Steel Industry Responsible for 11% of Carbon Emissions

Why we have to clean up how we make the stuff and use less of it.

blast furnace

Construction Photography/ Getty Images

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced $337 million (CA$420 million) in federal funding to convert Algoma Steel's coal-fired blast furnaces to electric arc furnaces (EAF) that reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70%. "There's no doubt that climate change is the test of our generation," Trudeau said in a press conference. "Fighting climate change and growing the economy must go hand in hand."

Mike Da Prat, the head of the steelworkers union, didn't show up to the announcement; he complains to the local paper that getting out of coal-based production could lead to the loss of hundreds of local jobs. Prat says Trudeau should invest in trains instead. "If we're going to green our country, let's make sure that we have an electrical rail system," said Prat.

That's a lot of money and jobs—it takes fewer people to operate a modern EAF mill. It's a problem that is going to be faced around the world. Caitlin Swalec, a research analyst at Global Energy Monitor, wrote in Carbon Brief: "The iron and steel industry is responsible for 11% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and will need to change rapidly to align with the world’s climate goals." Eleven percent is a shocker; Treehugger has previously quoted 7% and 9%, and spent more time complaining about cement.

Swalec was co-author of a report which mapped 533 steel plants and 42 proposed developments and finds that the industry has to reduce its emissions by 90% by 2050 if there is any chance of keeping global heating below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius).

She notes in Carbon Brief:

"We also found that more than 60% of installed steelmaking capacity uses the high-carbon BF-BOF [blast furnace/basic oxygen furnace] method, in which iron ore is smelted with heat from burning coal, which also acts as the “reducing” agent needed to turn the ore into metal. China’s steel fleet is particularly reliant on this method and it notably accounts for 62% of global BF-BOF capacity."

The report, "Pedal to the Metal: No Time to Delay Decarbonizing the Global Steel Sector," says the 42 new plants are doubling down on old tech, with 75% of them BF-BOF, locking in emissions for their 40-year life. It concludes that "steelmaking capacity needs to be aggressively shifted from the dominant blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF) steelmaking route to electric arc furnace (EAF) steelmaking," as is happening with that one plant in Canada. All existing BF-BOFs have to be retrofitted or retired, and new technologies, like the hydrogen-based systems we have shown, have to be scaled up fast.

The report also calls for increases in material efficiency, suggesting that it could reduce demand by 20%. Buildings are responsible for about half of all steel use, so they call for:

  • Extending building lifetimes through refurbishment or repurposing to avoid early demolition;
  • Improving building designs and construction practices to reduce overall material requirement; and
  • Increasing scrap recycling rates by designing products to make steel recovery easier.

They also call for "designing lighter vehicles (aka vehicle lightweighting), which can reduce steel demand by 75% in a single vehicle." This referenced another study that says "development of lighter vehicles can reduce steel requirements by a factor of four and significantly increase fuel efficiency, thus reducing fuel use and associated GHG emissions while still maintaining the same mobility service."

This all sounds very Treehugger; I wrote in an earlier post:

"It's why I always return to the same place. We have to substitute materials that we grow instead of those we dig out of the ground. We have to use less steel, half of which is going into construction and 16 percent of which is going into cars, which are 70 percent steel by weight. So build our buildings out of wood instead of steel; make cars smaller and lighter and get a bike."

This brings us back to Canada, where converting just one steel plant costs a fortune and becomes a political football, with the very hard-right conservative newspaper that never had a good thing to say about unions suddenly being worried about saving union jobs making dirty steel.

One down, 533 to go. This will be a challenge.

View Article Sources
  1. Swalec, Caitlin, and Christine Shearer. "Pedal To The Metal: No Time To Delay Decarbonizing The Global Steel Sector." Global Energy Monitor, 2021.

  2. Wang, Peng, et al. "Efficiency Stagnation in Global Steel Production Urges Joint Supply- and Demand-Side Mitigation Efforts." Nature Communications, vol. 12, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41467-021-22245-6