Over the weekend at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the states of California, Oregon, Washington, the province of British Columbia and six of the region’s largest cities announced a new task force to boost the market for new construction materials that don’t destroy the atmosphere.
Building materials like concrete and steel are responsible for some 11% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and that does not count the concrete used to make highways.
“We are not waiting, because the world can’t wait,” Wade Crowfoot, California secretary of natural resources, said, announcing the formation of the Low Carbon Construction Task Force. It is part of the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a group that already works on other climate issues, including ocean acidification and food waste.
At Saturday’s event, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee pointed to the potential impact the task force could have, citing the example of a single tool, a free calculator called EC3 that allows users to choose a particular cement, rebar or roofing material, comparing how much carbon was released in its production.
“The average carbon emissions of Puget Sound’s major concrete suppliers has declined by 18% in less than 2 years,” he said.
Amanda Hansen, who heads up climate efforts at the California Natural Resources Agency, said the first action for the task force will be to convene representatives of the states and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to “get everyone psyched.”
The task force will “aggregate, accelerate and amplify” innovations that are already underway, in order to scale action to lower emissions embedded in building materials, she said.
Buy Clean legislation
California, for example, passed “Buy Clean” legislation leading to preferences for low-carbon glass and structural steel back in 2017 (AB 262 by Bonta). This year the state passed legislation to set a standard for carbon emissions from cement (SB 596 by Becker). The city of Portland has been doing its own testing on low-carbon cement, and Vancouver already requires accounting for embedded carbon in order to obtain a building permit.
The idea is to scale up demand for less destructive building materials and send a unified message that these are the types of products that manufacturers must make.
The task force made no specific commitments. Despite that, Andrew Minson of the Global Cement and Concrete Association came to the microphone in the COP26 pavilion as soon as the speakers finished their brief announcement. He said it sends a signal to investors to lend capital to manufacturers for new, cleaner processes.
“Bring the finance sector in and we can do this,“ he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was not present at the announcement, having made a last minute decision to decompress with family for several days after his children staged what he called “an intervention” over their parents’ long work hours. He had planned to call on COP26 government officials to give up reliance on oil. California remains an important oil-producing state. But recent steps make oil development more difficult for operators like ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has had a strong presence at the meeting. He was given time on the main stage as the conference opened – something reserved until now for world leaders – in his capacity as outgoing chair of C40 Cities, the global network of megacities taking climate action.
Close to two dozen California state legislators are attending, as are environmental justice community members from Richmond and elsewhere. The Right Reverend Dr. Marc Andrus, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California is attending as well.
Efforts like the new task force are small and are not at scale with a world where greenhouse gases continue to increase in concentration, when instead they must ramp down. At the same time, it’s hard to see how the inertia of day-to-day industrial production changes without them