Can the steel industry be a green industry?


Scientists are telling us we have to phase out coal quickly or risk an uninhabitable planet. Coal burning now accounts for about 36% of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions. Mining and handling of coal adds even more.

Phasing out thermal coal — used for power generation — should begin immediately. Jobs and retraining on full pay must be guaranteed for all affected communities.
But what about coking (or metallurgical) coal used to produce steel? Is it part of the problem or part of the solution?

The transition to a zero-carbon economy will need steel to make buses, trains and wind turbines for example.

In most steel mills, burning coking coal is the energy source used to extract iron from iron ore to make steel. The process does pollute. Oxygen in the iron ore bonds with carbon in the coal to make carbon dioxide. A tremendous amount of energy is needed to separate the oxygen from the iron.

Electric Arc furnaces don't use coal. They can be used to melt down and recycle steel. But because of the energy required they are not viable to produce new steel from iron ore. Therefore if we need any new steel we can't simply end the mining of coking coal overnight.

However, the extent of the climate crisis demands we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions across the board. This means a rapid reduction in the use of materials that are energy-intensive to produce, including steel. We need to radically rethink the way we produce and use such materials.

The CSIRO is investigating the use of charcoal made from oil mallee trees and other native hardwoods to replace coal in steel production.

This research may ultimately have value, but big questions remain. Is it better to use the wood for biochar or to leave the trees as a carbon sink instead? In any case, the research is far more valuable than research into discredited "clean coal" technology.

But to begin with, the public needs to know exactly what's going on. Our major steelworks should be subject to independent environmental audits to assess the extent of carbon emissions and other pollution factors. If companies refuse to cooperate they should be brought under public ownership and democratic control.

Bluescope Steel's Port Kembla plant on the NSW south coast emits about 11 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year — about 7% of NSW's total. An independent audit could address energy inefficiencies and the cost of clean up.

Bluescope recently postponed plans to build a cogeneration plant, which could have cut its emissions by 800,000 tonnes a year.

The company cited costs associated with the government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and the global financial crisis as reasons for abandoning the plan.

This is the approach we can't afford. Climate change won't negotiate with the peaks and troughs of the market.

For the six months to the end of December 2008, Bluescope posted profits of $406.9 million. If the company were nationalised, these millions would go back into the public coffers to help fund the clean up of the industry.

More importantly we need strategic planning to reduce our reliance on steel. Products should be redesigned to reduce the amount of steel necessary. Furthermore, the products that we design and use should be made to last. This is most important in the industries that use the most steel, like motor vehicles for example.

If manufacturers refuse to commit to such plans, they too should be placed in public hands. We can't allow our planet to be held hostage to the private profits of the big polluters and the industries that demand energy-intensive inputs.

Finally, we need to decide how much steel we use and for what purpose. Wind turbines, electric trains and solar panels are socially useful. But bombs, warships and armoured personnel carriers are definitely not.

By cutting steel-use overall and using more recycled steel, the burning of coking coal could be reduced significantly.

Powerful vested interest groups such as the coal, steel and other polluting corporations, will fight moves to put the planet and people before profit. Many workers and their communities are told they must choose between a safe climate future and their jobs.

But the transition to a zero-carbon economy isn't the main threat to jobs. The unquenchable thirst for profits is the real threat, and it risks destroying life on Earth as we know it.

The climate movement needs to unite with working people and demand the government assist communities to move away from coal. Given the huge changes needed to make a transition to a zero-carbon economy, labour shortages, not unemployment, will be an issue.

Australia's response to climate change must include the phasing out of coal, including the planned phase-out of coking coal.

But the alternative has to include massive job creation in the renewable energy sector and in the manufacturing of sustainable alternatives to energy-intensive materials such as steel.

Importantly, communities currently relying on coalmining and steel production need to be prioritised for infrastructure investment and job creation in the new, sustainable sectors.