Steel's contribution to a low carbon future

Steel is essential to the modern world, and its use is critical in enabling man to move towards a sustainable future. Whether in lighter, more efficient vehicles or renewable energy generation, steel is a fundamental part of a greener world. Steel is also necessary for new, highly efficient power stations and the construction of smart electrical grids, transport infrastructure development, energy-efficient residential housing and commercial buildings.

More than 1.6 billion tonnes of steel are produced every year. Currently, 45% of steel is produced and used in mainland China. There will be continuing growth in the volume of steel produced, particularly in developing areas such as Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Indian sub-continent, where steel will be vital in raising the welfare of developing societies. In these regions, more than 60% of steel consumption will be used to create new infrastructure.

This continued growth prevents the demand for steel being met by means of recycling of end-of-life steel products alone, hence making it necessary to continue converting virgin iron ore into steel. The greenhouse gas of most relevance to the world steel industry is carbon dioxide (CO2). On average, 1.8 tonnes of CO2 are emitted for every tonne of steel produced. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2010 the iron and steel industry accounted for approximately 6.7% of total world CO2 emissions. 

Evolution of world apparent steel use per region:


Continuing to fulfil a positive role in our sustainable future comes with some major challenge:

Energy efficiency
In the last 50 years, the steel industry has reduced its energy consumption per tonne of steel produced by 60%. However, due to this dramatic improvement in energy effi ciency, it is estimated that there is little room for further improvement on the basis of existing technology. Keeping total global CO2 emissions at the current level or better depends on the development and introduction of radical new steelmaking technologies with a lower carbon footprint. Many of the technologies that are being researched are associated with carbon capture and storage (CCS), which will require government and public support for implementation.

Indexed global energy consumption/tonne of crude steel production:


  • Recycling
    A critical element in reducing the carbon emissions from the steel life cycle is to optimise the recycling of steel. Steel is an almost unique material in its capacity to be infinitely recycled without loss of properties or performance. This, in combination with a long history of significant efforts to increase recycling rates, has resulted in steel leading the recycling statistics, for example in cars and cans. Policies can provide further support for recycling by placing emphasis on recyclability and design for dismantling.
  • Use of by-products
    The production of steel results in the generation of by-products that can reduce CO2 emissions by substituting natural resources in other industries. For example, blast furnace slag is used by the cement industry allowing it to reduce its CO2 emissions significantly. Steel making slags are also used as civil works aggregates thereby saving natural resources and environmental impact. worldsteel believes that by-products and natural resources should compete within the same legal framework as they can both serve the same purpose.
  • Use of finished steel
    In many applications, steel has a very long life and as a result the contribution of modern steels in improving the energy effi ciency of buildings, plants, machinery and transportation are much more important in helping mankind reduce its carbon footprint than the emissions associated with the initial steel production. For example electrical steels produce much more effi cient transformers and motors thereby signifi cantly reducing the total energy needed throughout their lives. This saving amounts to more than the CO2 emissions created from the original production phase. The key contribution from the steel industry is to work closely with its customers in optimising the design and use of steel in steel-containing products.

A sustainable life cycle approach

In order to continue these efforts and to identify all the opportunities to reduce the carbon emissions from steel’s life cycle, it is essential to take a full life cycle approach. This not only considers the emissions associated with the manufacture of steel products, but also the reduction in energy consumption from the use of new-generation steels in lighter and stronger products. Furthermore, the inherent recyclability of steel must be given prominent consideration in the search for sustainable materials for the future. The diagram shows how, over the complete life cycle of steel, the opportunities for improvement can be identified.

LCA billboard










The use of a life cycle approach is important not just to identify the areas for potential improvement at each stage, but also to understand the potential impacts so that the correct policies are pursued. 

For example, implementing vehicle regulations that consider only the driving phase of a vehicle’s life may result in an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. While substituting lower density materials for steel may result in emissions savings during driving, the increased greenhouse gas emissions during the production of these materials can counteract any driving phase savings. Vehicle regulations should consider emissions during the vehicle’s life cycle to ensure the lowest emitting vehicles are designed and manufactured.

Steel’s contribution

The member companies of worldsteel are the major steel producers in all the major steel producing countries of the world. We have agreed a framework for our common endeavour to reduce the carbon footprint associated with the manufacture and use of steel.

The framework consists of four building blocks. These are:

  1. The development and application of new steels to improve the energy efficiency of steel-using products in society.
  2. The need for major expenditure on research and development to identify breakthrough steelmaking technologies with potential to reduce steel’s CO2 emissions associated with steel production very significantly.
  3. The importance of enabling all steel plants to move up to the level of performance of the best, in terms of current available technology through benchmarking and technology transfer.
  4. The establishment of a common measurement and reporting system for steel plant CO2 emissions that can be used by all steel companies around the world for benchmarking and to identify the scope and priorities for their own improvement programmes.

worldsteel’s contribution

worldsteel has an important role in helping its members use each of these four building blocks and has a number of dedicated initiatives.

  • CO2 breakthrough programme
    worldsteel provides a forum in which the various national and regional research and development programmes on identifying breakthrough technologies can exchange information on their projects. Unfortunately funding for the ULCOS programme in Europe has been stopped and funding for the US programme has been reduced. However, the COURSE 50 research programme in Japan; the POSCO programme in Korea; and the China Steel Corporation programme in Taiwan; continue as planned.
  • Market development programmes
    worldsteel has a number of market development programmes which focus on improving energy efficiency of important steel-using sectors. The WorldAutoSteel partnership has a major programme on designing optimal steel-use in future vehicles including electric and hybrid. The Living Steel programme is aimed at designing steel residential housing with a high degree of energy efficiency in utilisation.
  • LCI database
    Over the past 15 years, worldsteel has established and made available the largest and most authoritative database of life cycle inventory data for the production of a wide range of steel products based on actual data received from its members worldwide. This LCI database is increasingly being used by steel customers, governments and others in taking a life cycle approach.
  • Climate Action recognition programme
    worldsteel encourages all its members, and indeed non-member companies, to participate in its climate action programme which is the collection and reporting, on a confidential basis, of CO2 emissions plant-by-plant. The reporting framework uses a common agreed methodology and we are now working to have this methodology recognised as an ISO Standard. It is important that every steel plant in the world actively measures where it is today in terms of CO2 emissions, if it is to establish the correct priorities for improvement and to monitor progress in reducing its emissions.

Governments working in partnership with the steel industry

Partnership between governments and the steel industry is key to the reduction of carbon emissions.

First, governments at national and regional levels need to work actively with the industry and our customers in maximising the collection and recycling of end-of-life steel products.

Second, governments need to use a life cycle approach if they create regulations and standards for energy efficiencies in domestic appliances, passenger cars, building codes etc.

Third, the steel industry cannot, on its own, be expected to fund the long term research and development of new technologies to radically reduce steel’s emissions. This has to be done in a partnership with significant financial contribution from governments.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global problem that requires a global solution. The steel industry believes it is very important that all steel companies and all major steelmaking countries are actively engaged in the search for a future low carbon society.

An active and ongoing dialogue is required between governments and industry. Steel is one of the most CO2 intensive, highly competitive industries, with over 40% of steel traded internationally. Policies must create a level playing field to ensure that steel companies in one region are not put at a competitive disadvantage.