April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, Michael Keaton remembers seeing the flames of industrial plant flares from the woods where he played, the bright colors reflecting off the city’s rivers.
“It was weirdly kind of beautiful at night, to tell you the truth,” said the Hollywood leading actor, famed for roles in movies from Batman to Spotlight. “And that was the irony - during the day it was filthy.”
Keaton, now 69, said as a child he heard tales of businessmen packing an extra shirt when headed to the office because of the pollution.
“By the time you got there your shirt collar had turned so gray that you would change,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed a half-century ago, and since then the city has reformed itself into a cleaner and more liveable city, though the scars of industry remain.
Now Keaton aims to work with a building technology company in his hometown to help drive an even greener shift by replacing a share of the traditional concrete used in construction - a major drive of global climate-changing emissions - with a lower-carbon substitute.
Keaton is a founding partner in a new manufacturing plant, on an old Pittsburgh brownfield site, that will produce building panels that require up to 50% less energy to make than traditional concrete and can be used in place of it.
Nexii, the Canadian company that owns the panel technology, recently built a Starbucks cafe in British Columbia in just six days with nearly zero on-site waste, said Stephen Sidwell, the firm’s chief executive.
“We’re using more sustainable materials, we use a fraction of the materials, a fraction of the transportation, labour and build time, to build ultra-high-performance buildings,” he said.
The company is just one of a growing share of construction firms trying to lower the industry’s carbon footprint. Buildings and their construction are responsible for nearly 40% of energy-related planet-warming emissions globally, according to United Nations figures.
As the world’s population grows and urbanization continues, global building stocks are set to double by 2060, according to the World Resources Institute, even as construction emissions must hit net-zero by 2050 to meet global climate goals.
Keaton said he is happy to be playing a role in greening his hometown, adding new jobs and addressing climate change.
Co-owned by Keaton and local real estate developer Craig Rippole, the building panel plant in Pittsburgh expects to create more than 300 permanent jobs.
“The great story is this is a city that could go from one of the dirtiest cities in America, at one point, to one of the greenest cities. It’s absolutely 100% poised to do that,” the actor said.
“If you can put people to work and have some even modest impact on climate change, why would I not want to be involved in something like this?” Keaton asked.
“It’s not really what people would call sexy,” he added. “But, to me, it’s very interesting. I’m a little bit nerdy about construction - I like building things.”
In March, Keaton toured proposed brownfield sites for the new plant with Rippole, who has redeveloped other former industrial sites in the region.
From one of them, Keaton could see the neighborhood where his mother’s childhood home sat on a street in McKees Rocks, a Pittsburgh suburb.
“That to me just said, ‘You got to do this,’” he said.
In part because it requires high temperatures and significant energy to produce, concrete manufacturing contributed about 7% of global emissions in 2019, more than most countries.
Alternatives to concrete like Nexii’s panels could play a role in reducing that, though persuading construction companies to use new materials can be a challenge, said Clay Nesler, global lead for buildings and energy at WRI’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
“The challenge is going to be there’s so much inertia in this oldest of all industries,” he said.
Keaton admitted that achieving green shifts will require companies to show “a lot of guts” - but he predicted firms would ultimately benefit from the changes.
He said he takes inspiration from his friend Yvon Chouinard who founded Patagonia, a sustainable outdoors clothing company that grew into a billion-dollar brand.
“He has the balls, the commitment, and the integrity to say: ‘This is how I’m going to run my company’. And you know what? People are coming around,” the actor said.
Keaton’s new construction venture comes as U.S. President Joe Biden is working to pass a $2-trillion infrastructure bill, the American Jobs Plan, that has climate action as a major priority.
“It’s only common sense what he’s talking about - I don’t see how it doesn’t create jobs,” he said of Biden and his plan.
Keaton said he may not experience the worst impacts of climate change, but he cannot say the same for his son and grandchildren - one reason he’s eager to act.
“There is no time,” he said. “It’s easy for me to talk and tweet. This is an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.”