An Interview With Sherif Elsayed-Ali, CEO and Co-Founder of CarbonRe
A discussion on the hard to abate sectors.
As part of Eka VC’s coverage of COP26, we are interviewing founders of cutting-edge climate tech companies on topics that are relevant to the Presidential Agenda. Today’s Agenda is on “Cities, Regions and Built Environment. Advancing action in the places we live, from communities, through to cities and regions.”. We welcome Sherif Elsayed-Ali CEO & Co-Founder of CarbonRe
Sherif, thank you very much for joining us today. To kick things off, please could you provide a short overview of your background and CarbonRe?
I was born in Paris, grew up in Cairo and have lived in London for 18 years. I love big cities; the richness of experiences they bring can’t be found anywhere else. But the way we build and use them takes a huge toll on the environment, from air pollution to greenhouse gas emissions. To avert catastrophic climate change, we have to completely reengineer the way we build and consume; it’s a huge task but we can do it.
I am a civil engineer by training and have a varied professional background, having worked with international organizations, non-profits and the tech sector. I worked on complex humanitarian issues for many years before moving into technology innovation and AI. Before Carbon Re, I was at a large AI company where I set up an AI for climate practice focusing on monitoring climate signals from space. But I wanted to tackle the emissions in the biggest emitting sectors and that’s why with my co-founders, we set up Carbon Re.
At Carbon Re, we are building the world’s first AI-powered platform to enable zero-carbon manufacturing. We are tackling the hardest to abate sectors such as cement and steel production, starting with optimizing existing processes to reduce emissions and costs today. Our first product enables near instant reductions in fuel emissions in cement production — up to 20% — together with millions of dollars of savings per plant.
According to the UN, the building sector accounts for 38% of all energy-related C02 emissions when adding building construction industry emissions. At an industry level, what do you view as the solutions that have the most significant potential to reduce the sector’s emissions?
Carbon has a time value — cutting a tonne of carbon today is twice as valuable in reducing global heating as cutting 2 tonnes in 2050. We can’t wait to have the perfect technologies, we have to start now.
I don’t believe that “net-zero” is a helpful framing. It assumes we will continue to produce lots of emissions but somehow offset them elsewhere. By definition it means that we will leave many things unchanged, and when you add the complexity of industry regulation, international agreements and commercial imperatives, we will inevitably fall short of the emissions reductions needed.
What we need to do is cut emissions at source and get them to zero. This means ending all use of fossil fuels and capturing all process emissions. This won’t happen overnight of course, but we can start with smaller reductions today until we can scale new technologies and processes to cut emissions to zero.
Looking forward, do you see net zero carbon and steel as being an important part of the construction industry or do you believe new low carbon materials will emerge that will take their place?
Cement and steel will continue to be the main construction materials in the world; this will not change. Humanity produces about 4 billion tonnes of cement and 2 billions tonnes of steel every year, and the need for them is growing as many parts of the world develop.
There is a reason why these are the materials we use: they have the right properties to provide the strength and flexibility needed for construction and manufacturing. Critically, steel is the second most abundant metal on the planet (after aluminium) and limestone, the main raw material used for cement production, is the most abundant sedimentary rock. There is simply no replacement for them at the scale needed.
But alternative means of producing cement and steel can drastically reduce their emissions. The challenge today is bringing these early concepts to maturity, then scaling them, fast.
Alternative materials, like sustainable wood, can have a positive impact on emissions, but this will be marginal. Think of the huge amounts of land needed, the time it takes to grow forests, the difficulty of making them truly sustainable and the huge swathes of the planet where forests can’t grow — the clear conclusion is they won’t solve the problem.
One of today’s topics is around creating demand for low carbon materials. In your view, what do you see as being the critical path to accelerate their mass adoption?
Awareness of the impact of climate change is key, but ultimately we need to get the incentives right. This means carbon pricing that accounts for the negative externalities of emissions and financial incentives to adopt new low carbon solutions, among other policies to accelerate the shift. The economics of emissions have to change.
Governments and regulators are likely to have a role in accelerating the transition to more sustainable buildings, are there examples of where this has been done well?
One great example is the City of Zurich, which has mandated that public buildings have to include recycled concrete and use reduced-CO2 cement. Initiatives like this can achieve massive reductions in emissions but they require the right policy environments, including updates to building regulations and requirements for building materials.
A huge barrier to change can be outdated policies and regulations — even when the technology and economics work. As such, government leadership and proactive policy making can make the difference between a slow, lumbering shift to lower carbon buildings and a fast effective transition.
Any other final thoughts you would like to leave with readers?
Humanity faces an enormous challenge in averting the worst of climate change, but it’s absolutely something we can do — Carbon Re is an example of the ambition needed. The same threat also presents the biggest opportunity; we simply cannot be shy about speed and scale. That is why we have pilots running today that can drastically reduce emissions and have positive results for years to come — and we’re just starting! Solving climate change can and will happen!
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