Still Burning is a network working against the global hard coal infrastructure.

7.4 The iron grip of coal – hard coal and the steel industry

by | 30 Mar, 2021 | Transport and Usage

The role of coal-fired power stations in causing climate change is well-documented and widely understood. What is less well known is that coal is also used in steelworks, releasing large amounts of emissions into the atmosphere and relying on destructive mining operations. In some countries, steelworks produce larger amounts of greenhouse gases than any other single point source.

What is steel used for? 

Steel is crucial for all kinds of industries. It is widely used because it binds well to concrete, it is strong, and it is relatively cost-effective. The largest consumer of steel is the construction industry, which uses approximately half of all steel produced worldwide – for bridges, skyscrapers, and other buildings. It is followed by the transport sector, which uses steel for cars, trucks, planes, ships, and railways. On average, 50 percent of a car is made of steel. The machinery industry and metal products industry each consume about one sixth of the world’s steel, and a small but growing percentage of steel is used for industrial-scale renewables (see chapter nine). Drastically reducing steel consumption thus requires a fundamental rethinking of how we build, how we travel, and how we generate energy. 

Steel-making process

Steel is an alloy of iron where the percentage of carbon has been reduced to improve its strength and fracture resistance compared to iron. The most common method of producing steel is from raw materials in Basic Oxygen Furnaces. There are three main steps in the production process of steel with coal. The first is to turn coking coal into coke by heating the coal to high temperatures in the absence of air to rid the material of impurities. The coke is then added to the molten iron ore, limestone, and other ingredients. In the final stage, scrap steel may be added, and oxygen is forced through the liquid to remove impurities. The resulting pig iron is then made into steel. The coal used in steelmaking is different from that used in power stations. A special kind of hard coal, metallurgical coal (also known as coking coal), is used in steel works as a reducing agent to change the chemistry of the combined ingredients. Metallurgical coal can also be burnt in power stations, but rarely is – it is ‘purer’ and more expensive. Thermal coal can be used in the steel-making process in generating the extreme temperatures required to melt the ores, although other fuels can be used for this too. Currently, 70 percent of all steel produced uses coal. Thermal coal cannot be used as a substitute for metallurgical coal as a reducing agent in steel production.

Mining coking coal

Coal used in the steel industry is mined like that for power stations. When both types of hard coal are found in close proximity, they may even be extracted in the same mine.

The total European production of coking coal accounts for only one percent of world production. Because Europe has less coking coal available to mine than thermal coal, it is therefore even more reliant on imports of coking coal than it is for thermal coal for power stations. 

Poland is the main EU producer, supplying over 12.3 million tonnes in 2018, followed by the Czech Republic with 3.9 million tonnes. Ukraine also produces coking coal, although this may intentionally be mis-sold as Russian coal.

There are planning applications to mine coking coal at two locations in the UK, mainly for export to mainland Europe – although local campaigners in one of the proposed areas rejects this claim and assert that the local coal is too high in sulphur and will end up being burned as thermal coal. At present, only small amounts of metallurgical coal are extracted from some UK opencast coal mines.

The EU’s annual demand for coking coal is at around 53 million tonnes, with annual imports of around 40-44 million tonnes. Large proportions come from the USA and Australia, and smaller amounts from Russia, Canada, and Mozambique. The disastrous ecological and social impacts of these mines are described in chapter five.

Globally, mining giants such as BHP, Rio Tinto, and Anglo American are starting to turn away from coal mining for electricity production, as coal mining is becoming less acceptable to the population due to its climate change impact. However, these same companies continue to invest in coking coal extraction, ignoring its high emissions and the same mining impacts. 

Europe’s responsibility for the impacts of steel production are not restricted to the steel produced within its borders. Global steel production is vast, and the transportation of goods made in countries such as China and brought to Europe also require our consideration. Steel is transported across the world, as is scrap steel for recycling. The EU exports 14 percent of its steel production and imports even higher tonnages.

Carbon emissions

The production of one tonne of steel, when coking coal is used, requires 770kg of coal and releases two tonnes of CO2. Steel plants are now the biggest single point emitters in the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, France, Austria, Finland, and Slovakia. In total, the EU is home to around 500 steel plants.

Emissions from steel works made up eight percent of CO2 emissions in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme in 2019. Just 30 steel installations are responsible for 80 percent of the EU’s iron and steel CO2 emissions.

Turkey is not included in these statistics. If it were, the numbers would be even higher – the country produced 37,312 tonnes of steel in 2018, second only to Germany within Europe. Turkey’s coal mining and burning is discussed in chapter 5.6.

Can steel be green?

Some of the real solutions to reducing the emissions and supply chain impacts of steel production include:

Reduced use of steel.
Construction projects often use 35-45 percent more steel than is strictly necessary. The Use Less Group at Cambridge University show that “one tonne of steel costs around the same as one day of a design engineer’s time”. Instead of using appropriate amounts of materials, construction projects could pay engineers to calculate more accurate numbers.

Greater use of the circular economy.
This involves sharing resources and constructing things to last and be repaired instead of built-in planned obsolescence, which forces consumers to dispose of items. Steel recycling in electric arc furnaces. Approximately 40 percent of the steel used in Europe in 2017 was made of recycled steel.
In the USA, most steel is recycled but fossil fuels may still be used in the process. If steel has to be used, it needs to be recycled.

However, recycling is no magic bullet – it still requires 10-15 percent of the energy needed to make new steel. The production of one tonne of recycled steel causes 100kg of CO2 emissions, and depending on the type of energy used, it can be much higher. If coal is burnt for generating the electricity required for steel recycling, this can add another 300kg of CO2 emissions per tonne of steel. For the EU to continue to produce the steel it claims to need via low-CO2 methods we would need the clean energy equivalent of 38-64 coal-fired power stations or 32,055-54,188 wind turbines. This is unrealistic and we must dramatically reduce steel consumption by governments and industry.

As the above examples show, there is some room for reform within the current system which would have a limited impact on the damage caused by coal and steel production. There are a limited number of schemes currently producing steel in a less carbon- intensive way. However, simply changing the technology fails to challenge our unsustainable use of the planet’s resources and allows us to pretend that we can maintain the economic drive for more profit and to make everything bigger, faster, higher… which is deeply flawed. We need a radical new system which vastly reduces our current western consumption patterns and impacts on the planet, by rethinking how we travel, build, and live.

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