Cement is responsible for about 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions © Thibault Camus/AP

LafargeHolcim, the world’s biggest cement maker, has promised to slash its carbon dioxide emissions by one-fifth by the end of the decade, as pressure mounts on heavy industries to aid the fight against climate change.

The Switzerland-based group is also developing what it hopes will be the first “net-zero” cement production facility by 2030, which means any CO2 pollution is offset by taking an equivalent amount out of the atmosphere.

“It has not been done yet, so innovation is needed,” chief executive Jan Jenisch told the Financial Times. “We hope we’re going to be the first one that has that plant in operation.”

Cement is the most commonly used man-made material and responsible for about 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

While major “decarbonisation” efforts have until now mostly focused on power generation, leading some countries to phase out coal and subsidise renewables, manufacturers in areas such as steel, chemicals and building products are facing urgent calls to act.

Climate Action 100+, an influential investor group that includes BlackRock and Pimco, this month wrote to the world’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting companies to demand they put in place a “net-zero strategy” for 2050 or earlier.

But despite a raft of announcements and targets, some environmentalists fear the pace of transformation will be too slow to avert a full-blown climate crisis

LafargeHolcim said it had signed a pledge aimed at capping global warming within 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels — a goal laid out by the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The company is also working with the Science Based Targets initiative, a coalition of NGOs and international organisations, to develop a “road map” towards net-zero.

LafargeHolcim has an intermediate target to reduce by 21 per cent its greenhouse gas emissions against 2018 levels, to 475kg net CO2 per tonne of cementitious material produced by 2030. 

“It’s the most ambitious target ever produced in the cement sector,” said Magali Anderson, chief sustainability officer.

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The building materials group, which operates 120 cement plants across the world and had annual turnover of SFr26.7bn ($29.3bn) last year, is developing five net-zero pilot plants in Germany, Austria, Spain, the US and Canada.

These existing sites will be retrofitted with variants of carbon capture technology to absorb CO2, which will be recycled for activities such as farming. The company has previously said it will invest SFr160m to reduce its carbon footprint in Europe.

One of the biggest challenges in decarbonisation for commodity producers is the additional production costs from new equipment and processes, but LafargeHolcim said it was confident some customers will be prepared to pay a premium for “green” cement.

“If we have the right infrastructure to collect the CO2 or do something with it, then it will make it easier,” added Ms Anderson. “Legislation has to also support all of this.”

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