OpenAir Co-Founder Chris Neidl on the recent passing of the New York State Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act.
Its familiar gray tint is everywhere we look – sidewalks, homes, bridges, dams. Concrete is the most commonly used construction material in the world. It’s also responsible for more than 7% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and most of the CO2 in concrete is embodied, meaning the CO2 comes from the material’s production process rather than its use. Low-embodied carbon concrete (LECC) is manufactured using less CO2 than its traditional counterpart, presents an opportunity to reduce embodied emissions from this ubiquitous construction material.
Chris Neidl, one of OpenAir’s co-founders, sat with us to talk about OpenAir’s Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act, an effort to boost LECC into mainstream usage.
OpenAir: What is the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act (LECCLA)?
Chris Neidl: LECCLA is state legislation that was introduced in New York and New Jersey. As law, it would require each state to implement low carbon standards for all of the concrete that public agencies procure.
The bill was the very first advocacy mission launched by OpenAir, and its origins stretch all the way back to Spring 2019. The policy in the bill, and the bill language itself, was researched, prepared, and written by a small team of OpenAir volunteer members. The policy draws on various elements of low carbon or climate-focused procurement programs already in place in other states, municipalities, and countries, and also includes some novel elements.
At its core, LECCLA proposes a “climate competition” incentive mechanism that makes low-carbon forms of concrete more competitive and more likely to win state contracts by applying an artificial discount to their actual quoted price. In short, low carbon mixes proposed by private bidders will be, for the purposes of selection by the state, calculated to be cheaper than conventional mixes, giving them an edge.
OA: Why did OpenAir decide to focus on LECC specifically?
CN: In the long-term, concrete has really exciting potential to evolve into a net carbon sink. This is a result of an expanding suite of “carbontech” methods and technologies: CO2 can be used as an input in the production of concrete and concrete components, locking away the greenhouse gas essentially permanently once it’s incorporated. Since concrete is both the second-most used material on earth (after water) and the most common building material, at-scale carbon utilization in the concrete sector can have a big impact as a carbon dioxide removal and storage medium.
The CO2 used to make concrete can come from post-industrial sources – like power plants or industrial steel, cement, and ammonium plants – in the near term, but it can also be sourced from the air using DACC. Ultimately, this is the opportunity that drew OpenAir to it. At this stage, in order for DACC to become cheaper, it needs to hook on to niche markets where it can add value today and gain some scale. The emerging carbontech concrete space is a great option for this given the long-term market potential.
So that’s how we found our way to concrete, and the bill actually has a special additional incentive favoring the use of carbon utilization technologies. We focused on state procurement as our area of policy because state governments are generally the single largest consumers of concrete in most states, due to the high-volume demand for public infrastructure. If the state starts generating demand for low carbon and carbon utilization concrete, this will have a big and hopefully transformative ripple effect, accelerating market development of these innovations.
OA: This is the first bill of its kind in the United States – why did OpenAir choose to start in New York? Have you found there to be different challenges or benefits of working with different state governments?
CN: We’ve seen a precedent for climate-based procurement on the state and county levels. There’s California’s “Buy Clean” program, a model that was also just passed in Colorado. Cities such as Portland, WA and Honolulu, HI have implemented programs and resolutions specifically focusing on concrete. Marin County in California has also implemented a pioneering low carbon concrete building code, which helped inspire certain elements of LECCLA. However, LECCLA’s climate competition discount, within the US context, is unique. We believed that incentives are a powerful way to accelerate innovation, and a more politically palatable alternative to mandates.
OA: What challenges did you encounter while working to get LECCLA passed in New York?
CN: The concrete-climate connection is finally getting well-deserved attention, but it’s still a relatively new subject of focus for most, so our main burden was raising awareness and educating legislators and potential organizational supporters. Concrete is essential to the built environment, but must be closely regulated to ensure public safety. It’s also an ancient material, used by the Romans and their predecessors, that hasn’t changed much in centuries. So together, this creates a culture of conservatism and caution within the industry, and therefore a resistance to change. We also discovered that there are other powerful actors – such as general contractors – who are heavily invested in preserving the status quo. So we faced resistance from them.
OA: What was most surprising about the process?
CN: Finding that, in the end, OpenAir’s core hypothesis and theory of change was valid. An all-volunteer network of passionate people – most with no prior professional background in either concrete or policymaking – are more than capable of generating effective legislation, building coalitions of support, and spearheading advocacy. We had a hunch that this was the case, and that’s why we started OpenAir, but to see it play out was both surprising and deeply satisfying.
OA: What did you learn from working on LECCLA?
CN: We’ve learned so much from the LECCLA experience in New York and New Jersey, it’s hard to concisely boil down what has been most important. We’ve learned a ton about concrete and cement, and their linkages to climate. We’ve learned a great deal about how to engage and influence legislators, in terms of messaging and strategy.
And this experience, through trial and error, has given us a template for how to manage legislation-based missions, from conceptualization to execution. We now know what we can pass along and what we need to improve upon. This was a baptism of sorts for us, and now we’re excited to expand LECCLA’s range through member initiatives in other states, including Virginia, where we’re already mounting a new effort thanks to the leadership of our Richmond-based member Nikhil Neelakantan.
OA: What’s next for OpenAir’s LECCLA initiative?
CN: We passed a version of LECCLA in New York in June, but we still have work to do to get the governor to sign it and ensure it’s implemented in the way we intended. So, we have more rounds to go in the Empire State in 2021-22. We also want to see LECCLA-NJ pass this fall, and have an amazing team leading our efforts there. As I mentioned, Virginia is a very promising opportunity, and we’re excited to start mobilizing in earnest there. Beyond that, we’re open to expanding our map wherever we have members who are willing to step up and get the ball rolling.
OA: How can people get involved with OpenAir as it moves on to these new projects?
CN: LECCLA is just a starting point for OpenAir’s advocacy work. 2022 will be a year of expansion for us, and we’ll be generating new policy missions based on member initiatives. We already have two new bills well underway in New York, and potentially more may follow in New Jersey and other states. Each of these initiatives needs members to lead and contribute to them in a number of different ways – outreach and recruitment, research and writing, and many other grassroots organizing efforts. You don’t have to be based in any particular state in order to contribute to missions starting there.
If you’re interested in learning more and possibly jumping in, the best place to start is to join our Discord server. Once you’re in, a member can give you the full tour and direct you to mission-specific weekly meetups where you can find out more about existing and developing projects.