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Low-carbon concrete bill advances in New York

Published June 14, 2021

By Jason Plautz

The New York legislature passed a bill last week designed to

encourage the use of low-carbon concrete and cement, a major step

aimed at tackling the climate impact of the construction industry.

The bill has not yet reached Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk.

The bill, S-542A, instructs the state’s Office of General Services to

set guidelines for procuring low-carbon concrete for state

construction projects. The office would award future contracts to

companies based on climate performance as well as price, based on

standards a group of expert stakeholders would set.

New Jersey is considering similar legislation. The U.S. Conference of

Mayors in 2019 passed a resolution encouraging members to use

green materials over less environmentally friendly materials.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, the built

environment, including the construction industry, is responsible for

more than 38% of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2)

emissions. Concrete, the most common construction material in the

world, is a top offender; its key ingredient — cement — is the source of

up to 7% of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to the International

Energy Agency.

Companies like CarbonCure and Belfast Valley Contractors have rolled

out products that take a variety of approaches to lower the CO2

emissions and energy consumption of concrete production.

CarbonCure integrates CO2 that has been captured and converted into a mineral, which it reports reduces 25 pounds of CO2 per cubic yard of concrete. Other products substitute materials with lower CO2 emissions for a portion of the portland cement in concrete and incorporate recycled materials as an additive.

The public sector is one of the largest buyers of concrete, and some governments are leveraging that purchasing power to incentivize the use of cleaner products. In 2019, the Honolulu City Council passed a resolution calling on the city to consider using carbon-injected concrete when possible, and the Hawaii Department of Transportation said it would use the technology in all flat work. Marin County, California, developed practical requirements for concrete that reduces greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

The New York bill fits in with the state’s larger push to slash emissions from the built environment, said Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. A 2019 New York City lawrequires that large buildings cut their climate emissions by 80% by 2050, and the state’s New York Building Congress issued recommendations earlier this year on how the construction industry can meet the state’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

“It’s no surprise that climate leadership states like New York are thinking creatively on how to meet emissions targets,” Stashwick said. The bill “says that moving forward, the government will be looking not just at cost-competitive bids, but also making decisions based on climate impacts.”

An original version of S-542A would have applied a discount to the price from bidders whose offerings had the best potential climate impact, giving them a leg up in the review process, but those incentives were removed from the final version. The financial incentives are still in the New Jersey bill. The Associated General Contractors of New York State issued a memo opposing the bill in April, saying the state has not analyzed or tested the low-carbon concrete products to ensure they meet state specifications, and such preferences “could have significant impact to the quality of our public facilities” and could raise the cost of construction projects.

Stashwick said that state bills and local guidance could offer an important “model policy,” especially amid broad debates about infrastructure at the federal level. The Biden administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan does call for using “sustainable and innovative” materials, including clean steel and cement, but the details have not been laid out in legislation.

“It would be a big missed opportunity if we had many billions of dollars being spent on miles of roads and bridges and highways and tunnels without thinking about purchasing cleaner materials,” Stashwick said.