A Norwegian environmental project for China's cement industry could lead to cuts in CO2 that are equivalent to twice Norway's total emissions of greenhouse gases. China has the biggest cement industry in the world, but most of its production is based on outdated technology, and since its plants are coal-fired, emissions of CO2 and dust are huge. The cement industry alone discharges 1.1 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, 26 times as much as Norway's total CO2 emissions.
But China has a waste problem as well as an environmental problem. The country produces more than one billion tonnes of waste a year, and the way in which it is treated is less than satisfactory. Waste is a major health hazard and is an enormous source of pollution.
China has prioritized economic development for the past thirty years, at the cost of the environment. But now things are starting to change. The Chinese government is now aware of the problem and is in the process of making a major about-turn.
This is the background for a well-received Norwegian initiative that is based on replacing part of the fossil fuel used in the cement industry with industrial waste.
"We have just started a three-year project that aims to ameliorate both the environmental problem and the waste problem," says special consultant Helge Karstensen of SINTEF Construction and Environment.
"We will use industrial waste as a supplementary fuel in the cement industry. It cannot completely replace coal, but we could come up to a 40 percent replace factor. This waste consists of everything from tyres and plastic to organic waste. When we reduce the consumption of coal (which is a non-renewable energy source) in this way, the cement industry will become more sustainable. And when millions of tonnes of coal can be replaced by waste, we also protect the environment from enormous CO2 emissions. This could be a quantum leap in solving a lot of environmental problems," says Karstensen.
Two years ago, he presented the project to the Norwegian embassy in Beijing and SEPA, the Chinese environmental administration. The project proposal was accepted and approved by the Chinese government at record speed. Today, SINTEF is at work in China, in close collaboration with SEPA, local authorities, industry and a number of research institutes.
Karstensen has been working on energy and environmental problems for several years, and today, he operates all over the world, working for all of the UN institutions that have the environment on their agendas; this year, he is involved in projects on every continent of the world. One of his areas of special expertise involves using cement kilns as a means of reducing emissions, thus helping to meet the challenges posed by energy and environmental problems.
"This type of expertise is very attractive at a time when we are facing global warming and a lack of energy and resources," says Karstensen.
The SINTEF scientist, who has already spent several months in China, is just on a brief visit to Norway before returning to China . Together with his colleague Harald Justnes, he expects that he will be living in the east for several more years. The current project has aroused a great deal of interest in China, and has been widely discussed in the media.
"Our job is to develop a basis for an integrated policy that will prepare the ground for the cement industry to be able to utilise waste materials as a replacement source of energy and raw materials," says Karstensen. "It is vital that this should be done properly from the very beginning."
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace have long been sceptical to the idea of using cement kilns to destroy hazardous waste, particularly in developing countries, but their scepticism has begun to diminish.
"They realise that solutions are needed," says Karstensen. Chinese industry already exists, with all its consumption of resources and its emissions. The question thus turns to how we can make industry more environmentally and resources friendly. And this is where the unsolved waste problems come into the picture. Responsible waste treatment is a complex and expensive business, but by exploiting and recovering the valuable energy of waste products in the cement industry, we can obtain an integrated and attractively cost-effective solution:
- The cement industry can reduce its consumption of non-renewable resources and energy at the same time as it reduces emissions.
- Waste-generating industry is given more reasonable waste disposal solutions, which in turn means that more waste will be treated than is the case at present.
- The authorities make more rapid gains in environmental and health terms.
Just now, the project participants are mapping out the status of current practice as regards waste generation and treatment, and drawing up guidelines and standards for how these processes should be carried out in practice.
Next year, the standards will be tested in full scale in seven Chinese provinces that are taking part in the cooperative project. One of these is Beijing, which is in full swing with getting a satisfactory waste-treatment system into place before the Olympic Games next year. If the trial phase is satisfactory, the system will be implemented in full scale throughout China.
"This is the route that large parts of the world will have to take," says Karstensen. "We must identify simple, reasonable technologies that will mean win-win solutions for the industries involved. This is particularly interesting in rapidly growing developing countries with serious environmental problems".