The world is moving steadily away from coal. The emissions-heavy fossil fuel is public enemy number one in many, if not most, clean energy and climate smart initiatives and campaigns, and it’s not even that economically viable anymore. For a long time coal was king in many economies around the world because it was cheap and plentiful, but as of last year solar and wind were cheaper than coal in most of the world.
All of this is to say that coal’s days are numbered…but they’re not over yet. Not by a long shot. China, which consumes more than half of the coal used in the entire world (the next biggest consumer, India, consumes just 11.8 percent by comparison) has talked a big game in recent months about going green. Last fall, President Xi Jinping announced that Being would redouble its climate commitments and cut down its massive carbon emissions to net zero by just 2060. At September’s U.N. general assembly, Xi took his climate pledges even further, promising that his country would reach peak emissions by just 2030. But at the same time that President Xi made these ambitiously lofty promises, many provinces of China were actually returning to coal as energy security concerns and economic stresses became more pronounced. What’s more, while China aims to cut down its own coal production numbers to meet their climate pledges, Beijing is ramping up coal production in other countries to continue a steady supply of the fossil fuel to the energy-ravenous country while simultaneously spreading their global economic presence and offsetting some of the emissions responsibility to the countries where the coal is actually being mined. Any rhetoric suggesting that Beijing is no longer reliant on coal imports were quickly disproven earlier this year when an unofficial Chinese embargo on Australian coal caused entire swaths of the country to go dark.
But one of the biggest reasons that the world can’t completely let go of coal yet has less to do with energy production. The real culprit is steel. As world leaders charge forward with the global green energy transition and talk up their climate change plans, steel remains as important of a sector as ever–and steel runs on coal. A lot of coal.
“Steel companies make nearly 2 billion tons of high-strength material every year for bridges, buildings, railways, and roads,” Wired reported this week. “The furnaces that melt iron ore to make steel consume vast amounts of coal. As a result, the industry accounts for roughly 8 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions, as well as a toxic soup of air pollutants.” As long as steel remains this much of a coal-guzzler, coal is here to stay.
That’s why it’s a monumental bit of news that steelmakers may finally have found a way to break off their toxic relationship with the particularly dirty fuel source. Steelmakers are fully aware of their crucial role in keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, and they are finally trying to do something about it. Just in the last few months, Europe’s ArcelorMittal, China’s Baowu Steel, and Japan’s Nippon Steel, the world’s three largest steelmakers committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
How will that be possible? Through a complete rethinking and reworking of the coke-based steel process that has held strong since the 18th century. There are a number of companies working on the kind of novel innovations needed to shrug off centuries of emissions-heavy tradition. One such initiative, which had its infancy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) uses electric currents to heat iron ore to make steel. Other European clean-steel processes include hydrogen furnaces. In Brazil, steelmakers are experimenting with biochar, a kind of fuel repurposed from agricultural waste, to be used in combination with carbon capture devices.
These innovations are still in their early stages and will need to be significantly scaled up to make a real dent in the steel industry’s carbon footprint. Today, 70% of steel is still made the old way, but these breakthroughs in cleaner steel are a hugely promising step in the right direction. As these technologies continue to improve, the hope is that adoption will increase–and do so in a hurry.