A provision tucked into the 730-page tax-and-climate law, valued at just 0.05% of the total price tag, has the potential to trigger big changes in one of the most carbon-intensive processes in the world: cement production.
The law gives the EPA $250 million to help companies measure, verify, and report the carbon content of the construction materials they make.
Concrete is responsible for at least 7% of carbon emissions worldwide, according to clean energy research group BloombergNEF. And the US will be using even more of it because both last year’s infrastructure law and this month’s climate measure authorize billions of dollars of new construction across the country.
If the Environmental Protection Agency’s new product declaration program takes off the way its Energy Star program has, those products could become more attractive to buyers, eventually pushing carbon-heavy competitors out of the market, said Andrew Himes, director of collective impact initiatives at the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum.
“If I’m an engineer and my client’s asking me to design a low-carbon building, and I go out to the market and I ask vendors for that information, and one of them doesn’t have it, they’re going to be a question mark,” said Eric Dunford, senior director of government affairs at CarbonCure Technologies, a sustainable concrete company. “You don’t want to be left behind.”
Several companies have begun offering green building materials, stripping out carbon through advanced manufacturing techniques or even embedding it within the materials themselves.
But for the program to be accepted, it must be seen as legitimate and trustworthy, according to Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied voluntary government programs.
“You don’t want to give off the public image that it’s an industry full of claims that can’t be relied on,” agreed Russell Hill, CEO of Solidia Technologies LLC, which has created technology to make low-carbon construction materials. “That causes confusion. One company can damage the whole sector.”
That means the EPA will have to find a way of auditing company declarations, Coglianese said. That’s a tricky challenge because only 5% of the $250 million can remain within the agency to administer the program, with the rest going out the door as grant funding.
An EPA spokeswoman said the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is “in the early stages of developing a plan to implement these programs.” That work includes “determining resource needs and program goals and working with our federal partners, like the Council on Environmental Quality, as needed,” she said.
A good program should include an independent, third-party assessment of company declarations, said Hill—a potential solution to the credibility question Coglianese raised.
It should also require vendors to account for the carbon emitted during the extraction of the raw materials, the transportation of those materials throughout production, and the manufacturing of the finished product itself, CarbonCure’s Dunford said.
Ultimately, the program’s success rests on the notion that concrete buyers want green materials. Dunford said many private companies do, often because it helps them reach their sustainability goals or because their shareholders demand carbon reductions. Government buyers, who account for 40% of all the concrete sold in the US, also find them attractive because “voters care,” he said.
Those factors raise the possibility that green manufacturers may be able to charge a higher price for their product, especially if they can show their customers an EPA stamp of approval.
Even so, “it would help a lot if there was an economic motivation to go along with the moral equation,” Himes said. For example, some evidence shows that adding carbon to a concrete mixture increases the strength and flexibility of the finished product, meaning builders don’t have to use as much of it, he said.
There’s also a ceiling on how high prices can go.
“Everybody wants their concrete to be environmentally friendly, but are they going to pay a 30% premium for that? I would say no,” Hill said. “A 5% premium? Yeah, that’s very likely.”
The grant money will be especially helpful to small manufacturers that can’t afford to create their own product declarations, according to Christina Theodoridi, policy advocate for heavy industry at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Spending $10,000, $20,000, or $30,000 to create an environmental product declaration just for one product may have been prohibitive,” she said.
The Inflation Reduction Act also includes several other line items that will boost the use of green building materials. One section sets aside $2.2 billion for the federal government to buy low-carbon materials to be used in federal buildings; another sets aside $2 billion for the Federal Highway Administration for states to do the same in building roads.
Because the federal government is the nation’s biggest purchaser of building materials, those measures and others will help the government “leverage its purchasing power to create markets for these lower-carbon construction materials,” Theodoridi said. “It’ll drive innovation in a lot of these industries.”
The Biden administration has already taken steps to push for change. In April 2021, the White House issued a statement mentioning the need to use carbon capture technology and green hydrogen to reduce cement-making’s carbon footprint.
The General Services Administration in February also issued two requests for information from the marketplace on the national availability of concrete and asphalt materials with environmental product declarations, low-embodied carbon, or “superior environmental attributes.”
Cement is part of the mixture that binds crushed stone together into concrete. Cement production releases carbon in two ways: from the chemical reaction that results when calcium carbonate is broken down, and from the enormous heat levels that must be reached.
As it sets about developing its disclosure regime, the EPA will also have to navigate a Catch-22 common to voluntary programs: The more credible a program becomes, the more valuable its imprimatur is to companies, which means agencies have to scrutinize the disclosures more closely, according to Coglianese.
“But the more you demand of companies by way of validation and verification, the less interested they are in participating,” he said. “That’s the paradox. You discourage firms from participating.”
The solution would be a regulation mandating what kinds of concrete can be used, Coglianese said—something he acknowledged would be an extremely heavy lift.
To Himes, a lack of interest from the building materials sector would greatly weaken the program.
“This cannot be about a few people getting some money to produce environmental product disclosures,” he said. “It has to be about comprehensive collaboration across the industry—by developers, material manufacturers, and consumers of buildings, including ordinary voters.”