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Electrifying transport is a doddle. Here are decarbonisation’s real challenges:

If we want to avoid the apocalypse, we need to reduce our CO2 emissions. This is called decarbonisation. Decarbonising transport is easy peasy because you just electrify the damn vehicles and then get your electricity from renewable sources. And maybe the vehicles that are too big and heavy to be electric can be hydrogen powered. To make homes more energy efficient we can install smart meters, heat pumps, more efficient boilers, add insulation, get solar panels on our roofs, switch to renewable energy providers, etc etc etc. Piece of cake. All the solutions and technology are already here.

But my Lord and Saviour Vaclav Smil has drawn my attention to the real culprits of our carbon-spewing crimes. Industrial processes. Steel, cement, and ammonia production. I’m gonna focus on steel here because I feel like it.

Steel. Uh. What is it good for? Absolutely loads as it turns out. Pick an object near you. Steel was probably used in its construction. Like my water bottle here on my desk – it was made using a steel mould by a steel machine in a building made from steel girders. Here are other things made from steel:

• Cars

• Trucks

• Ships

• Electrical equipment

• Mechanical equipment

• Infrastructure – buildings, bridges, railways

• Metal goods

• Domestic Appliances

• Etc etc etc. (1)

In 2015, around 5% of the world’s GHG emissions came from the steel industry alone (2) (that’s 2.8 Gt out of 35.5 Gt for all the nerds (3)), which is huge. And most of steel’s CO2 emissions come from its industrial processes which specifically require coal. We need coal to make coke, and coke plus iron equals steel. 70% of all steel is produced in this way, which is called blast furnace/ basic oxygen furnace system (BF-BOF). Since coal is needed, decarbonisation of this process is very limited. I mean, maybe we could use lower carbon fuel sources, or carbon capture (CCS) technologies, but those solutions are very far off.

The other 30% of steel is produced through an electric arc furnace (EAF) which uses electricity to make steel from scrap steel feedstock (4). If we can power this process using renewably sourced electricity to recycle old steel into new steel, then job’s a good’un. And Climate Action Tracker writes that “the energy intensity of this process [EAF] is around one third of the BF-BOF process”, which is a good thing because less energy usage means less CO2 emissions.

The need to step the f*** away from coal cannot be overstated. The IEA (2019) found that:

“… CO2 emitted from coal combustion was responsible for over 0.3°C of the 1°C increase in global average annual surface temperatures above pre-industrial levels. This makes coal the single largest source of global temperature increase.” (my emphasis) (5)

Coal = CO2 emissions = bad.

And yet… *deep sigh* the UK government has approved the construction of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, the Woodhouse Colliery (6). This coal mine is specifically for making coke, a key ingredient in steel production. Green Alliance, an independent thinktank, has said that the mine would produce 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is equivalent to the emissions from over one million households (7)!! The bottom line is that steel is making it difficult for us to step away from fossil fuels.

Environmental campaigners like Greenpeace say we should not be opening a new coal plant but instead producing steel by the EAF method mentioned earlier (8). But when there’s already the infrastructure for BOF production (and EAF running costs are higher), the incentive to move to EAF production is not there (9). Dammit.


(1) UIT Cambridge LTD (2012). “Material Wealth and Health”, p. 30-33. 7 Feb 2020).

(2) Climate Action Tracker (2017). “Blog: Decarbonising the global steel and cement sectors requires more than zero carbon fuels: analysis”, 8 Feb 2020).

(3) Kelly Levin (2018). “New Global CO2 Emissions Numbers are in. They’re Not Good”, World Resources Institute. 8 Feb 2020).

(4) Climate Action Tracker (2017).

(5) IEA (2019). “Global Energy & CO2 Status Report 2019”. 7 Feb 2020)

(6) Philip Inman (2019). “Deep coal mine gets go ahead in Cumbria despite protests”, The Guardian. 8 Feb 2020).

(7) Joe Roberts (2020). “Schoolboy on climate hunger strike ‘won’t eat until new coal mine is scrapped’”, Metro News. 6 Feb 2020).

(8) Philip Inman (2019), Ibid.

(9) Anon (2016). “BOF and EAF Steels: What Are the Differences?” Economics 243 Fall 2018. 8 Feb 2020).

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