We need to learn to live with less steel

We need to learn to live with less steel

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 one place to another. Steel is also responsible for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In 2021, 45 countries have pledged to pursue near-zero-emissions steel in the next decade. But how is it possible to produce the steel we need in the zero emission society?

A new study focused on the Japanese steel industry shows that if we are truly committed to reaching zero emissions, we must be prepared for a scenario in which the amount of steel we can produce is less. Japan has set itself the goal of a 46% reduction in steel emissions by 2030 and zero emissions by 2050. So far, the roadmap to achieve this depends heavily on future innovations in technology. Hope is held for developments in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen-based technologies.

In the study, Dr. Takuma Watari, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies, currently working with the University of Cambridge, argues that there is no such thing as a silver bullet. He says that 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 societal challenges, and have yet to be deployed at scale. And More importantly, it is highly uncertain whether there will be enough emission-free 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 consisted of mapping the current flows of steel into the industry in Japan and using a model to explore how the industry might change if a strict carbon budget were applied in the future. Dr. Watari explains that with current practice, the quantity and quality of steel produced would drop dramatically with a zero carbon budget. This is due to a lack of resources and the practice of downcycling, in which scrap steel containing impurities is used to make new products. It is difficult to remove these impurities, so new products have a different quality and functionality than the original steel.

According to Dr. Watari, “zero emission steel production is possible by 2050, but in limited quantity and quality compared to current total production. This is due to the limited availability of zero emission compliant resources and recycling practices of scrap steel”.

The research indicates that with a carbon budget of zero emissions, the production of steel products would be drastically restricted compared to today, reaching, at best, about half of current levels. In this case, the production of higher quality steel (for example, sheet steel) would be particularly affected.

The implication is clear. It is not enough to hope that a technological panacea will materialize to transform the supply of steel. We also need to seriously look at strategies to reduce demand by changing our culture of using steel and improving the efficiency of our materials. We must also look at 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 made more resource efficient if they are designed to last longer or be lightweight. Once the steel products reach the end of their useful life, recycling could be achieved through advanced sorting and shredding to remove impurities from the steel scrap. As a society, Japan may also have to become less reliant on steel and shift to a ‘service use’ model rather than product ownership. Unlike today, when steel is abundant and cheap, a net zero future will require us to use scarcer and more expensive steel resources more efficiently.

Dr. Watari concludes that we need to invest in technological innovations, but we cannot just wait for them to appear. Instead, steel users need to prepare for a world in which there is less steel available: “We do not deny the need to invest in innovative production technologies. Rather, what we want to emphasize is that we need to look at much more strategic options, in Instead of simply relying on miraculous production technologies Placing material efficiency and recycling at the center of decarbonization plans can reduce over-reliance on innovative production technologies and prepare for the risk that these technologies will not scale up enough time.”

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