‘Green Steel’

Steel production, and by extent the whole steel value chain, is facing intense scrutiny from policy makers and the public alike as protecting the environment and climate change rise on the global political agenda. Mainstream media is awash with articles showcasing new low carbon steel technology or so-called “green” steel.  But there is no agreement about what the concept of “green steel” refers to.  With this emerging new ‘label’ comes the risk of a backlash against unconsidered ‘green’ claims.

We have analysed this fast-moving space and the implications for the steel sector as well as the work of ResponsibleSteel itself. There are some key points that we believe should be considered:

Words matter. We think it is critically important that the term “green steel” should not address GHG emissions alone. We cannot be silent on the wide range of social, safety and environmental issues which are important to steel companies’ investors, customers and other stakeholders. Safety comes high on the list of concerns, as does the impact of mining where issues such as tailings dams, relations with Indigenous Peoples and local communities, human rights concerns and impacts on water and Protected Areas also come to mind. We would strongly advocate that any entity offering “green steel” would have to show how it addresses the range of social and environmental concerns and not only GHG emissions.

This means there is a clear choice – either not to use the term ‘green’, and to use instead a term specific to GHG emissions. Or, to address the other key issues that justify the use of the broader term.  There are arguments for either of these options.  For ResponsibleSteel, our decision is clear.  Our mission is to maximise steel’s contribution to a sustainable society, and we believe that the range of issues must be addressed together, through an integrated approach.  Steelmakers that want to demonstrate social and environmental responsibility need to show how they are responding to the challenges of climate change, but also to show how they are addressing other key social and environmental challenges facing the industry.

We do not believe this broader approach stands in the way of successfully responding to climate change.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The reduction of GHG emissions and the challenges of addressing other ESG impacts are not susceptible to quick fixes.  Steelmakers, steel users and their suppliers need the long-term support of a broad range of stakeholders – including civil society organisations, investors and governments – on this journey.  The support will be that much stronger for companies that address the range of issues, and weaker for those that focus on just one issue at the expense of others.

ResponsibleSteel strongly supports organisations in taking a broad approach to the issue of ‘green steel’ – embracing the need not only to address climate change, but also to address other issues including biodiveristy and worker’s rights.  Three years ago there would have been an argument that the need to develop standards that address the steel sector’s GHG emissions is too complex, and too urgent, to be delayed by consideration of other ‘green’ issues.  Today, however, this is not the case.  The ResponsibleSteel Standard already exists and is applicable to steelmaking sites, with further requirements to allow for the certification of steel products nearing completion.  ResponsibleSteel’s membership includes steelmakers producing 170 million tonnes of steel per year such as Tata Steel, ArcelorMittal, voestalpine and Hyundai, major mining companies such as Anglo American, BHP and Teck, downstream users such as BMW, Daimler and Lendlease, as well as social and environmental organisations such as CDP, The Climate Group, the Clean Air Task Force, IndustriALL, IUCN, and Mighty Earth.  It is challenging to develop a standard for ‘green steel’ that commands multi-stakeholder support – we encourage organisations working on sustainability issues and steel not to duplicate this work, but rather to seek ways to build on the work that has already been done.

In relation to standards for ‘green steel’, we urge all organisations, businesses and governments, in the first instance, to consider how existing standards and methodologies, such as those of ResponsibleSteel, could be used in the context of steel procurement targets and specifications, including public procurement specifications, rather than through the development of new standards, definitions and methodologies: we believe this approach would be a faster as well as a more effective approach to create demand and to support the transition to net zero.

We welcome any feedback on this article and propose holding a webinar for ResponsibleSteel members and interested stakeholders to further discuss these issues later this year.

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