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Climate change and COP26 – what the brick has to do with it?

Clay Technology magazine
5 Mar 2020

COP26 is the next global conference on climate change, where 196 states will meet in Glasgow, UK, early in November 2020 to make key decisions to safeguard the planet. Cleia President, Philippe Penillard, discusses.

Climate change is strengthening quickly. The vast majority of scientists are warning that if strong measures are not taken in the next decade, our children will live very different lives than we did. Just type ‘consequences of climate change’ into a search engine and you will see for yourself – it is not nice. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced five reports since 1990, and unfortunately each new one found that what had been considered the worst case scenario in the previous had by then actually happened. If we now look at the worst case scenario of the latest report – that if we do not take very strong actions now, good luck to our children and grandchildren – do we ‘okay-boomers’ and others have the right to take such a risk on their behalf for the sake of a little more comfort today?

Climate change sceptics are indeed fewer, and were it not for some powerful lobbyists or political interest, they would have disappeared long ago. We kindly call them climate sceptics, but given the irreversible and catastrophic consequences, should not much stronger and not-so-nice words be used to qualify these biased people?

Throughout the globe, world leaders will need to take courageous measures to induce the necessary changes, in their administration, the industry and in people’s ordinary lives, whether costly or representing long-term cost savings. To do so they need support and willingness from their voters, but unfortunately, environmental awareness among the public is still quite low – it was very low in developed countries more than 10 years ago and only a little has improved. But older or younger generations, who in Europe and Northern America can honestly say they have changed their way of life to reduce CO₂ emissions? So think about environmental awareness in emerging countries, where low income people have other concerns, and wealthy ones tend to over-consume.

Worldwide media has, therefore, a huge responsibility – to make people aware of unacceptable risk and consequences of climate change, but also and mainly to promote the tremendous opportunity it presents to bring better perspectives and improve life conditions to all, especially in emerging countries.

Bringing it back to bricks

So what is the link between climate change and the brick industry?
The connection is straightforward, just make a few statements and draw a simple yet efficient line of action. For instance:

  • Housing is responsible for some 25% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, be it for heating or air-conditioning
  • Most of existing and currently built housing in emerging countries have poor to very poor heat insulation
  • Proper building with heat insulated bricks cost the same, or even less, than poor construction methods, and
  • Hundreds of thousands of new housings are built every year in emerging countries.

The line of action then is to inform and entice officials, architects, promoters, builders, and brickmakers in emerging countries to change from poor to good construction, with benefits to all parties. And because you have constructed something that is intended to stay there for at least 50 years, it is better to build it well.

Before going into some more details, one could ask why has it not happened yet, if there are only benefits? Firstly, the current players in emerging countries are making money in this sector so there is no incetive to change. They require almost no investment and they make good profit. Also, wall quality is hidden, it is not a selling factor, and its impact is experienced long after the construction. The race is more to make the biggest, most attractive infrastructures and buildings. Finally, there is often less awareness about environmental issues in emerging countries, where more basic needs are addressed first.

Some explanations are that the first statement above is widely explained on the internet. The second may be easily experienced when travelling in emerging countries, where too many buildings are of the RCC concrete structure/filler material, where the RCC structure acts as a heat, and humidity, transmitter between inside and outside. This effect is worsened with balconies or terraces, which act as heat or cold radiators, with their steel/concrete external surface and penetration in the building.

As to the third statement, that building with heat insulated bricks costs the same or even less than poor construction methods, it requires some more explanation, as how can high quality products be cheaper than poor quality? The answer is simple – if good quality heat-insulating and load-bearing bricks are indeed more expensive than conventional horizontal hollow or solid bricks, their extra cost is more than offset by the saving on steel and cement. The load-bearing capacity of technical bricks reduces the need for structural steel and cement by a factor of three to five, also the surfaced bricks require only a very thin layer of mortar-glue to join them. For the second, there is the saving on formwork as there is none required for columns or lintels as they are poured within the bricks or accessories. And thirdly is the reduced manpower as the bricks are easily laid on a layer of mortar glue, itself quickly applied with a special roller. All cement and steel is hidden and insulated, hence no heat/moisture bridge between outside and inside.

With quality bricks, producers and promoters will keep their profits healthy and strengthen their businesses, while housing and offices will be more comfortable, and CO₂ emissions will be reduced – one 1,000 tonnes per day (t/d) brick plant may save more than 100,000t CO₂ a year. This results in benefits for the people, for the clay industry and for the planet. It just takes a proactive approach to communication, education and the right and profitable investments.

And where does Cleia stand in all this? If vertical-hollow, load-bearing and heat-insulated bricks have been long used in Europe, especially in Northern Europe where they have almost completely replaced conventional bricks, their market share has been next to zero in emerging countries. Cleia strategically decided to promote them, together with the higher technology plants they required, which presented a challenge as the need for better bricks was generally not a priority for our clients.

The reasoning behind this strategy was simple – an investor should no longer take the risk to erect a conventional plant for conventional bricks, provided we could propose a better  one at a reasonable price that these markets can afford. We, therefore, invented the Zephyr dryer and combined it with robotic handling which allows multi-format. We saw the climate challenge as an opportunity to address and solve problems of brickmakers and developers, for the benefit of the inhabitants, and the countries’ finance.

This strategy proved to be a success as most of our sales in emerging countries consisted of plants ranging from 1,000-1,800t/d, all with Zephyr driers and robotic handling. Our high-tech plants proved to be only marginally more expensive than conventional ones as the equipment price was under 20% more i.e. the overall project investment after adding civils, utilities, etc. was around only 10% more. This investment cost increase is repaid in only a few months of production if staying with conventional bricks, or could actually significantly increase the profitability of the project with high-tech bricks.

For developed countries with scarce greenfield brick projects and energy issues, Cleia filed a patent to achieve significant energy reduction in kilns, of up to 30%, called the Deforcet process.

To conclude, the brick industry has a lot to do with climate change, and can indeed play a bigger and more positive role than it may have anticipated. Choosing to work with higher quality bricks in emerging countries would help to reduce worldwide CO₂ emissions, at no additional cost to the promoters and the end users, while improving housing comfort for the population.