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Major firms pledge to start buying low-carbon materials and technologies

Amazon, Apple, Boeing and others say they’ll make the first move to clean up global supply chains, while a West Coast coalition will help decarbonize construction materials.
By Ingrid Lobet

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U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at COP26 in Glasgow (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

At the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, two efforts have been launched to boost the markets for newly developed construction materials and industrial and transportation technologies that don’t destroy the atmosphere. One is a coalition of companies from around the globe, and the second is a partnership between state and city governments located along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada.

The idea behind both is to scale up demand for low- and zero-carbon building materials and industrial products to make sure there is sufficient supply for countries and companies to meet their climate targets from 2030 to 2050.

Cement, steel and other materials used in buildings are responsible for an estimated 11 percent of all energy- and process-related carbon dioxide emissions globally, and that doesn’t count what’s used in the construction of highways. Cement and steel plus other hard-to-clean-up sectors of aluminum, aviation, chemicals, shipping and trucking are together responsible for about one-third of global carbon emissions, according to the World Economic Forum.

First-mover advantage

To spur decarbonization of these industries, on November 4 U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced the First Movers Coalition, organized by the U.S. State Department and the World Economic Forum. The 34 companies in the coalition are pledging to buy various quantities of low- or no-emission products by 2030, signaling to their suppliers that they must offer cleaner goods.

If you want to sell to these companies, you have to reduce your carbon footprint,” Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, told the Associated Press.

Many major companies have joined the coalition, including Airbus, Amazon, Apple, Boeing, Cemex and Holcim. (The full membership roster is available at the bottom of this page.)

The First Movers Coalition will design corporate purchase agreements in collaboration with companies that produce clean energy technologies, with the aim to pull emerging technologies into the marketplace.” Member companies may agree, for example, to purchase clean steel, concrete or fuels.

Still, members of the coalition have unveiled few specifics so far, and the participating companies already have climate commitments and are not for the most part announcing new ones.

West Coast collaboration

The second initiative is the Low Carbon Construction Task Force, which links California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and six of their major cities in an effort to speed the development of clean building materials.

Organizers said the first action of the task force will be to convene a regionwide event with leaders from the states and province and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to expand on what each is already doing to lower carbon emissions embedded in building materials. The goal is to aggregate, accelerate and amplify” one another’s actions, said Amanda Hansen, deputy secretary for climate change at the California Natural Resources Agency.

At a Nov. 6 event launching the task force, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) pointed to the potential impact it could have: The average carbon emissions of Puget Sound’s major concrete suppliers have declined by 18 percent in less than two years,” he said. He attributed this success to a single tool: a free calculator called EC3 that allows users to choose between varieties of cement, rebar or roofing material based on how much carbon is released in each type’s production. EC3 was developed by the Carbon Leadership Forum based at the University of Washington.

These city, state and provincial governments are already connected through the Pacific Coast Collaborative, which works on other climate-related issues and has convened task force gatherings on ocean acidification and food waste.

The new task force made no specific commitments. Despite that, Andrew Minson of the Global Cement and Concrete Association called the effort really exciting.” He said a signal like this is essential to persuade investors to lend capital to manufacturers for new, cleaner processes: Bring the finance sector in and we can do this.”

Supply-chain reaction

Both initiatives address ongoing shifts in industry. Until now, many companies have not discussed climate change with other companies, partners and customers along their supply chains. That is changing rapidly, and these two new partnerships aim to accelerate that trend.

There are entire industries that will not be able to achieve their own low-carbon goals unless their suppliers undertake dramatic changes. For example, a full accounting of steelmakers’ carbon footprints would have to count the exhaust that comes from the diesel equipment that mines their iron ore.

A giant cement company such as Holcim clearly has to deal with the emissions from its own kilns, which are significant, but it will also have to wrestle with the carbon emitted as its cement is moved to construction sites.

We are a company that might have more than 100,000 trucks on the road every single day to deliver materials. Most of those trucks don’t belong to us,” said Jan Jenisch, CEO of Holcim, in a post by the World Economic Forum.

The First Movers Coalition acknowledged these interdependencies in its launch statement, citing the need for collaboration between different industries to support one another’s investments in still-costly low-carbon efforts. The group intends to work with industries involved in the Mission Possible Partnership, a collection of global industrial companies, to connect suppliers capable of demonstrating and scaling the technologies needed for coalition members to meet their purchase commitments, as well as investors that bring the capability to invest in demonstration projects and new facilities.”

The urgency of the climate crisis has already convinced some automakers to pay a premium for green steel now being produced in Europe. As more companies follow suit, the higher upfront costs will come down.

Ultimately, the additional cost to fully decarbonize value chains is in the range of 1% to 4% to end consumers,” estimated Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of chemical company Yara International, a member of the First Movers Coalition. He called the extra cost very low compared to the cost of not decarbonizing.

The two initiatives announced at COP26 are relatively small efforts, not at scale with a world where greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and threaten the habitability of the planet. At the same time, it’s difficult to envision how the inertia of day-to-day industrial production will change significantly without such initiatives. 

Ingrid Lobet currently divides her time between reporting on climate solutions and investigative work on climate, energy and environmental health.