Inside New York’s Messy Push to Clean Up Concrete

New York Focus, September 9, 2021

If concrete production were a country, it would be the world’s third largest carbon emitter. New York legislators want to clean it up.

Published in partnership with Next City.

For climate activists, New York’s 2021 legislative session was a bitter disappointment. Democrats failed to pass any major new climate laws, shrugging off bills that would have provided funding to meet the state’s emission targets, among others.

But the state legislature did pass at least one climate law, which has flown largely under the radar. Known as the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act (LECCLA), the legislation requires New York to set an emissions standard for concrete used in public works.

If Governor Kathy Hochul signs the bill into law, New York will become one of the first states in the country to start cleaning up this highly polluting sector of the economy. A few days after LECCLA passed in New York, Colorado passed similar legislation, and other states, from New Jersey to California, may soon follow, as part of a growing reckoning with the carbon footprint of the built environment. 

Concrete is the most widely used material in the world, besides water, and has a staggering impact on the climate. Production of cement — the “glue” that holds concrete together — is responsible for 7 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions. (Air travel, by comparison, is responsible for about 2 percent.)

Most of that cement is produced and used in China, followed by India. But the US pours a hefty amount of concrete as well, and is the world’s third-largest producer of cement. That’s only set to increase if Congress passes major infrastructure legislation this fall.

Assemblymember Robert Carroll, LECCLA’s lead sponsor, said the legislation could set the bar not only nationally but internationally as governments rebuild for a warming world. 

“It’ll allow New York companies to be on the vanguard of decarbonized and clean concrete,” Carroll said. “Other states and countries are going to follow once they see it work in New York.”

Carroll’s fellow lawmakers overwhelmingly endorsed this vision, passing the bill 142-7 in the Assembly and 56-7 in the Senate.

But the apparent consensus belies more than two years of wrangling between LECCLA advocates, skeptical environmental activists, and opponents in the construction industry, which led the bill to be drastically whittled down before passing. 

The final bill — which still awaits new Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature — leaves it up to state regulators to decide the thorny details of how, and how deeply, New York will seek to decarbonize concrete.

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