Britain, the odd man out in Europe again?
As environmental pressures has led to the clinker content in cement being reduced across most of Europe in recent times, last year saw exactly the opposite taking place in Great Britain, where the relative carbon footprint increased, rather than reduced as a percentage of cement production. According to the Mineral Products Association (MPA) overall cement consumption fell by 24.9% to 10.4Mt, which is not quite as bad as the 32.3% drop in Spain, but certainly one of the sharpest drops in Europe.
What stands out, however, is that the use of other cementitous materials dropped by 31.0% to 1.68Mt compared with an estimated 22.9% reduction in sales of ordinary portland cement. As in Great Britain extenders such as slag and fly ash tend to be sold separately from the cement and the blending tends to be done by the concrete producer, cement sales are fairly similar to sales of ordinary portland cement.
Does this reflect a sudden reluctance to use blended cement? Are the producers of extenders, of which HeidelbergCement is the largest producer of ground granulated slag and Cemex the leading producer of fly ash, now preferring to maximise ordinary portland cement volume? Or are the producers of extenders demanding too high prices and the traditional discount to the cement price at which extenders are sold has been allowed fall? If so, has there been a deliberate attempt by the companies concerned to reduce the competitiveness of extenders in order to protect the clinker volume? Indeed, if that was the case, there could even be a strong case for eliminating the supply of free CO2 emissions permits.
Or is it just an in-built conservatism that has also made the adaptation of alternative fuels in clinker production a much slower process in Britain than in some other parts of Europe? In Germany - which also has a conservative construction industry - when blended cements gained acceptance, they did so with a vengeance and between 1998 and 2008 the share of CEM I, or ordinary portland cement, dropped from 68.5% to 29.9% of the domestic German cement market. Could the British market eventually be in for a similar transformation as environmental pressures build up?
The other thing to stand out in the recent statistics from the MPA is that cement imports have held up rather better than production, with cement imports being down by just 13.5%, compared with the overall market decline of 24.3%. Perhaps that can be explained by Spain being a major source of competitive independent imports into the UK and that is the only major EU country with a weaker cement market than Great Britain, although some smaller countries such as Ireland and Finland did worse still last year, with drops of about 45% and 40% respectively.
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