The iron and steel industry contributes between 7-9 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. The challenge for the sector is to reduce emissions. In a recent event Spotlight on Steel, the Materials and Embodied Carbon Leaders’ Alliance (MECLA) examined the range of issues involved in decarbonising the steel industry.

There are big issues to tackle.

What is green steel?

There is no agreed definition of green steel. According to Hayley Jerick, chief executive of the Supply Chain Sustainability School and chair of the MECLA Steel Working Group, “Green steel can mean low embodied carbon, near zero embodied carbon, net zero embodied carbon, 100 per cent recycled content, ethically sourced, responsible steel or simply steel that is painted green.” This makes it difficult and confusing to check the environmental credentials of the product.

Worldsteel defines low-carbon steel as steel that is manufactured using technologies and practices that result in the emission of significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional production.

Green steel is achievable, but it’s difficult to assess whether companies are measuring up.

“The journey to decarbonisation is firstly around transparency; you can’t control what you can’t measure,” said David Bell, manager sustainability and Insight at InfraBuild Steel.

Gretta Stephens, chief executive climate change and sustainability at BlueScope, said, “we’re not there yet in terms of consistent carbon accounting in the steel industry.”

However, progress is being made on a national and international level.

Green steel Certification

According to MECLA, ResponsibleSteel is the steel industry’s first global multi-stakeholder standard and certification initiative. The site standard comprises 12 principles, including climate change and greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions (principle 8). Requirements include a corporate commitment to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and site level GHG reduction targets, planning and disclosure. A site must meet the requirements of all relevant principles, including but not limited to, biodiversity (principle 11), human rights (principle 5) and labour rights (principle 4), to achieve certification.

Nationally, a driver of demand for low-embodied carbon steel is the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star program.

The Green Star system works by giving a roadmap for the sector, a tool of accountability and a means by which consumers can demand products that have reduced carbon inputs.

The responsible steel credit in Green Star requires project teams to source steel from a manufacturer that is signatory to the world steel association’s Climate Action Program.

“The vision of the framework is to drive the supply chain to deliver transparent, healthy, low impact and net zero carbon products,” said Jeff Oatman, head of collaboration and membership at the Green Building Council of Australia.

The GBCA works with the World Green Building Council on a global leadership program that “effectively challenges businesses or sub-national governments to get to net zero carbon, both embodied and operational,” Mr Oatman said.

The Climate Action Program provides a common footprint of world steelmakers who are party to the program, to “provide their numbers back to a single point … and then it provides those benchmarks from which people can measure and understand their journey to decarbonise, so it’s fantastic from that point of view,” David Bell said.

The GBCA had worked “really well with different material manufacturers around finding those initiatives and milestones towards achieving those that demonstrate your action as opposed to just demonstrating a goal,” according to Jerick.

Speakers noted the need for a level playing field in regard to steel imports. BlueScope’s Stephens said it was important not to risk investments in carbon efficiencies being undermined by imported steel that had not borne those costs.

Recycled steel won’t match up to global demand

The most intensive steel production is virgin steel, made from iron ore, and it comprises around 70 per cent of all steel produced. It’s also the most energy intensive production of steel.

According to MECLA document: “The Blast Furnace – Basic Oxygen Furnace (BF-BOF) process utilises carbon (most commonly from metallurgical coal) as the key element in the chemical reaction to extract iron from iron ore. Emissions of carbon dioxide are a by-product of this chemical reaction.”

For every 1 tonne steel produced there are 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted.

Is it possible to increase the amount of material recycled?

Yes, according to Hayley Jerick. “Electrical and domestic appliances are probably the worst recovery rates; machinery and automotive are great and construction’s 85 per cent, so could probably do a little bit better around recovering the steel from that process,” she said.

Would increasing the use of recycled steel be a solution?

No. There is simply not enough recycled material available. Currently, around 30 per cent of steel available comes from recycled material. Steel has a diverse lifespan which ranges from say the short shelf life of a can in a supermarket to a car that can be around for two decades before being scrapped. So, while there can be improvements to increase the quality of material made from

recycled steel, and increased recovery rates for used steel, there still won’t be nearly enough recycled steel to meet requirements.

And the demand for steel is growing, as BlueScope’s Gretta Stephens said: “Global demand for steel is projected to increase by more than a third through to 2050.”

Imported steel not the solution

Speakers at the event emphasised that importing steel that meets the requirements of low-embodied steel is not a solution.

While it may be a convenient solution to acquiring green credentials for a project, the overall impact is not considered.

Imported steel will create carbon emissions from transport. Also, if the local product is spurned for imported products then local products will need to find markets elsewhere, which means more carbon emissions from international transport. Far more preferable is to source local products that meet environmental targets.

Technology gap must be bridged

“The challenge we face is a technology gap between our current high emissions processes that use coal or fossil fuels as the reductant and our future state which will be low or zero emissions processes,” said BlueScope’s Gretta Stephens.

“We need widespread collaboration because bridging this technology gap is bigger than just our company and even our sector … neither the ironmaking technology nor the economics of hydrogen are there yet,” she said.

However, progress is being made by both BlueScope and InfraBuild.

BlueScope’s Gretta Stephens explained: “In late October we announced we’re joining forces with Rio Tinto to explore options for a pilot of low emission steel production at Port Kembla so we will be using the Rio Tinto Pilbara iron ores with green hydrogen produced from renewable electricity in a direct reduction process to produce low emissions iron feed and the Direct Reduced Iron (DRI) from that process will be further melted in an electrical furnace also powered with renewable energy to produce iron suitable for input to steel making … this project … will take us to the cutting edge of current technology development to push us all to the next phase of bridging the technology gap.

“We’re also planning a pilot hydrogen electrolyser plant at Port Kembla with a longer-term view to developing a hydrogen hub in the region.”

InfraBuild is a recycling business that provides around 1.4 million tonnes of scrap steel to furnaces in Sydney and Melbourne.

The company’s objective said David Bell is “to be a low-emission, carbon-neutral steel business by 2030 … it doesn’t mean zero emissions but targeting real and significant reductions … through the existing technologies … we are pursuing opportunities to shift to a reliable cost-competitive renewable electricity model.”

Consumers are instigators for change

BlueScope emphasised the importance of buying from companies that are on the sustainability journey towards green steel.

“Right now you can’t go out and buy green steel … but you can go out and buy steel from people who are on the journey,” Gretta Stephens said.

How can industry support the steel sector to decarbonise?

MECLA urges industries to:

  • Consider climate change commitments of the steelmaker and ask to see the decarbonisation pathway that supports targets
  • Support manufacturers who are transparent, for example, have a product-specific Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)
  • Specify steel from manufacturers who are certified to a credible stewardship scheme for example ResponsibleSteel
  • Understand the role of primary and secondary steelmaking in meeting overall steel demand and their differentiated decarbonisation pathways via the Net-Zero Steel Pathway Methodology Project
  • Support manufacturers who are participating in emissions reduction and research and development activities, for example, Australian Industry Energy Transitions Initiative / worldsteel StepUp Program
  • Consider offsetting as part of a broader program of decarbonisation such as products with Climate Active certification.

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