Monday, July 7, 2008

Indian cement industry cleans up its act: CSE survey

A recent survey of the cement industry finds that the sector is more energy-efficient than even its counterparts in Europe and the US. However, the Centre for Science and Environment survey recommends a stringent regulatory regime for better mine management

The Indian cement industry, a potentially high polluter and the country's biggest excise payer after tobacco, has earned praise for its efforts to reduce air pollution and energy use in its manufacturing practices. However, the industry has been criticised for its bad mining practices, in a survey by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the Delhi-based organisation.

The countrywide survey, which covered 41 top cement producers across nine Indian states, representing 80% of the sector, resulted in the sector being awarded the CSE's Three Green Leaves eco-award.

The Chennai-based Alathiyur Works, which was awarded the prestigious Four Green Leaves award, is the first plant in India to receive this honour. Gujarat Ambuja Cement Limited's Gujarat plant bagged second spot, while the third spot was shared by three companies -- J K Lakshmi Cement Limited, Prism Cement Limited and ACC's Gagal Cement Works.

While the cement industry may have scored higher points than three other polluting industries previously rated for eco-friendly practices by the CSE under its Green Rating Project (GRP) -- paper pulp, chlor-alkali and automobiles -- the market leaders in the industry were not the environment leaders. The industry has performed poorly where it has no economic returns, says the CSE. "The cement industry's better environmental performance in energy and waste-utilisation is not because of environmental concerns but because of better economic returns," stresses Sunita Narain, director of the CSE.

Grasim Industries Limited, from the Aditya Birla Group, which has a 22% market share in this booming industry, was rated "mediocre" by the CSE. The next largest cement company, the prestigious Associated Cement Companies (ACC) Limited, now jointly owned by multinational Holcim and the Indian Ambuja Group, scored less than 35% marks as a group.

The study observes that while the cement industry does not fit the definition of a "sustainable industry", an "acceptable trade-off" can certainly be proposed. What the study attempts to do is to benchmark the performance of companies against such a trade-off.

The sector scores high because of certain initiatives taken to reduce air pollution and the fact that it is today one of the world's most energy-efficient, more so even that its counterparts in the US or Europe.

The rating found that energy is the sector's biggest production cost, and Indian companies have done a lot to reduce this cost. They have modernised their technology and have focused on producing more blended cement. According to the GRP's assessment, the Indian cement sector (after Japan) is the second most energy-efficient cement sector in the world.

The GRP also found that emissions of carbon dioxide -- which leads to global warming -- from Indian cement companies are significantly lower than European and American cement companies. "This is an important message to give out to the developed world, where the general feeling is that India is not doing enough to combat global warming," says Chandra Bhushan, head of the GRP and associate director of the CSE.

Among the industrial sectors, the cement industry is the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and accounts for 5% of global human-made carbon dioxide emissions.

The study recommends strong regulatory control over the sector. To begin with, regulators can do away with cheap mine leases and provide incentives for good mine management and disincentive for poor management. The economic benefits of mining must also belong to local communities, whose resources are exported by the sector.

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