Getting the carbon out of concrete and steel

Steel Concrete construction site

We asked Canada’s thought leaders to weigh in with ideas for how the government should spend stimulus money as part of a Green Recovery. To read the entire report series, head to Planning for Green Recovery.


When it comes to tackling Canada’s carbon emissions, the fuels that power our cars and heat our homes garner the most attention, but the steel and cement that go into those vehicles and buildings are also highly carbon intensive. Concrete and steel together account for 14.7% of global carbon dioxide emissions, which cause most global warming. Most of the technologies we need to drastically reduce these emissions already exist: in patents, in some engineer’s lab or in commercial use where conventional technology doesn’t work as well.

Another way to cut emissions is by encouraging design that uses less steel and cement altogether – and uses them more strategically combined with other materials, like wood and sustainable plastics. Updated building and infrastructure codes or regulations that put a price on carbon would encourage builders to try out alternatives.

Other game-changing technologies are within reach, but they need developmental support or guaranteed early markets to build economies of scale: primary steel made with hydrogen and electricity instead of coal, and new cement chemistries and processes that are virtually carbon-free, in line with the 2050 goal for net-zero CO2 emissions the Canadian Steel Producers Association has set for itself.

Here’s a breakdown of how a $1 billion federal investment a year through 2025 could begin to bring these climate game-changers to scale:

• $100 million per year to develop measurement and verification systems to allow carbon pricing and regulations to operate more effectively, and allow already lower emissions producers to capture market share;
• $200 million per year for research and development; and
• $700 million per year in smart, dynamic subsidies to help emerging technologies and approaches prove their effectiveness for broader use (the less GHG-intensive the technology, the greater the subsidies).

These would apply to ultra-low-emissions steel, cement and chemical products and their substitutes for public infrastructure, buildings and vehicles. The subsidies could go towards making all new and retrofit government buildings and infrastructure low emissions in both materials and energy use.

With this $1 billion green jolt to the steel, cement and other materials sectors, the government could stimulate the economy in the short run, reduce Canada’s emissions and improve our long-run competitiveness in a low-carbon world.

Chris Bataille is an energy economist who serves as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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