Green steel: the key to the UK’s climate emergency plan?

“This plan for zero-carbon steel should sit at the heart of a green UK industrial strategy.” Cllr Jonathan Essex makes the case for a just transition to zero-carbon steel for the UK’s construction sector.

Blast furnace factory
Jonathan Essex

Responding to the climate emergency must go beyond the ‘easy’ challenges of decarbonising electricity generation, energy retrofits for all homes and transforming how we move around. Zero carbon also requires us to tackle the emissions of trade (shipping, aviation and heavy goods vehicles), materials extraction and making industrial products. The carbon footprint of shipping, aviation, heavy goods vehicles and the manufacture of plastics, steel and concrete alone account for around 10 billion tonnes of carbon emissions globally each year. Concrete and steel each account for over 8 per cent of all global carbon emissions and together make up half of UK construction’s carbon footprint.

This is a huge challenge: as the world is still urbanising and trade is still globalising, so the demand for these two high-carbon materials continues to skyrocket. Since 1970, steel production has shot up by a factor of 2.5 and concrete production is now 6.5 times bigger. Research by the IPCC predicts that globally if developing countries expand their infrastructure to average current global emissions, the construction sector alone will emit 470 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050. This is more than the remaining carbon budget to avoid dangerous climate change. Zero-carbon plans cannot ignore construction’s emissions. And UK steel demand is rising, as steel is a main component for offshore wind farms. 

The proposed new Cumbrian coal mine does not just highlight the hypocrisy of the UK Government’s record in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. It shows the lack of a decarbonisation plan for UK steel. Coking coal, as would be mined in Cumbria, powers blast furnaces in Port Talbot and Scunthorpe that make iron, which is then used to make steel. The UK still imports 2.2 million tonnes of coking coal each year for this purpose (over an average distance of 8,200 km, mostly from the US, Russia and Australia), together with nearly 8 million tonnes of iron ore (over an average distance of 6,900 km, mostly from Canada, Brazil and Sweden). Instead of sourcing this coal more locally, we must stop burning coal in the UK, including in blast furnaces to make steel. 

Thankfully there is a clear alternative. Professor Julian Allwood of Cambridge University has made the case for zero-carbon steel in the UK. The same amount of steel made in blast furnaces is exported as scrap – and the UK already remakes some scrap into high-value steel in electric arc furnaces, such as those opened by Liberty Steel in Rotherham. Allwood’s common-sense proposal is now Green Party policy – to stop exporting scrap and instead better sort it (separate out other metals like copper for separate recycling) and turn it into high-grade steel in electric arc furnaces. That means we can, and should, close the blast furnaces and replace steel production with electric arcs. 

Some argue for the use of hydrogen or carbon-capture to make steel in a similar way, but both are still experimental, and will not capture the 1.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions in importing iron ore and coal and exporting scrap steel from the UK. Or deliver the total carbon savings – 10 times that – any time soon. 

Such a change will reduce the number of steelworkers. That is why a just transition from high-carbon industries is needed to create new green jobs across the UK. We must create new jobs to revitalise ex-industrial parts of the UK – as was recently proposed in research carried out for Cumbria Action for Sustainability – instead of mining for coal, drilling for oil or fracking for gas. Similarly, we must transition from aviation job losses to a zero-carbon economy around airports instead of climate-busting expansion plans – as called for by Caroline Lucas MP and in the Green New Deal for Gatwick report.

This requires government intervention to secure the investment needed, as one of the foundations of a climate emergency economy. This plan for steel should sit at the heart of a green UK industrial strategy that shifts car production lines to make smaller electric cars and zero-carbon buses, and makes better products that last longer. This must also transform our high-carbon construction industry from one that demands new materials to build on greenfield sites to deconstruct, reuse and repurpose buildings and use locally sourced sustainable building products instead. But central to this rethinking of construction must be to stop burning coal and iron ore to make steel and similarly stopping burning limestone to make cement – in the same way as we must stop burning fossil fuels.