Inside New York’s Messy Push to Clean Up Concrete
Subway workers install concrete tunnel lining. | MTA Press Office

Inside New York’s Messy Push to Clean Up Concrete

If concrete production were a country, it would be the world’s third largest carbon emitter. New York legislators want to clean it up.

This story was published in partnership with Next City, a nonprofit news organization reporting on urban economic and environmental issues. Sign up for their newsletter here.

For climate activists, New York’s 2021 legislative session was a bitter disappointment. Democrats failed to pass any major new climate laws, shrugging off bills that would have provided funding to meet the state’s emission targets, among others.

But the state legislature did pass at least one climate law, which has flown largely under the radar. Known as the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act (LECCLA), the legislation requires New York to set an emissions standard for concrete used in public works.

If Governor Kathy Hochul signs the bill into law, New York will become one of the first states in the country to start cleaning up this highly polluting sector of the economy. A few days after LECCLA passed in New York, Colorado passed similar legislation, and other states, from New Jersey to California, may soon follow, as part of a growing reckoning with the carbon footprint of the built environment. 

Concrete is the most widely used material in the world, besides water, and has a staggering impact on the climate. Production of cement — the “glue” that holds concrete together — is responsible for 7 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions. (Air travel, by comparison, is responsible for about 2 percent.)

Most of that cement is produced and used in China, followed by India. But the US pours a hefty amount of concrete as well, and is the world’s third-largest producer of cement. That’s only set to increase if Congress passes major infrastructure legislation this fall.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll, LECCLA’s lead sponsor, said the legislation could set the bar not only nationally but internationally as governments rebuild for a warming world. 

“It’ll allow New York companies to be on the vanguard of decarbonized and clean concrete,” Carroll said. “Other states and countries are going to follow once they see it work in New York.”

Carroll’s fellow lawmakers overwhelmingly endorsed this vision, passing the bill 142-7 in the Assembly and 56-7 in the Senate.

But the apparent consensus belies more than two years of wrangling between LECCLA advocates, skeptical environmental activists, and opponents in the construction industry, which led the bill to be drastically whittled down before passing. 

The final bill — which still awaits new Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature — leaves it up to state regulators to decide the thorny details of how, and how deeply, New York will seek to decarbonize concrete.

‘Innovate our way through’

The main culprit behind concrete’s massive carbon footprint is cement, the binder which, along with water, holds together sand and gravel to make concrete. Cement typically makes up only 10 to 15 percent of a concrete mix but is responsible for nearly all of the carbon emissions.

Work trains full with chipped-out concrete debris. | Office of the MTA

There is no shortage of steps along the concrete supply chain where those emissions can be reduced, from simply reducing the amount of cement in the overall mix to using various forms of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). Emerging forms of CCUS offer the greatest potential for decarbonization — promising emissions cuts of up to 50 percent, according to the consulting firm McKinsey — but have yet to be proven at scale.

Many of the methods come with their own baggage; CCUS, in particular, has long drawn the ire of progressive environmentalists, who see it as an industry ploy to give fossil fuels a lifeline. But according to the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is virtually no way to keep global warming below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius without using some forms of carbon removal. And the technology’s backers say concrete is one of the industries that needs it most, because unlike coal, oil, and gas, there are no ready alternatives for many of its applications. 

“Concrete and cement are materials that are with us for the foreseeable future,” said Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate in the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who worked closely on LECCLA. “The pathway to decarbonizing these sectors is not through obsolescence…. We have to figure out how to innovate our way through.”

She and other LECCLA proponents say states like New York are well positioned to spur that kind of innovation because they purchase an enormous amount of concrete, for everything from subways to sidewalks to public universities and hospitals. The MTA’s capital budget alone, at $55 billion over the next five years, exceeds that of several states. Nationally, the public sector buys about 40 percent of all concrete, according to market research firm IBISWorld.

That vast buying power could not only steer investment toward new technologies in a sector that is notoriously hard to decarbonize, but also encourage wider adoption of already-existing building techniques that reduce the need for cement. 

Government “has a major role to play in creating an early market for these cleaner concrete products,” Stashwick said.

‘Alternative fuels’

Some environmental activists, however, worry that LECCLA could provide a template for the industry to “greenwash” its operations without meaningfully reducing emissions.

“It’ll set a low bar, and it’ll paint it in bright green colors,” said Barbara Heinzen, an environmental activist based in Coeymans.

Judith Enck, a climate advocate and former regional administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency, agreed. “There’s no such thing as low-carbon concrete,” she said.

Enck and Heinzen say there’s another reason they’re wary of the bill. Both activists have spent much of the last five years fighting cement and concrete giant LafargeHolcim over plans to burn waste at its plant in the Hudson Valley town of Coeymans, south of Albany.

Waste incineration is sometimes promoted as a sustainable energy source for cement kilns, because it keeps the waste out of landfills and reduces the need for coal. But studies have shown that such co-incineration can actually emit more CO2 and other pollutants than burning coal on its own.

CarbonCure, a CCUS technology used at more than 400 concrete plants across the US, reduces emissions by about 5 percent. | CarbonCure

That’s why Enck and Heinzen have been determined to keep the practice out of the Hudson Valley. So far, they’ve won their case. After years of wrangling in the local and county legislatures, and most recently thanks to a ruling from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, LafargeHolcim’s bid to burn waste in Coeymans has been blocked, and a spokesperson said the company currently has no plans to renew it.

But when Heinzen saw the original text of the LECCLA bill, she worried it might give cement companies a new opening to burn waste, as a partial alternative to coal.

“When I read the first draft of the law, it had this phrase about burning alternative fuels,” she said. “There’s something about the law that just rang wrong.”

Chris Neidl, a co-founder of the OpenAir Collective, which advocates for carbon capture technologies and has been a driving force behind LECCLA, said he shares local activists’ concerns about waste burning, and that the bill in no way aims to promote it.

There was a push late in negotiations to include a provision that would have “explicitly excluded [waste] from the definition of low-carbon fuel,” Neidl said, adding that this would have set an “amazing precedent.” The provision did not ultimately make it in the bill.

A ‘compromise’ bill

The version of LECCLA that passed in New York was vastly pared down from earlier versions, and did not define what constitutes low-carbon concrete.

The original bill sought to create a bid incentive that would effectively allow the state to pay up to 5 percent more to a contractor that uses the most climate-friendly concrete. (Typically, the state is required to choose the cheapest acceptable contractor when bidding on infrastructure projects.) 

Construction industry groups, however, objected to this approach. Felice Farber, senior director of policy and external affairs at the General Contractors Association of New York, which represents contractors who build public works infrastructure, said it “showed a lack of understanding on how public bidding works.”

“Concrete is one of many items in a public works project,” Farber told New York Focus. “You can’t separate out that one material for a price preference when it is incorporated into the larger bid.” She said she would rather see regulators set a fixed standard for contractors.

Ultimately, lawmakers decided against either approach, instead punting the decision to the state’s Office of General Services (OGS), which manages procurement. Specifically, the bill gives OGS one year to draw up the guidelines through a “stakeholder advisory group” made up of engineers, architects, and representatives of different branches of the construction industry, as well as of four state agencies. 

The final bill still nods to its earlier prescriptions, requiring the committee to consider either a bid incentive or an emissions-based standard — or, potentially, a combination of the two — as mechanisms for promoting lower-carbon concrete.

“There’s no such thing as low-carbon concrete,” said Judith Enck. | Alexander Rabb

Farber said the final draft of the bill represented a “fair compromise,” and proponents and lawmakers broadly agreed. A few Democratic lawmakers, however, voted against it — including three who had sponsored previous versions of the bill.

Among them was Albany-area Assemblymember Phil Steck, who told New York Focus he was mainly swayed by the objections raised by environmental advocates like Enck. He added that he generally doesn’t support bills forming committees and would rather the issue have been legislated directly. 

“With what’s going on in the world, with the wildfires and so forth, I don’t think now is the time for a lot of committees and discussion,” Steck said. “I think now is the time for real action.” 

Carroll maintains that paring back the bill was the only way to overcome opposition from its most influential opponents: construction industry groups. 

Moreover, LECCLA’s proponents are still hopeful that the final rules will include an incentive for the most climate-friendly bids, which Stashwick described as the key to continued green innovation.  

“When we come to a day when concrete mixes with reduced cement content are just the status quo, we want a tool that incentivizes companies to go above and beyond that,” she said. “That’s what we need… if we’re going to meet our climate targets.”

Transparency is the first step

Heinzen remains skeptical. She would rather see cement emissions capped through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system for power plants in the Northeast, or through a carbon tax.

“If you’re going to start getting carbon taxes, if you’re going to start having to pay for your pollution, the cement industry is very threatened,” Heinzen said. “So they’re trying to set up their green credentials before they have to start.”

Neither she nor Enck trust the committee as established — with its skew towards engineers and industry rather than environmental experts — to set strong emissions guidelines. 

Carroll counters that when major infrastructure is at stake, you need the construction industry on board to ensure safety.

“We passed the bill prior to the tragedy in Miami Beach, but not prior to the tragedy in Mexico City, or in Genoa, Italy,” Carroll said. “We need industry experts to make sure that we are building roads and bridges and buildings safely, and we need their buy-in.”

He admits that the final bill doesn’t go as far as he would have liked, but bristles at the notion that it’s “a failure or a sellout.”

“This is a meaningful step in the right direction. Is it the perfect step? Of course not,” Carroll said. But he prefers a “minimum clean standard” to no rules at all, and points to recent guidelines established by the Port Authority as a baseline that the state will likely seek to match or exceed.

A concrete casing for an Amtrak tunnel under construction at Hudson Yards. | MTA Press Office

The Port Authority guidelines do not yet include hard emissions targets, but they do require the agency to document the carbon footprint of the materials it uses, which advocates say is an important step in itself. 

“We need folks to share the data, and make it understandable,” said Stephanie Carlisle, a senior researcher at the Carbon Leadership Forum, based at the University of Washington. “That’s a lot of what this process is really going to be about.”

Carlisle, who trained as an architect, says carbon accounting in the field is getting more and more precise, but still hasn’t been widely adopted, in part because of cost. She’s optimistic that procurement legislation, in the various “flavors” proposed from state to state, will help push manufacturers over the initial investment barrier. 

In California, State Senator Josh Becker is leading the push for two bills seeking to achieve the same broad goals. The first, SB 596, would require the state to cut emissions from cement production 40 percent by 2035. This is what Becker calls the “regulatory push,” to be matched by a “demand pull” in the form of procurement legislation — specifically, SB 778, which would extend the state’s 2017 Buy Clean law to concrete. 

Becker is optimistic that the first of the bills could pass by this Friday, when California’s legislative session ends, while the second will likely get postponed until next year. [Update: A few hours after this article published, California’s legislature passed SB 596.] Washington state, meanwhile, is considering its own version of Buy Clean legislation that would not only include environmental standards for concrete but also include “Buy Fair” provisions governing labor standards. And in New Jersey, lawmakers are considering a bill which, at present, mirrors the original version of LECCLA in New York — but with an amendment that rules out waste burning from its definition of cleaner fuels.

Neidl and Stashwick hope the programs being piloted will trickle up to the federal level, too — and, given the likelihood of increased infrastructure spending, soon. 

Congress and federal regulators “are looking for good ideas to implement right now,” Neidl said. “The feds really have to look to the states about what’s the best way to approach this.”

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