Arnaud Colson: Fighting to secure a rock for all ages

A long-standing and passionate campaigner for mineral-resource sustainability, Arnaud Colson had a highly rewarding career at French building materials giant Lafarge, while holding presidencies and vice-presidencies in a wide range of industry unions and associations. Now running a successful environmental development consultancy, Colson talks to Guy Woodford about his impressive career and the key current and likely future issues within the European and wider-world mineral products industry
June 24, 2020
By Guy Woodford
Arnaud Colson now runs Paris-based Territoires Consulting
After a long and distinguished career in the European building materials sector, Arnaud Colson now runs Paris-based Territoires Consulting

To any large or ambitious small to medium quarry operator looking for advice on more sustainable ways of running their production sites, Arnaud Colson's CV catches the eye.

After nearly four decades working for Lafarge, the giant French building materials maker, including many years at the forefront of delivering on the company's sustainability goals, the 67-year-old established 'Territoires Consulting' (www.territoires-consulting.com), a Paris-based environmental consultancy helping companies and public and private landowners in their development projects.

Colson left Lafarge in 2017, two years after the firm's merger with Switzerland-based Holcim. As a former president of UEPG (European Aggregates Association), an ex-president of UNPG (the Association of French National Aggregates Producers) a former vice-president of UNICEM (the French National Union of Quarrying and Building Materials Industries), and in his long and highly successful career with Lafarge and as chair of the UEPG Environment Committee, Colson has been a prominent champion of the quarrying industry, not just in France but across Europe.

Arnaud Colson UEPG
During his near 40-year career with Lafarge, Arnaud Colson served terms as president of UEPG (the European Aggregates Association), president of UNPG (the Association of French National Aggregates Producers), and vice-president of UNICEM (the French National Union of Quarrying and Building Materials Industries)

As such, his thoughts on what more still needs to be done in terms of improving mineral-resources sustainability are well worth hearing.

"The European Commission should more pragmatically tackle the issue of mineral resources by deploying and putting in place tools, including directives, regulations and good practices, for equitable access by all countries. We don't want something like the EU Framework Directive on Water, which, in my view, is very unevenly applied. Improving and achieving consistently high standards of health and safety in building materials production across European countries, including reducing employee exposure to crystalline silica dust, must also be a priority."

Born in Ksar-es-Souk, a city in east-central Morocco now known as Errachidia, Colson, whose father was a mining engineer, speaks of his alarm at the findings of the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) 2018 report on sand and sustainability around the world. "The impact of the extraction of the world's most widely used solid material is increasing as reserves decrease. Some continents such as Asia, South America and Africa exploit these reserves. Europe is, in general, way at the top of CSR (corporate social responsibility) in this area.

"I have seen in Vietnam or Morocco how these sands are squandered. In Morocco, my mother used to walk me on the sandy beaches of Casablanca. Today, this beautiful sand no longer exists. It has been looted and leaves the mother rock bare.

"Let's not forget that only 50% of the aggregates sold in the world comes from sandpits while the remaining 50% comes from massive rock quarries, extracted by explosives and crushing. It is regrettable that the drafters of the UNEP report do not mention this nuance."

Colson welcomes the efforts of GAIN (the Global Aggregates Information Network), created and managed by former UEPG president Jim O' Brien, to create a worldwide network of aggregates quarries and to produce more statistics and analysis on this issue.

"To save mineral resources, the solution is for engineers and architects to use a combination of building materials and to place great emphasis on construction innovation," stresses the former Lafarge senior executive.

I ask Colson about his biggest frustrations and obstructions in his work for Lafarge and in his leadership positions at UEPG, UNPG and UNICEM.

"It is to have started a global vision for concrete- and aggregates-sector sustainability, but one that is still to be fully understood by French and EU policymakers. Other building material lobbies such as those around wood are strongly carried by ecological movements because of their obviously apparent link to nature. However, this can create a misunderstanding about concrete, which is a very noble building material that offers great lifetime durability.

"Wood is not recyclable and will inevitably release CO₂ into the atmosphere at some point, either by burning or drying. Contrast this with concrete, which is eternally recyclable, and the aggregates that make up its structure are more useful and necessary than ever. The everyday reality is that politicians act under pressure and follow fashion, which is often dictated by ill-informed lobbies. It also shows the importance of better communication of how concrete can exist in perfect harmony with people and is a material consistent with approaches to tackling climate change."

Arnaud Colson’s final role in his 39-year career
Arnaud Colson’s final role in his 39-year career with Lafarge was as the company’s director of French Public Affairs and Sustainable Development (Aggregates, Cement & Concrete). Pictured is the LafargeHolcim Martres-Tolosane cement plant in south-west France. In recent years, the site has benefited from a €100mn modernisation project

Colson says there is a big difference between the countries operating in Europe when it comes to the pace of adoption of environmentally friendly production methods for building materials. He believes this also has an impact on competition in the international market.

"Marine aggregates production is another good example of an inconsistent European approach," he continues. "For example, it may take 10 to 20 years to obtain an operating licence in France, but only three to five years in the UK. I would also like to ask why European politicians are slow to recognise the contribution of quarries to biodiversity? The UEPG also fights illegal extractions in some European countries alongside the authorities, which are sometimes deprived by national governments of the means to control the problem."

A Maritime Spatial Planning Framework Directive, adopted in 2014, gives EU member states sole competence on land-use planning and permitting; so a new framework directive formalising a consistent approach to marine aggregates production licencing applications is likely to require a change of EU treaties.

Colson had a near four-decade working life at Lafarge, with his final senior role being the company's director of French Public Affairs and Sustainable Development (Aggregates, Cement & Concrete).

"I prospered there and was very proud to have been able to participate in the launch of a true approach to sustainable development via the launch of an environmental policy encompassing the company's 500 establishments (quarries, ports, cement plants, concrete plants) and driven by the dynamism and vision of Bertrand Collomb. Bertrand was, for me, a captain of industry, a strategist and a real team player.

"In my personal opinion, Lafarge merged with, or more accurately, was bought by Holcim because of too much debt and strategic errors. I spent 39 years working for what was one of the most beautiful French flagship companies in the world of heavy industry, but I did not enjoy my latter time before leaving the group. LafargeHolcim is now a new group established by and managed from Switzerland. It is well structured internationally and well managed."

Returning his attention to how to achieve a more sustainable building materials industry, he says: "It is essential to consider the size of the industry's carbon footprint. Financial analysts need to regain confidence in the building materials industry and major companies like LafargeHolcim. This requires tangible results on CO₂ reductions, the use of alternatives to fossil fuels, and water management. New constructive systems are an opportunity. The consideration and improvement of biodiversity in aggregates extraction sites is a key issue for site staff and the sector in general. It also creates new jobs. A lot has already been done. The UEPG has gathered around 200 good biodiversity practices in aggregates extraction sites on its website, but there is still room for progress. That has not escaped NGOs (non-government organisations).

A quarry site visit during the UEPG General Assembly in Barcelona, Spain, in 2018
A quarry site visit during the UEPG General Assembly in Barcelona, Spain, in 2018

"I also believe that it is necessary to replace 'Man' at the centre of a business with the implementation of a genuine approach to CSR, so the climate of trust expected by customers as well as partners and stakeholders will return. I had to implement a sustainable development policy between 2006 and 2017, and I still expect an ambition to be laid out in this regard by LafargeHolcim. From a European policy perspective, it would be nice to introduce a tax at Europe's borders to limit the unfair competition of low-cost materials, especially cement. This would certainly be a guarantee of improving the competitiveness of our European businesses. These companies absolutely need to get their profit margins back."

Colson served as UEPG president from 2012 to 2015 and is a firm believer in the association's ability to represent the interests of and campaign for the continent's €15-20bn turnover, 15,000 companies-strong mineral products industry in its dealing with EU policymakers.

"I am still a member of the UEPG board of directors as honorary president. The association does an outstanding job with a small and close-knit team representing 23 member countries."

The UEPG 'engine room' comprises four committees, their task forces and working groups, plus a standalone public relations and communications task force. The four committees are Health and Safety (RCS [respirable crystalline silica] working group); Environment (biodiversity; air quality; marine aggregates; and water management task forces); Technical (recycling task force; RDS and EPD working group); and Economic (better implementation and regulatory enforcement task force; market-based instruments working group). The committees meet twice yearly and report with the general secretariat to the UEPG board. The board reviews progress and strategy twice annually. The top-level meeting is the delegates assembly held in May or June each year, where all members debate and decide on UEPG activities and strategy.

Colson says: "More than 30 years ago, UEPG invented a sustainable development competition chaired by an independent external jury every three years. The association also organises multiple field trips for members covering various topics. We did not hesitate to intervene on behalf of the various member countries, as I have been able to do in Romania or Poland to promote a virtuous industry, helping to eradicate corruption, truck overload, and compliance with safety rules. What is important in the future is to improve the visibility of UEPG and the recognition of the importance of aggregates for the European construction sector."

Colson has some thought-provoking and data-supported views on the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic-disrupted European quarry and building materials sector.

"It will undoubtedly emerge better from this delicate period than those of services, aeronautics or automobiles. We need to build. XERFI [a leading French business market research company] estimates that the decline of French GDP is expected to be in the order of -9.6% in 2020. A similar-sized rise in GDP in 2021 will not allow a full recovery of the economy, neither in level nor in trend. France's GDP is expected to remain down 1.4% by the end of 2021 compared to the same point in 2020. This scenario confirms the prospect of a sustained recession.

"Construction, public transport, accommodation and catering are logically the sectors most directly affected by COVID-19 closures and administrative restrictions, followed by some trade and household services, such as nursery and school childcare, leisure and cultural activities. On the other hand, real estate leasing activities, the agri-food sector, energy, water and waste management, financial and non-market services are cushioning the economic shock. Other industries and business services are now halfway towards recovery."

Colson notes that in France this year, it is estimated by market analysts that aggregates sector production will be down around 17%, assuming there is no further lockdown due to a second wave of COVID-19. He says a production increase of "at least 15%" could take place in 2021 but stresses that there are currently no official figures on this.

"Aggregates quarrying activity in Europe is down. The UEPG-estimated percentage difference in full-year 2020 production compared to 2019 shows that the least affected countries are expected to be Norway, with no decline in production; Denmark -2%; Germany -2.5%; and Hungary -3%; The Netherlands -10%; and Belgium -25%. The most affected nations are tipped to be Italy and Spain at -40%; followed by Greece and the United Kingdom at -30%.

"Overall, UEPG estimates there will be a 15.4% decrease in European aggregates production to 2.61 billion tonnes in 2020 compared to 2019. This would be comparable output to 2013. The UEPG estimates that production will rise to 2.71 billion tonnes in 2021, 3.7% up on 2020. In 2021, some countries are expected by UEPG to see a particularly notable recovery, including Spain +25%; France +15%; and Denmark and the Netherlands, rising by 10% and 15% respectively. Overall, however, there is a low degree of optimism about a wider economic recovery in 2021. After the crisis of 2008, there were five years of decline, then six years of recovery."

A site visit during the UEPG General Assembly in Helsinki, Finland, in 2014
A site visit during the UEPG General Assembly in Helsinki, Finland, in 2014

Colson believes that for construction and wider industry, the possibility of a production catch-up is limited or delayed by capacity. "To catch up, we would have to produce more building materials, and for several months. This would mean mobilising additional resources, but where would they come from?"

The French-German-led initiative seeking to revive Europe-wide economic activity via a massive €750bn EU economic stimulus fund may, says Colson, be the key to getting out of the current COVID-19-induced economic crisis. Colson believes it could accelerate ecological and digital transitions, increasing the EU's resilience and economic and industrial sovereignty and giving new impetus to the single market.

Looking further ahead, Colson is optimistic about the long-term future of the European building materials and construction sectors.

"The arrival of the circular economy, along with recycling, and composite materials or even bio-based materials, will profoundly change some areas of construction. However, we will always need natural aggregates, exploited rationally and economically, for civil engineering and construction projects.

"When I left Lafarge three years ago, I immediately set up my Territoires Consulting business. It helps companies and public and private landowners in their development projects. Working in the renewable energy sector, I have also established a partnership with a company that creates and sets up photovoltaic [solar] farms on sites, including quarries. I am very pleased with this innovative approach to renewable energy. It is a natural extension from my career with Lafarge."

A long-time resident of Paris, when he's not working Colson, a former student at the city's Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (National School of Bridges & Causeways), enjoys spending time with his wife, four children and four grandchildren. He also finds time for many other interests. "I also enjoy skiing, high mountains, nature and time spent as a reserve officer of the French army and as an auditor at the Institute of Higher National Defence Studies (IHNDS). This allows me to delve deeper into geostrategic issues related to national defence."

Working to defend a nation as well as a continent's mineral products industry. Life remains full for Arnaud Colson.    

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