?

Robert Cumming  19:55

Rght. So there is a final strength that will be reached potentially years, I think there’s some evidence that concrete continues to harden throughout the life of the building. But it’s, you’re getting into that situation where 24 hour strength, you’re able to walk on it, for example, you can, you can do some basic construction after a certain period of time. We’re able to start in a SkyRise situation, we can build the next level on top, may not have reached his full strength, but has reached sufficient strength for the next step in the construction process. And while you’re building your walls on the concrete foundation, for example, the concrete continues to harden and set. So it’s really a question of when do you need what strength in the construction process?

Metta Spencer  20:50

I got the impression that most concrete, you’d have to wait for a month before you could touch the stuff but I’m wrong, right?

Robert Cumming  20:56

No,  you can usually get in there within 24 hours, remove the forms, for example, there’s things we can do to create faster strength faster or higher strength faster. But if the, the designers and architects and the building managers are able to give us that time, then we can reduce our intensity. There’s other things we can do where right now we may for warmer concrete pad for a building, the structure strength is needed on the edges where the wall is, for example, right? Do we need as much strength in the middle of that floor? Probably not, and that also allows us to have some more flexibility in terms of how we do our formulations, and we can share we have the right strength concrete with the right strength is needed. That’s another step were working with our partners in the construction world, we can reduce the what’s called embodied carbon in the concrete in that building, and achieve even greater reductions. So we may not be able to get to zero.

Metta Spencer  22:03

[inaudible] embodied concrete idea to me. I’ve come across that, it puzzled me.

Robert Cumming  22:09

Okay. Yeah, it’s one of those terms a it’s a lingo that we use. I’ve been avoiding using it so far.

Metta Spencer  22:16

The reason is that it sounds like it’s something you want to do, you want to embody carbon in the concrete that I, as I understand it, it’s a bad thing. Embodied concrete is something you want to get rid of is that right?

Robert Cumming  22:30

Yes, it’s the way the building, the green building people look at it is you look at that cubic meter of concrete or cubic yard, if you’re in the US, that’s delivered to your site. There was a lot of co2 emitted at the cement plants. There’s co2 emitted on its way through the trucks to the ready mix plant, there’s more co2 emitted as the plant as it’s the ready mix plant as its operation, the co2 emitted and the aggregates in the sand that are new needed for, produced for the ready mix product, and then is, of course, the final delivery to the site. And if you look at all the co2 emitted in the production of that, that’s called embodied carbon.

Adele Buckley  23:17

Oh, that’s really interesting. But I have quite a few questions. Not, I’m not sure that it helps to interrupts your your explanation right now. But let, let me try, I have, due to Metta pushing. Because I’ve never thought about concrete for more than one minute in previous times. That it, could you use less concrete? It seemed to me that there’s there is a considerable amount of overdesign. At least some writers say that, because I be because it’s easier to do that than to really check and just have it correct, but not overdone?

Robert Cumming  24:05

Yes, there’s lots of opportunities there right? Now, I’ve talked about performance standards, you know, the right strength concrete in the right place. There’s also use of little analyzers on inside the concrete so that we can give people a much better sense of what strength they need in different locations. As even concrete waste, you know, sending back a full load of concrete that we just can’t use anymore, for example, as it’s called Return concrete. So more efficiency in terms of ordering and timing, for example. There’s also a smaller scale. There’s also things we can do with some day having electric trucks to eliminate the transportation component. However, most of the emissions of course, are at the cement plant itself, which is where a lot of the focus needs to be.

Adele Buckley  24:59

How does this affect your profits?  I mean is this going to make concrete a lot more costly? Presumably that’s on your mind at all times when you when you change the process.

Robert Cumming  25:15

This is where it gets really interesting to some extent over time, the higher carbon and concrete will be more expensive than the lower carbon concrete as carbon pricing starts to take a bite into business operations. There’s also things that we can do that do not cost any more money. If the construction company will work with us, like the performance standards I’ve talked about, for example, there’s even more we can do if they’re prepared to pay a bit more for the product. For example, in the Toronto Green Building Standard, the construction company, the developer, needs to buy carbon offsets for all of the carbon that is embodied, there’s that word again, in the building itself, to make it net zero from that perspective, and if they’re buying offsets to pay more money to start with, and that gives a bit of freedom for them to work with companies like yourselves, where there might be a bit more of an expensive solution, but it’s less expensive than having to purchase offsets. And it’s also, you know, from a policy perspective, preferable to not emit the co2 in the first place, then trying to offset it. So those are giving you the whole breadth of strategies that we have, as a company our industry has a company industry, we’ve issued a net zero strategy, everything I’ve talked about, as isn’t that strategy, we can get to about a 60%, lower carbon concentration per ton of product, using those methods I just talked about. There’s lots of research underway right now to, to try to get that last 40% out of our emissions. and that’s where we get to things like the electrical piece that I think Adele mentioned. There’s new types of cements that don’t require the limestone, for example, you can explore, then you get into mineralization, which is, of course, why I have a very interesting component of what we’re trying to do. Because at the end of the day, we’re trying to produce concrete that is carbon neutral. and if we can have negative carbon aggregate, with our 40%, lower or 60%, lower carbon cements, we can get to the point where it’s net zero and potentially even negative. Think negative is going to be a whiles off as we continue to develop these technologies. But that is the…

Metta Spencer  27:55

Now excuse me but Blue Planet claims that they are very carbon negative already.

Robert Cumming  28:00

In a, if you take a pure product of theirs, add it with cement, yes, it’s carbon negative. It’s a scale up issue at this point, is there enough of their product to offset all the concrete sold. So remember, there’s more concrete sold than all the buildings materials combined, it’s [inaudible].

Metta Spencer  28:19

All these things you’ve been talking about are, we’ve had people, quite a few people, we’ve done several shows already, in which we’ve had experts who, you know, teach civil engineering and so on. And they talk about how to do lower to get lower carbon concrete. But only I the only real concrete I’ve seen promoted that, that I kind of am convinced by is the Blue Planet, because you know, some of these other like carbon Crete or something like that they they make concrete blocks, but you can’t do everything with concrete blocks, you know. So, but they even, you know, the Blue Planet, people made airports and that sort of thing. But I gather, you’re saying that they really couldn’t do. They couldn’t take over the industry and make every, every concrete building out of carbon negative concrete. That’s what you’re saying. Right?

Robert Cumming  29:21

Well, let me be clear, we’re thinking is very promising technology. It’s early days, we’ve actually taken a ownership stake in Blue Planet ourselves. So we think it’s one of the more promising paths towards that that potentially carbon negative concrete. But these things do take time, they take years maybe over a decade to to truly develop all of the commercial aspects of Blue Planet. If you want to have one specific dry erase board with this negative carbon concrete, it could be done. If you want to replace all the concrete sold across North America, they’ve got a lot of work to do to get there.

Adele Buckley  30:04

Well, I I’m quite interested in that, that you’ve taken an interest in Blue Planet, because that’s obviously intended to be mutually beneficial, but with respect to them and all the other people who are using excess carbon dioxide from somewhere, or captured carbon dioxide, sometimes. I don’t know, if it’s supplied in such a way that it’s totally used up, or are in fact, you just pour these co2 onto your, your, your work and the you know, whatever isn’t used to just goes back into the atmosphere. But what happens to excess I mean, Blue Planet is taking from from a power plant and taking the co2 from there. Well, it’s it was just going into the air anyway. So it doesn’t really matter. But in the end, it really matters. You have to use up all the co2 you’re piping in, and then you have to know, well, what are we going to do with the excess co2? We need pipelines or we need something to store it. Otherwise, we are not dealing with all the co2 problems?

Robert Cumming  31:29

Well, yes, it is a big problem. And but as what why I don’t get discouraged is that there’s so much research happening all around, and every every business, every industry type. So if you think about the size of the issue, it’s going to be as I said earlier, it’s going to be silver buckshot, not silver bullets that get us through this, and I think Blue Planet has a role. Other, other technology developers that are doing mineralization strategies, as well all have a roll. All the things I talked about with low carbon fuels, and limestone cements, and working with performance standards, all of these things have a role. If there was one magic solution, you know, I don’t want to say magic, because because it’s more one technical solution. I think that’d be wonderful. But I don’t think it’s going to be it’s going to be multiple, it’s going to be hydrogen for trucks or electric trucks, it’s going to be steel manufacturers replacing their processes as well. And I think policy instruments like green procurements, where governments require some form of well, carbon accounted for products. and they have a premium for that coupled with carbon pricing that itself will create a driver coupled with faster collaboration between developers and new technologies. We’re, we are very slow at implementing, at a commercial level, some of these innovations. It’s all these pieces that need to happen, and I because I’m involved with a lot of very smart people. But that’s meant a source association or with enter Natural Resources Canada, I see a lot of this happening. A lot of smart people are pulling in the right direction. So I’m always very positive on us reaching those, those targets. It’s like that S curve where initially, you know, it looks like it’s fairly flat, then it starts to take off, and suddenly you’re before you know it, it’s all of our cars are electric. We might hit that by 2035. Right? And then five years ago, people would said it’s impossible.

Adele Buckley  33:52

Well, I’m really encouraged to hear you say that the industry actually wants to do this and is striving hard for it. Because you know, there, there certainly seems to be instances of, some industries pushing back as hard as they could to not change, but what you’re saying says no change, change is coming. Could we have a few words about building codes?  I heard or read or something that the federal government has issued a building codes relevant to concrete, I think, fairly recently. But just because they finally got around to getting to the end and saying this is our building code, my impression is that okay, nothing happens until the province decides to implement it. And the province can take its own sweet time there’s no really no hurry. and so there’s nothing pushing the industry, any industry but you know, the concrete industry, in this case to, to do anything and till the province pushes them, or maybe the Toronto green building pushes them, I think that Toronto green building situation is probably the best. I’m not sure if they are paying attention to federal newly promulgated building code. Because if they, could they make you do it?

Robert Cumming  35:20

Yes, so the center for green in government, which is part of Treasury Board has issued a new low carbon concrete standard, we volunteered to be the first industry to do that. Because we, as a business imperative for us, as the, one of the largest carbon emitters in the world, like we be the third largest emitter in the world, if we were a country, just to put this in context. So we know what we have to act. and we have to act quickly. and we have to be seen to act quickly. But we also need to act. So we volunteer with a very modest proposal from the Center for green in government, which requires a 10% lower carbon concrete than the referenced concrete, which general that limestone cement I met, mentioned, would accomplish that. So it’s a fairly modest first step, but it creates the structure for the government to then say, well, it was 10%. last year, it’s going to be 12%, this year, 14% next year, and it creates that business environment for innovation. But also for us to plan ahead for investments in lower carbon technology, because we know there will be a buyer for our lower carbon products. But your point about the building standards is a really good one, we have to find a way to make sure our buildings don’t fall apart. With going too quickly with new products, that may not work. But at the same time, we have to create incentives for, for engineers to look for those low, lower carbon products. We need to work with the academics and other testing agencies to come up with ways that can be trusted to measure new products performance. So that things like that Blue Planet aggregate or gravel I talked about, I could see most engineers being reluctant to use it because it’s not been used before it’s never been tested in their environment, and it’s going to take years for for Blue Planet to develop that as new product, including us. Then we might be using their Blue Planet process, we might be the producers of that product, ourselves. We, we need a faster way to get to a industry acceptance of these new products. That limestone cement I mentioned to you it took 15 years to get it into the market. and it exists…

Adele Buckley  37:52

I would like to ask another question related to well, what I would call verification of performance. and this seems to be super important. It’s something I have a bit of background with, and if a third party to whoever is developing, whatever, whatever it is you’re trying to use, will or will do the recognized quality engineering and scientific testing that the industry would agree with. But they have to be a third party to whoever’s, you know, pushing the technology. I think that, that would go a long way. I mean, that may be expensive, everything is, but you’re really building up the confidence that it really has been tested. and what you claim to be true is really true. By somebody else who’s totally not connected to you. That’s what seems kind of vital.

Robert Cumming  38:51

Absolutely, so these are the things that I work on in my life, my workplace. I’m not the one in the laboratory doing the research work. I’m the one working with all these public policy issues to try to move, move the bar forward faster.

Adele Buckley  39:09

What I heard you say was that the Toronto green building, whatever, it requires a buying of offsets. Now, offsets presumably will rise and rise and rise in price. Therefore, that’s some kind of motivation to to build green because you won’t have to buy offsets.

Robert Cumming  39:31

That’s exactly right. That’s what I think it’s one of the smarter methods. It kind of creates a very slow moving but it’s relentless pressure to for competitors. You know, my Lafarge and its competitors in Canada to try to out compete on a lower carbon solution that costs less than the other competitor.  And you want to unlock that competition. Do you want to unlock that innovation. And there’s a lot of things that are required to do that. So carbon pricing is one, insufficient on its own. We do need investments, and some of those investments are difficult to justify when inflation is running rampant so. So, that’s one area where the government’s can support with with some of the programs they have in place federally. There’s carbon procurement, low carbon procurement, which is something that can really develop, development of new quality standards and methods to meet a quality requirement that’s performance based rather than recipe based. You know, I often joke that nobody goes into a baker and says, I want a chocolate cake. I want it to be a really, really good one. and here’s the recipe. And that’s what happens in our industry all the time, and then some of my guys will then joke. and if they don’t like it, at the end of the day, they’ll they’ll take it back anyway. So, we need to have that conversation with architects and designers early on in their product, project development, so that we can find ways to produce lower carbon alternatives that will meet their exact needs. and that’s where a lot of work we’re doing right now is related to. We’re doing a study at Queen’s University, where they’re using computational fluid, computational, structural design, to help designers and architects look at a building to determine where all the stress or strength is required, so that the rest of the concrete could be a lower, lower strength, for example, and that could, but that requires all sorts of new methods. So it’s amazing in industry, it’s really exciting time in our industry, because we’re the same old concrete we’ve been making for the last 50 to 100 years, we have to change it. And there’s a light under, or a fire under our chairs right now to get that to happen.

Adele Buckley  42:09

I’m quite impressed when you talk about universities that are working with you, well not exactly with you probably just in parallel, and you know about each other. But anyway, I think Metta and I both think the baker and the chocolate cake recipe is a dandy analogy. So maybe we’ll use out somewhere else, it’s, it’s good.

Metta Spencer  42:37

But I get the idea that in the olden days, there was only one chocolate cake recipe. and now, it looks like everybody’s got a new, a new recipe, and they vary a lot. And what’s surprising me about what you’re saying is that it sounds as if you aren’t quite sure, when you’ve made the cake, you don’t know how to test it enough. I had the impression from talking to some of the other people, some guys at the Imperial College in London, for example, which I gather is doing a lot of work on concrete, that that nowadays, they they have the equipment that enables them to test it, and they can know right away whether it’s going to be strong enough or, or what, so that there’s not as much anxiety or uncertainty about the product.

Robert Cumming  43:29

There is some, those methods exist.

Metta Spencer  43:32

But I’m not hearing you say that 

Robert Cumming  43:32

Those methods exist but engineers are notoriously slow to adopt new technologies. So is there a new methodology that we can use to provide extra insurance or reassurance? I, I can guarantee that all of these new products are going to be very difficult to get into the marketplace, because of this reticence

Metta Spencer  43:59

So it is not that they are not strong enough, it’s that people are too conservative about wanting to experiment. Is that it?

Robert Cumming  44:09

Yes, they want. Like the old expression, no one got fired for buying IBM. Remember that? So no one got fired for building a bridge out of Portland cement. But they build it out of something new and it happens. They don’t want to be the first ones they don’t there’s no incentive for these people to take a risk and is back knowing their minds or maybe taking a risk to public safety. So, you know, I don’t want to pick on them. You know, but …

Metta Spencer  44:38

Some of these guys were talking about how a few years ago several years ago, they were building things and it turned out the thing didn’t fall down or it really wasn’t strong enough. So they you know, they that was a dumb move. But you know, I’ve seen now tools where they take a block of concrete and then something heavy and they just smash it and they know exactly how much weight they can put on it before flings into all over the room. Now, is that isn’t that enough to tell whether or not your concrete is good enough? And nowadays, do you really need to wait 20 years to see whether the building is going to fall down? Or can you just be pretty darn sure, having smashed a few blocks of concrete that it will work?

Robert Cumming  45:31

Yes, we can do testing for sure. Testing that was developed for existing products to confirm that it meets the requirements. If you do something with a whole new product, will those, are we sure those  methods still work will be a question that we get asked. This is where the academics come into play. Because they can apply a lot of that fundamental science that went into the development of the method in the first place and confirm it will still work. These are not, they’re not insurmountable problems, they can be addressed. And there’s a lot of work going on to address them. and we need to act much faster.

Adele Buckley  46:09

I really, like impressed about you, well, I mean, you have only touched on that Queen’s University is working on this, but apparently cement is some kind of fluid in a way or concrete. and so you can use computational fluid dynamics on it, which is usually used in the aerospace industry. So Wow. You know, I people are certainly trying different things to try to come to grips with this. So I’m kind of interested to hear about that. I think Metta may want to wind up but I need I have one one more question on my list, which is apparently CSA has a specification, 111221, which is about concrete, carbon intensity quantification and verification. Is anyone trying to meet this specification?

Robert Cumming  47:10

You’d have to talk to some of our quality people you are getting a little bit outside of my area of expertise. If it’s an existing standard, I’m sure we already need it. It was brand new, I can’t speak to it.

Metta Spencer  47:23

No, I think it’s an existing,  well, I don’t think it’s that old. But yeah. Okay,

Robert Cumming  47:30

I do know, we’re pretty, pretty sophisticated, we pretty much meet every standard that’s required. It’s kind of a, something you need to you’re required to do these things to even participate in the industry.

Metta Spencer  47:43

How much can the government affect this, you know, what we want to do is say, hey, we have discovered some really handy dandy new chemical, or compound that we think would, that the whole of the Canadian government ought to promote. Because we think that, as far as we can tell, it’s really carbon negative, there really is plenty of or there’s at least a lot of demolished concrete out there that we could use. So why not have a government regulation saying that whenever something is available, that’s actually carbon negative, they should use it. That everybody who, who builds some infrastructure for the Canadian government or even provincial government, or anyplace else that’s government funded. And a hell of a lot of carbon, concrete is of course run, used for roads and bridges and public facilities. So that it should be made from carbon negative concrete. Why not demand that? Would would that help try to speed up the the experimental attitude among let’s say, engineers? Or would it have any, maybe there’s just not going to be enough of it fast enough? How quickly can you develop this stuff, and, and can you make plenty of money by doing it? Or is it going to be a lot more expensive than ordinary old fashioned concrete?

Robert Cumming  49:21

This is where, as I mentioned, where government can make a difference is to set the stage that they’re going to require ever lower carbon, embodied carbon levels and products, for example. That creates an incentive for developers and construction companies and manufacturing companies all to start competing to to have the lowest priced product that meets their ever lower carbon embodied carbon requirements. And if we know that’s coming, we’ll make investments to be that producer for example. It will take time because it just the sheer size of the industry, you know, with 500,000 immigrants coming into this country each year right now, and you’re seeing the price of housing, We’re going to need to schools and we’re going to need hospitals, we’re going to need new roads and new sewer systems, and we’re going to be needing a lot of infrastructure, and so it’s quite the challenge ahead of us. So it’s going to take time, but we do have a solid net-zero strategy that the government has helped developed with us, which has been remarkable.

Metta Spencer  50:37

And you want that to happen, is that right? That you want the government to tighten up the, their requirements, because it’s gonna help you? Is that true or not?

Robert Cumming  50:49

We want to change the rules so that as to spur innovation and creativity in our industry to help us move forward. Some of our lower carbon alternatives that we already have, as a company, we recognize that our co2 emissions are, are something that we have to take responsibility for. It’s a business imperative for us, as carbon pricing starts to get steeper and more and more expensive. Our ability to manage that is going to be a competitive and potentially an existential issue for us. So we are very active in trying to produce those lower carbon products. and we’ve talked a lot about some of those obstacles today that you’ve, you’ve touched on yourself, where we need our customers to not only accept those products, but also to work with us to make new practices, open the door to innovation, put a value on lower carbon products at the buying end on the.. Carbon prices kind of creates a push, but we need a corresponding pull from the marketplace. For those, those..

Metta Spencer  52:07

So am I understanding that you don’t think you can make as much money from this as you might have made if we left things alone with the old chocolate cake?

Robert Cumming  52:18

Well, that’s gonna be a price to doing, switching from a very old, proven commodity, almost a commodity type of product to a whole new methodology, it is going to take some investments. There will be a need for us to where co2 used to be free for everybody. We, during that period of time, while we’re transitioning to net zero strategies, there’s going to be a more expensive economy, because we’re, we’re now taking that previously unpriced pollution, if you will, and our pricing it. And that’s going to create a price pressure throughout the entire economy, fuel prices, for example. But as we start developing more and more efficient electric cars, for example, you may find that it’s the price at the end of the day is not any worse than it was under gasoline. But there’s a transition period, which will be costly.

Adele Buckley  53:28

If you have that the federal government maybe the provincial government also adopts, that they will, they will use the new new type of concrete with the lowest possible emissions, you know, whatever, whatever the definition of that is, or there were several definitions of different types. But if the if everything that the federal government has to build, because they’re just they’re already, you know, in the business of building things, is that an encouragement? Is it helpful? When at least there are now a lot of examples using the newer technology?

Robert Cumming  54:11

Absolutely. I think this is where governments who Green Procurement can can set the stage, be the first mover to buy this new product and test it out. So others can come and see it and that it works, right? Those things are very, always very effective strategies. But these, you know, it’s, it’s a big country. There’s a lot of people involved. So I think it’s gonna take some time.

Metta Spencer  54:39

I’m thinking of, you know, you formulated your incentive structure so that every month or every year the government is going to tighten the screws a little bit, it’s going to require a little bit more reduction of carbon emissions. What if instead of just saying every year we’re going to tighten it up and make it more challenging, we say the government should say, if you have available, various kinds of concrete always use the lowest possible, the kind that has the lowest emissions and maybe is the closest to being carbon negative or really is carbon negative, so that there will be a competition among different manufacturers to out, you know, to race, race to sustainability even faster than the government is requiring them to.

Robert Cumming  55:42

Yes, that’s, that’s, I think one of the key strategies, that is what the greening government strategy is fundamentally, it’s a modest first step while they work out some of the policy issues. But I think that is essentially one of the key strategies that we’re going to need to hit net, net zero.

Metta Spencer  56:05

Adele, do you have a final thought before we wind up?

Adele Buckley  56:09

Well, I, my final thought is that what Robert has discussed with us is really a very valuable add on to the discussions that have gone previously. Because when someone, or a company is operating in the real world, and doing sort of major proportion of the work as opposed to a small company trying to start up and it is quite, it’s a different perspective. and I really think it has been valuable.

Metta Spencer  56:50

I think so too. and I want to thank you, Robert, also, let me ask you that, from your standpoint, is there anything more that let’s say imagine that Canadian Pugwash had lots and lots of influence that we could just pick up the phone and call Justin Trudeau and he would do whatever we say? So what should we say to them that would be the most constructive way of encouraging the government to use its influence in the most constructive way? How can we help you, and how can we help the world get quicker to carbon negative concrete?

Robert Cumming  57:27

I think there’s two things from the government that can do. One is to continue to put a premium on lower carbon products, and that will spur innovation. And well there are three things they can do. and the second thing they can do is to encourage performance standards to encourage CSA and other bodies like CSA to, to develop faster some of these newer, newer standards. Thirdly, is to work on…

Metta Spencer  58:03

Excuse me, what is CSA I have forgotten?

Robert Cumming  58:05

Canadian Standards Association, and the third thing is to further develop what we call carbon accounting. Right now, there’s a lot of variability in the carbon accounting world, we need if we’re going to be commercial, if we’re going to be getting a higher price for lower carbon products, we need to ensure that the accounting for that is accurate. Our industry will come forward with solutions on that, on that shortly, I hope. But we need governments to adopt those those methodologies, those three things.

Adele Buckley  58:43

is there something that helps with third party verification? and where would that third party come from?

Robert Cumming  58:51

Like, could be well, National Research Council does some third party validations, there are a number of academics that are in the in this world as well, that could could provide some support as well.

Adele Buckley  59:06

Yeah, that’s government, we could ask the government to work on on that aspect as well.

Robert Cumming  59:13


Metta Spencer  59:13

Wow, this has been interesting, and I think very, very promising. We just need to you know, we, I just feel this urge to light a fire under people who say go faster. So…

Robert Cumming  59:28

Please do.

Metta Spencer  59:29

I wish you very speed that you can possibly get together to make this happen faster. Thank you very much for sharing with us, and  thank Adele for helping clarify the issue too. it’s been nice meeting you.

Robert Cumming  59:45

Well thank you very much.

Metta Spencer  59:47

Project save the world produces these shows. This is episode number 559. You can watch them or listen to them on our website tosavetheworld.ca We share information there also about six global issues and I hope you’ll go there too.  To find a particular talk show it or its title or episode number in the search bar or the name of one of the guest speakers. Project save the world also produces a quarterly online publication, Peace Magazine, you can subscribe for $20 Canadian per year, go to pressreader.com on your browser and in the search bar, enter the word peace. You’ll see buttons to click to subscribe. and finally, I want to take the viewers who like our forums and help us to keep the series going by sponsoring us on Patreon.




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