Hoe de GWW- en bouwsector in 2050 klimaatneutraal kan zijn

Kornelis Blok, eminent driving force behind the European and international climate policy, uses five areas of development to describe how construction and civil engineering industries can be climate-neutral by 2050. "Ever since the Paris climate conference, energy neutrality has only become more pressing."

Blok is far from being dogmatic. He will never be the one to say: this is the only way were doing it. Boasting nearly four decades of research experience in energy systems, he knows the futility of such an attitude. "Its a matter of pragmatism, finding out what works and if it fits the construction culture of a country. Here in the Netherlands, it is easy for us to say: "lets use more wood, as it helps the climate, but we remain a brick and mortar country at heart. So I would say: nothing stops you from using stone strips on your walls if youre so keen on bricks. And you can make significant progress by separating the materials when demolishing stone buildings, and recycle those waste flows into full-fledged, re-usable resources – so as to create a circular energy flow."


Ploughing on

There are several ways to go about it, is what he wants to drive home. At the same time, Blok sets the bar high and he is convinced that having an energy-neutral world by 2050, meaning 100 percent green, is far from an utopian ideal as long as we plough on. "The big shift were looking for should occur within the next two or three decades. The momentum is now, and we have to help it along. Solar and wind power are upscaling nicely and by accelerating that process we can really get ahead." Governments, companies, cities and regions, and even the consumer; all of them know how important this is by now. Sustainability is firmly rooted in everyones agenda. Blok: "When we published a report for the WWF in 2011 titled The Energy Report: 100% Renewable Energy by 2050’, dealing with the possible development of global energy demand (a question I also dealt with in 1984 for the Dutch situation), the comments were: oh, how nice, its technically feasible, the financial picture looks alright, but we still dont see it happen anytime soon. And now, in five years’ time, the desire to become climate-neutral has become commonplace and self-evident; sustainability has gained momentum in the technical, political and the mental domain. Go with that flow, is what Kornelis Blok says. "A hundred year transition project simply wont work."


CO2-Performance Ladder

Thats clear. But how do you make that ambition happen in a sensible manner? And, what contributions can be made by the construction and civil engineering industries? Kornelis Blok begins by observating that implementing the CO2 Performance ladder has a positive influence on the awareness and behaviour of the construction industry. The thesis by Martijn Rietbergen (Energiebeheer gericht aanpakken, red.), one of Bloks doctoral candidates, reveals that companies have emitted significantly less CO2 because of energy-saving instruments like the CO2 Performance Ladder. Blok: "Companies that had a 10 to 20 percent energy management policy have now bolstered it up to 70-80 percent after its implementation. Those are impressive numbers." Currently, the Foundation for Climate Friendly Procurement and Business (SKAO) is further developing the ladder with a list of concrete action points. The Foundation also gently presses companies for climate neutrality, which is of course a much larger step than the 2, 3 or 5 percent that companies are now working to achieve annually. Blok: "It comes down to tough choices as a company. Procuring green power is relatively easy, but becoming climate-neutral is far less evident."


Five steps

Blok assumes five consequent steps that collectively lead to climate-neutrality: efficiency, an increased use of electricity, using sustainable energy, circular construction/production and finally the removal (neutralising or capturing) CO2. The first - efficiency - has energy savings as its main objective; reducing waste wherever possible. According to Blok, Europe can halve its total energy usage in the coming two or three decades by a more clever and efficient production and handling of energy. The second step, an increased use of electricity, will also lead to less energy usage. Blok: "Many things that now require a diesel engine can also be powered electrically. And we see it happen today, like in transport (electric cars) or in homebuilding (heat pumps rather than gas boilers). Electricity is already becoming more important. In industry, too, all sorts of processes are in aggregate; efficiency and electricity-wise. Currently, less than 20 percent of the energy we use is electrical; I foresee this rising to some 50 percent in the near future. Electricity will thus become the backbone of energy provision, with solar and wind power being the foremost workhorses - supplemented with other sources like hydropower, bio-energy, geothermal heat and possibly even hydrogen. This then covers the third step: using sustainable energy. "Solar and wind power are the principal part, they will cover 50 to 70 percent of electricity production. And we will do this, especially with sustainable electricity becoming more affordable. During the tender procedure for the Borssele wind farm, the cheapest offer to produce power was 7.2 cents per kWh. In Abu Dabi and Dubai, they intend to produce solar energy for 3 cents per kWh. With the most important source of electricity becoming so affordable, climate neutrality suddenly becomes much more feasible."

"Circular production/building is the fourth step. You review the chain: where can we improve (more) on efficiency, how can we improve (more) on recycling, re-using or placing resources back in the chain for a closed system - and anything that is required extra will be bio-based as much as possible."

"Any emissions that are left can be neutralised by removing CO2 from the air: step five. The Paris treaty agreed for the original target (maximum temperature rise of 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial revolution) to be adjusted to well below two degrees, striving for 1.5 degrees. If we intend on reaching that 2 degrees, we can no longer afford to emit CO2 in this century. 1.5 degrees means being at zero carbon emissions by 2050 and actually removing it from the air. We can do that by planting new forests to capture CO2. And by making more use of wood, even in construction. The mineral olivine, in abundant supply here on Earth, could also be deployed; when finely ground and spread across the soil it binds CO2."


Thinking differently

Sounds plausible, but lets backtrack to that electrical transition: something that is bound to raise suspicion in construction and civil engineering. Blok: "Thats right. I often hear builders say: we do hard labour that cannot be done electrically. But Im not so sure. Electromotors are very powerful nowadays. I do have sympathy for its limitations, you dont want to consume megawatts off the bat, thats bound to run up costs. But its something worth exploring. And lets not forget: those tough jobs could someday be done differently. Hauling sand in large dump trucks could in ten years time perhaps be done with smaller, autonomous robot cars that continue day and night. Im not saying we should head in that direction, just that we should think differently. The technology is there, and its evolving at a rapid pace. We just have to know how to manage it."