Steel is one of the world’s most important materials, an integral part of the cars we drive, the buildings we inhabit and the infrastructure that allows us to travel from place to place. Steel is also responsible for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. By 2021, 45 countries have pledged to pursue near-zero-emissions steel over the next decade. But how is it possible to produce the steel we need in society with zero emissions?
A new study focusing on the Japanese steel industry shows that if we are truly committed to achieving zero emissions, we must be prepared for a scenario where the amount of steel we can produce is less. Japan has set a target of 46% reduction in steel emissions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. So far, the roadmap to achieving this depends heavily on future innovations in technology. There are expected to be developments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen-based technologies.
In the study, Dr. Takuma Watari, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Environmental Studies, currently working with the University of Cambridge, argues that there is no such thing as a silver bullet. He says current plans to reduce carbon emissions underestimate how difficult it will be to develop CCS and hydrogen technologies and deploy them widely: “These technologies still face serious technical, economic and social challenges and have yet to be implemented at scale. And importantly, it is highly uncertain whether there will be enough non-emitting electricity to use these technologies.” We need to face the possibility that technological innovations will not be ready in time to allow us to maintain current levels of steel production while reducing emissions to zero.
The research involved mapping current steel flows into the Japanese industry and using a model to explore how the industry could change if a strict carbon budget were applied in the future. The Doctor. Watari explains that with current practice, the quantity and quality of steel produced would drastically decrease under a zero-carbon budget. This is due to the lack of resources and the practice of downcycling, in which scrap steel with impurities is used to manufacture new products. It is difficult to remove these impurities, which is why the new products have a different quality and functionality than the original steel.
According with the doctor. Watari, “Zero emission steel production is possible by 2050, but in limited quantity and quality compared to current total production. This is due to limited availability of zero emission compliant resources and downcycling practices of steel scrap .”
Research indicates that with a zero-emissions carbon budget, the production of steel products would be dramatically constrained compared to today, reaching about half current levels at best. In this case, the production of high-quality steel (eg sheet steel) would be particularly affected.
The implication is clear. It is not enough to rely on the materialization of a technological silver bullet to transform the steel supply. We also need to look seriously at strategies for reducing demand, changing our steel-using culture and improving our material efficiency. We also need to pursue upcycling to produce high-quality steel from steel scrap.
This will require the collaboration of those who use the steel as well as those who produce it. Steel products could be more resource efficient if they were designed to last longer or to be lighter. When steel products reach the end of their useful life, recycling can be accomplished through advanced sorting and shredding to remove impurities from scrap steel. As a society, Japan may also have to become less reliant on steel and shift to a ‘use of services’ model rather than product ownership. Unlike today, when steel is plentiful and cheap, a net-zero future will require us to use scarcer and more expensive steel resources more efficiently.
doctor Watari concludes that we need to invest in technological innovations, but we cannot simply wait for them to appear. Instead, steel users need to prepare for a world where less steel is available: “We don’t deny the need to invest in innovative production technologies. instead of simply relying on silver bullet production technologies. Placing material efficiency and recycling at the heart of decarbonization plans can reduce over-reliance on innovative production technologies and prepare for the risk that these technologies will not grow enough over time.”