The presidential election has put the two dominant, opposing visions of climate change at the forefront of the energy discussion. As with all polarized views, there are always more interesting and beneficial paths to be found somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand we had the millennial voters who swear by climate change and oppose fracking, and on the other hand, the climate change deniers who oppose the Paris Accord and would grant fracking permits left and right, Brexit style.
As I have already discussed in previous posts, we would need oil and gas to fuel the transition to greener energy sources. But there is another way oil and gas can help dramatically reduce our planet´s carbon emissions. I am referring to applications such as the use of petroleum products in construction projects. In other words, using oil and gas in building materials rather than in combustion.
According to a report by Columbia University´s Climate Center, “approximately 5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions result from cement production.” When considering the CO2 emissions resulting from the building process itself, and the production and transportation of the rest of the materials used in construction, that number goes up to 30%; that is nearly one third of the planet´s global emissions.
Where others might start playing the blame game or demanding strict regulations for the use of CO2 emitting fuels in connection with the building industry, we can also discover a brilliant opportunity.
If we start using oil and gas by-products as construction materials, we can dramatically reduce emissions. Of course, few politicians are talking about this, but it is a possibility science has already explored, and many major oil and gas companies are already investing heavily to make it a reality.
The International Energy Agency has come to the conclusion that we can only burn 20% of the untapped oil and gas that is currently accessible to both state-funded and publicly traded companies.
We have a real problem. But the culprits are not oil and gas, but rather, the excessive combustion of oil and gas.
Over the next few decades, global building activity will grow like never before. According to a document published on MIT´s SOLVE platform, “the cloud of CO2 that is implicit in continued use of the high energy-intensity and heavy building materials will itself add significantly to global warming (Prof Daniel Mueller estimated 350 Giga Tonnes of CO2 to house a population of (only!) 9 billion), and this does not include the energy used in heating and cooling these heavy buildings.”
If the situation is dramatic today, it will only become more so, unless we take action. Scientists believe that construction will be the human activity with the most critical impact on the environment over the coming decades.
The future, a safer, brighter future, is in polymeric composites. Largely used in other industries like aviation and boat-building, these by-products of oil and gas are largely in abundance in the US today.
MIT as well as the R&D departments of several oil and gas companies are currently developing construction methods that can produce “cheaper/lighter/faster/more performative/more resilient” buildings using affordable and readily available polymeric composites.
These new building methods will not only reduce emissions, but also ensure significant cost economy and comfort. Rather than looking at hindering exploration, like some climate change activists are doing now, we should be looking ahead, and planning for the coming era of buildings made from recyclable polymeric composites.
Science has already proven that it is much more beneficial for the planet to use oil and gas to make composites, rather than to fuel the production of cement and steel structures. All that is left is for policy and industry to follow.
IMAGE: ATTRIBUTION NEEDED: Photograph by Jplourde umaine
(Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)