Chapter 5 – Sustainability Lecture

The following morning, a Friday, was hot, and this time it was the Engineering lecture theatre where the benches were packed. Rhan and George had already sat through two hours of lectures and they had made the mistake of grabbing some fresh air after the previous lecture. They were jammed together in the second row from the front but were lucky to have found seats as a succession of older students, whom they had never seen before, continued to file in along their bench.
‘Sorry about this,’ said the mature-looking student clad in a tweed jacket, seated on Rhan’s left. He, unlike George, was valiantly trying to give Rhan some space. ‘This is the first time in my three years that they’ve tried to bring all four years together, and this theatre wasn’t built for such numbers.’
Rhan turned a little towards him with an ironic smile, which she hoped provided an interested and encouraging expression. It worked because he continued, which allowed Rhan the opportunity to pretend to be oblivious of George.
‘I’ve heard that the department might be forced to mark down exam results if there continues to be no sustainability stuff – hence the incentive for a big turnout from the top two years in search of some easy marks. I presume you’re a first-year?’
Rhan was saved from having to answer with anything more than a nod by the call for quiet. The talk began with Dr Bloom from their department, making the introductions to an enthusiastic, middle-aged man in a grey suit from the cement industry. Undaunted by the large audience, the speaker launched into his subject with relish.
‘You need to start wearing a jacket instead of a jersey,’ she whispered during the change in speakers. George looked at the cool third-year’s jacket, and nodded.
‘I am pleased to say that concrete is now at the heart of the drive for sustainability within the construction industry, and my organisation sits on and leads several key committees. There are many aspects to sustainability and we will go through some of these after I have introduced the product, concrete – one of the most important materials you are likely to specify.’
Rhan watched a series of slides showing the materials, including coal, involved with the making of cement, then concrete, through its use in roads, buildings and dams. The slides then switched to the demolition of a large factory and the crushing of concrete from both the structure and hard-standing parking area to form a mound of useful rubble. Rhan had worked for her uncle the previous summer, scanning files at his foundry, and had walked past such a derelict site in her lunch break. She had a vague, older recollection of a city centre site in Baghdad that her father had proudly shown his younger daughter – it was the water supply works. Her father had been so enthusiastic about his work, until he gradually became aware of his family’s vulnerability once water became a key weapon in the civic conflict. She heard later that some of his colleagues had simply disappeared, which had precipitated her family’s rapid move back to Syria.
George sat up, forcing Rhan to pay more attention. The talk had moved on to supply centres and transport but was now focusing on cement substitutes, with photographs of huge mountains of pulverised fuel ash, whatever that was.
‘…and we have worked harder than any other industry to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete products, which is down some 20 percent from previous decades. We believe that this is the biggest cut in any construction product and we are very proud of our achievement. This may be relevant for those who believe in climate change and anyone who believes that warming may be partially due to human influence.’
George swore under his breath.
‘This slide shows data for three materials: concrete, steel and timber, based on the carbon footprint per tonne over their lifetime, which…’ Rhan stopped listening but caught on for the summary.
‘You will note that a concrete post or whatever has a lower carbon footprint than the equivalent timber one. This means that you can reduce the carbon footprint of a project by designing in concrete.’ The lecturer looked around smugly at his conclusion, clearly waiting for everyone to make a note of this key point.
‘Bollocks!’ George whispered. He was listening intently.
‘This is a new language to me,’ Rhan sighed in George’s ear, aware and strangely piqued that for the first time since they had met, he did not seem to be acutely aware of her. It was fascinating to note her power over George. She had soon realised that physical contact was not as accidental as it appeared when they were close, and that even when they were deliberately apart with friends, he often glanced in her direction. They both knew it. This was presumably flirting, a subject she had heard so much about. But they were tutorial partners so their relationship could surely go nowhere.
‘But what is perhaps relevant is not the “greenness” of the product, but the application. Concrete, with cement as the main ingredient, has qualities such as thermal mass and fire-resistance, which allows for sustainable construction solutions if correctly designed.’ George shook his head slightly at the lecturer’s explanation.
Rhan felt drowsy and was having real trouble concentrating. After supper the previous evening, she had been persuaded by the enthusiastic Tom to join David, George and the enigmatic Danny on a trip to the Jericho area of town, to a late-night showing of some vintage Marx Brothers films. It had been a strange, magical night, and Rhan’s sides had ached with the prolonged infectious laughter, with Tom and David on either side of her. She was now paying the price for two very late nights, yet George, who had hardly listened to a word of the first maths lecture, was now wide-awake.
It was warm in the confined row, and with insufficient room to take notes, she could only let her thoughts wander again. She had determined to go for a run that afternoon but it seemed boring compared with everyone else’s college activities. She wondered what other options she had now that she had a term or even four years ahead of her. She needed something removed from the intense college life that she now found too exhilarating.
‘…the handout gives you more examples with calculations to show how concrete can be used to store heat in buildings. This reduces the energy required to heat buildings in winter, and more particularly, it reduces the energy needed to cool them in summer. This is vastly superior to timber, which has a much lower specific heat value than concrete. After a century, you will see that the total carbon footprint of concrete is very superior.
‘I have already mentioned how concrete materials can be recycled when the structure, whether a building, bridge or other civil engineering infrastructure, comes to the end of its useful life in two hundred or so years’ time. I might just mention that once the concrete is ground up to form aggregate, it starts to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, partially completing the cycle.’
Rhan watched as the lecturer illustrated the impressive cyclical life of concrete, but then frowned as she saw George slowly and almost imperceptibly shaking his head. Was she missing something? She tried harder to listen.
‘So again, please compare that with timber, which can decay to methane once it reaches the end of its short life. You probably know that methane is some twenty to thirty times worse than carbon dioxide at causing global warming, if you are concerned about that. I emphasise again that where concrete scores in sustainability is that at the end of its life, it can be recycled to some extent and this can prevent the need for further quarry extraction of natural resources. So, at each stage, concrete scores well on the sustainability tallies and it helps designers achieve the highest ratings now required by many clients, whether using sustainability codes such as BREEAM or the old CEEQUAL code for civil engineering.
‘Returning to the need for sustainable materials: gravels and sands obviously need to be extracted in a manner that does not affect the natural environment and such issues are very important for scoring in sustainability.’
As Rhan’s concentration wavered again, she became aware that George was shifting around, and getting literally hot under the collar. ‘Are you alright?’ she whispered.
‘This is all bollocks,’ he said. She furrowed her brow again and shook her head to indicate that she didn’t understand, but it encouraged her to listen more attentively.
Forty minutes later, after going through a few case studies, there was a call for questions. There were a few seconds of silence; questions tended to be few and far between in normal lectures, and the mixture of year groups made it even more nerve-wracking to raise a hand.
Dr Bloom stepped in. ‘Can I ask you to say something more about these cement replacement products that are by-products of the steel industry? Would you like to discuss how they affect the concrete product?’
The lecturer reiterated and expanded upon what had been previously mentioned ‘The products, such as PFA, are industrial by-products from the steel industry, which have been stored in huge mounds over the past few decades, so it is in everyone’s interest that they could be used to reduce the cement content in concrete and hence the carbon footprint. They add other benefits such as better control of temperature and lower water content for the same workability. However, as I mentioned, they are no good on their own and a portion of the cement is still needed, which is fortunate, as otherwise who would pay my salary?’ There were polite smiles from the audience.
‘Any other questions?’
George reluctantly raised his arm. ‘Ah, good, a question from a first-year!’ Dr Bloom announced disparagingly.
‘You suggested earlier that, err, some people may be interested in keeping carbon levels down, if we…’ George stumbled before continuing, ‘…if we believe in global warming. Surely no aspects of sustainability are more important than the short-term carbon footprint? Isn’t concrete production, in particular the cement element, the major problem that we need to avoid? I gather that around 5 percent of all world carbon emissions come from the cement industry.’
‘Well, there are a range of views about this,’ the guest speaker responded in a dragged out, bored manner that contrasted with the crisply presented lecture. ‘We don’t like to get involved one way or the other, but most people think the whole-life timescale is more important than the short term. However, we are fully committed to the government target of carbon-emission cuts of 50 percent by 2050, and we are proud to say that we are one of the few industries that are well on programme to achieve those targets. As I mentioned earlier, we are very proud of our whole-life footprint. There are papers that prove that concrete is one of the most sustainable and lowest-carbon materials available for the construction industry over the centuries, so your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be grateful that you designed concrete structures!’
George now addressed Dr Bloom, rather than the industry spokesman, in a more assured manner that bordered on aggression. ‘But in the meantime, is the university advocating that we should be using materials that produce such high levels of carbon emissions? There has been no mention of how current and previous carbon emissions will remain in the atmosphere for many decades and affect us for centuries and do much more damage than any saving and absorption of CO2 in the distant future. And with the ice caps melting rapidly, fires and flooding affecting us already, surely it is the present rather than the future we need to worry about? Isn’t all this talk of sustainability a sham if current carbon footprints and the short timescales are ignored in the expectation that our generation can invent a way to sort it out later?’
Dr Bloom had clearly not anticipated being involved in such discussions, but he recovered quickly.
‘Well, the university will be following government guidance and industry standards, which may involve cutting emissions in a few decades’ time. We are certainly cutting down our carbon emissions in this department. We are now almost entirely paperless.’
‘Yet encouraging each student to use tonnes of concrete in our designs will very quickly wipe out any savings on envelopes and paper,’ responded George. There were smirks around the room as well as embarrassed fidgeting by the third-year sitting on the other side of Rhan.
The spokesman took back control. ‘Well, this is clearly a very controversial subject – for one of us at least! Perhaps our friend here would like to see the Engineering department shut down and no new developments throughout the world? Concrete and cement are probably the most essential products for the advancement of our society. You live in a wonderful city with fantastic buildings, so would you want to prevent others from enjoying your privileges? No, of course not. So, last question please?’
‘Oxford was almost entirely built without concrete or cement!’ George interjected, but no one was listening.
‘How long can we expect concrete to last?’ a deep voice asked.
‘Ah a good question,’ the spokesman replied. ‘It depends on what is required, but most infrastructure is intended to last at least a hundred and twenty years, while some Roman concrete is still in remarkably good condition. So, the more concrete infrastructure we build now, the more the next generation will appreciate our efforts.
‘We can’t be expected to build offshore wind turbines in stone and timber! What’s more, I attend architectural courses and I see their final-year projects. Almost every architectural student is still designing with reinforced concrete and steel as their main structural component; they know little else. So you engineers can be sure that concrete is going to be your key structural material for the foreseeable future. Despite any talk of a climate emergency, your professional institutions are happy for you to carry on using as much concrete as you need. They just suggest you don’t use more than you need and ask you to use it wisely, in the manner I have suggested today. Thank you.’
The session was winding up. Rhan kept her distance from George, knowing how hot and bothered he was. She followed him out slowly. He was caught by Dr Bloom at the door and words were exchanged.

‘Bloody hell!’ George exclaimed. ‘Why, why, why did I get involved?’ He was angrier still as he unlocked his bike. Wet patches had appeared on his shirt.
He ignored Rhan, who had to pedal hard to catch him up halfway down St Giles.
‘You were brilliant!’ she called after him.
‘No, I was rubbish. I sounded like my father. I don’t care what they do or say.’ His voice was harsh. ‘It’s all far too late anyway so why bother?’
‘But you think it was a sham? Which bits?’
‘All of it! How absolutely stupid! I just got pissed off that they were spouting off with two-faced hypocritical whitewash. So, I ended up making a complete fool of myself and sounding like a crank! Why did I think that anyone needed to hear the truth, or would be at all interested?’
They hurtled recklessly into the back quad, where George flung his bike against a wall and locked it carelessly. ‘See you later. I need a shower before lunch. Fucking stupid!’
Rhan flopped on her bed with a sigh and read the handouts and the very few notes that she had taken. She glanced at the various sheets, wondering about the way climate change may have been subtly ridiculed. On her second reading, she searched for differences between sustainability and climate change. She began to have a nasty feeling that there were differences, and that careful wording had been used to confuse rather than clarify the issues. Recalling Dr Bloom’s words, she looked again at the statements of sustainability, which had little in the way of policy to minimise climate change, but might have had a different context.
Reading some of the details, it became obvious that the underlying guidance and actions were clearly not intended to tackle global warming anytime soon. The documents seemed to emphasise things like planning, noise, dust, life expectancy, long-term efficiency and other aspects. One aim covered the net long-term carbon footprint, but only after the structure had been used for several decades and even once it was demolished. It all seemed reasonable, but she doubted that George would agree if he was looking for urgent action.
Next, she looked at her handout on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. She shook her head as she read through the seventeen numbered goals and smiled once she found climate action, hidden away at number thirteen. It was a small relief to find that the United Nations gave little concern to fighting climate change. George had made a mountain out of molehill and she could see why he regretted his stance.
Yet, bearing in mind her experience in Syria when she looked down the list again, the leading goals of no poverty, zero hunger, good health, education, equality and clean sanitation and energy, had all immediately failed once the war started after a few years of drought. She filed her papers, but felt dissatisfied that there was no discussion relating to the short-term carbon emissions, which George had considered so important. Even worse, she began to wonder why there had been no discussion at all on the impact of warming that continued use of high-carbon materials would bring.
She headed out for lunch, but felt slightly relieved that George made no appearance. She sat next to Danny in the hall and told him about the lecture and her review.
‘At the time, it was alarming to find that George made points that were not being addressed,’ she explained. ‘So I would be happy to find that the vast majority in the lecture were correct and that George must be an idiot. Yet, I am not convinced there is nothing to worry about. It was disconcerting that George’s lonely concerns were so unpalatable, and needed to be quashed without debate.’
Rhan was talking earnestly, and Danny appeared to be listening.
‘Then there were the overall hints in the lecture that climate change might not be real or might have a cause beyond human intervention. What else do they think is causing climate change, if not greenhouse gases?’
‘Well,’ the Cornishman said slowly. ‘I thought everything was under control and presumed you engineers would ‘ave it all sorted. I seem to recall that temperature rises hadn’t been as high as predicted. Then there was that Paris Agreement – temperatures will be pegged at 1.5°C, or is it 2°C?’
Noticing Rhan’s disquiet, Danny added, ‘I confess, I’ve ‘ardly bothered with the subject recently. I feel stupidly ignorant of such an important subject. Sorry Rhan, but I have to go and get changed for rugby. There’s David,’ he said, beckoning to their friend. ‘He’s interested in climate change, so ask him. If you see George, tell him to meet in the back quad at two.’
David sat in Danny’s vacated seat, eating a yoghurt, but smiling occasionally as Rhan relayed the subject of the lecture again. She was dismayed to realise that David appeared to have little inclination to comment. He waited until Rhan had finished before he pompously gave his unexpected verdict.
‘I’m sorry to say that George was absolutely correct. Sorry, I have to dash off; I’m halfway through a chemistry practical and have to get back to the lab. See you.’