By Sherry Koh | May 15, 2010
Greenest Person on the Planet 2008 award recipient, Matthias Gelber
Tree hugger. Eco-preneur. Greenest person on the planet (awarded by 3rd whale, Canada for year 2008). Matthias Gelber is indeed an eco-warrior in every sense of the word. He comes from a village with a population of 500 (no, there are no missing zeroes) in Lippe, Germany. Today, he travels all over the globe preaching and practising eco-activities. Find out about how the use of material such as green cement can help in mitigating climate change and global warming.
How did you get from your kampong (village) in Lippe to the city of Kuala Lumpur?
I think in those days, I always wanted to do something for the environment. As a kid and teenager, we played in the woods. We used to have 3 months of snow in (the) winter. That has changed. Unfortunately, the show comes and goes. That’s what I can see, the impact of climate change. On the other hand, I am not a guy who believes in simplistic truths. Every flooding we can’t say it is the result of climate change. Yes, climate change is increasing the fluctuation of the climate and some of flooding not necessarily down to climate change. It is down to deforestation, it is down to change in landscape. It is human interference in our natural environment.
I came to Malaysia five and a half yrs ago. After my studies in Germany and the UK, I got heavily involved in working with businesses and became an expert on Environmental Management Systems. Very quickly, I became well-known internationally as a speaker, trainer and expert on the subject. I lived in the UK for 10 years; started and sold a business. I decided it was time for a sunnier climate. I had some friends in Malaysia, (I have) done stuff here, Malaysia My Second Home programme, (my) training always went well in this part of the world. So I decided on Malaysia.
Tell us about green concrete technology.
Malaysia is more like buy from elsewhere, bring it in and make some money with selling. But not many Malaysian companies are looking for strategic green technology. That’s at least my experience. We have green technology. We turn waste into concrete and products. But we are actually looking for strategic and technology partners who are keen on joint-venture to acquire parts of our technology.
Which other countries are giving you better response?
We see some interest from China and Singapore.
What is green cement?
Most people don’t know that the product process of cement manufacturing is the world’s contributor to climate change. No other product manufacturing contributes as much too global warming than cement manufacturing.
Calcium carbonate is CaCO3. When we burn that, we need huge amounts of fuel like coal. So we produce a lot of CO2 (carbon dioxide) by burning that coal and at same time, (we) produce even more CO2 by releasing the carbon dioxide that’s in the calcium carbonate. Limestone is being built over millions of years. Some of these mountains are being chopped down because of limestone. That’s chemistry. You cannot change that.
People say that they are making it more efficient by increasing the energy efficiency. Yes, that’s good. But cement manufacturing itself is fundamentally an unsustainable and non-renewable process.
The idea of green cement is (that) we use waste materials that have similar properties, like when you think about why there are so many buildings in Rome that are still around. Cement as we use it now was only invented the 1700s, I think 1750. But how did the Romans build the Pantheon? It is more than 2,000 years old! They are built from volcanic ash mainly. Even volcanic ash has cement-like properties. In Malaysia, (there’s) not that much. So that’s why this business is not so easy in Malaysia. But in other countries, (like) Indonesia, China (and) India, there is a huge volume of unutilised volcanic ash available. That theoretically could be used to build buildings.
How many percent of CO2 does cement manufacturing contribute to the environment?
6 - 7%, In China, (it is) more than 10 percent. That’s substantial. It’s more than double of all the planes in the world together. We think about flying as being bad for the environment. Yes, it is. But cement manufacturing is more than double the planes in the world. Flying is about 3 percent, I think.
What other material does your company, Maleki GmbH, produce?
In Malaysia, we are not manufacturing yet. (We) haven’t found right partner for that. We are manufacturing in Germany, close to 50 different products. We do industrial flooring, we do materials that protect the durability of concrete, and we do materials that make concrete waterproof. All sorts of eco-friendly low carbon footprint water-based material that make buildings last longer, more eco-friendly and better insulated.
What is the carbon footprint for a cement plant?
For example, an average Malaysian cement plant maybe generates one million tons of cement. (I) can roughly say, (the) equivalent (of CO2) is one million tons of carbon dioxide. Because roughly one ton of cement production, 1,000 kilos, trigger off 1,000 kilos of CO2.
What can the general public do to be greener?
They can do a lot. (The) simplest starting point is to look at electricity bill. It doesn’t lie. Slash (that) by 10, 20 percent and you will help the environment. Actually, now we are discussing Malaysia’s needs (for) more hydro dams, a nuclear plant. Why? Because we are consuming too much electricity. If we spend that money in energy efficiency, we wouldn’t need all those plants, in my opinion.
How would one know if a home or building is really as green as it proclaims to be?
The GBI (Green Building Index) is one indicator but at the end of the day, it boils down to the carbon footprint itself. For example, they calculated the London Olympics. More than 60 percent of the carbon footprint of the London Olympics will be in the building materials that are being used. Because the London Olympics doesn’t last very long. So the construction itself is a huge component of the carbon footprint. The concrete that is being used, that is the majority share of it. So if you want to purchase a green home, (we need to know) what building material has been used and that is neglected in the GBI so far. But I know people are moving towards that.
Dr Tan (Chairman of Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) sustainability committee) who has been one of the key players, he told me recently, that they are starting to look at the carbon footprint. That is good news. We need to look at carbon footprint. Otherwise we have buildings (that are) certified platinum but they might’ve just used very high carbon footprint concrete. They might’ve used other damaging building materials. And the electricity consumption inside is still high even if they got certification. So we need to look at passive cooling, insulation, shading, (and) orientation of the building. Because once we have tat in place, we don’t need to spend too many on very expensive solar cells and we don’t need that much electricity to keep that building cool.
The fact and figure (that is) relevant for the industry is; approximately 40 percent of global CO2 emissions are linked to construction industry. Our industry is one of the main players and has one of the biggest opportunities to reduce (carbon footprint). That’s been identified in international statistics that have tried to evaluate where we can add economic value and reduce CO2 emissions at the same time. Refurbishment is one of the areas where we could quickly help to reduce CO2 emissions.
Malaysia has one of the world’s most amazing natural carbon sink – peat swamp forests. They are amazing, they are incredible. We need to do everything we can to avoid those peat swamps to be destroyed. They are the world’s best natural carbon sink. Malaysia is number two in the world after Indonesia.
What other activities contribute to the emission of CO2?
There are two things that partially overlap. Generation of electricity. A lot of electricity is consumed by buildings. Power generation. Where is that power generation consumed? In our buildings, and factories. So we have to be careful because it is partially overlapping.
Tell us about your group Eco-warriors Malaysia.
We are just a Facebook group of people with a common interest. We want to do something good for mother earth. That’s what brings us together.
When was it set up?
It was set up in November 2008. (It is) not that old yet. I want to inspire some people and hopefully get some tree-planting going. I launched a one million tree-planting campaign. That would be a life journey for me. What else can the Government and the real estate industry do? We need to focus on energy efficiency. One thing (that) we are lacking is that there are different things going on. And I personally think that this whole concept of 1Malaysia, we need that for ‘1Malaysia Energy Efficiency’ where everybody, the Government, industry, regional approach, cities, individuals, NGOs, is basically working together on making it happen. It would be good if we could get something like that going.
The more we consume, the more we waste. We can leave something here by doing the right thing. We can leave a positive legacy of preservation and leaving something behind for future generations.