It is disappointing to hear people repeat the myth that steel cannot be made without coal, when they criticise Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other protestors against the coal mine proposed by WCM at Whitehaven. XR gained their knowledge about steel-making from investigations by people including myself, who have collated facts from the steel industry and associated research bodies, and also university researchers into the decarbonisation of the steel industry:

Natural gas has been used for years over the world as an alternative to coal to provide gas to reduce iron ore to iron using the Direct Reduced Iron process (DRI). Also, Electric Arc Furnaces (EAFs), which don’t need coal, produce steel from scrap (as well as from DRI), and there is much scope for recycled steel to be of better quality if contaminants such as copper are removed beforehand.

The steel industry is determined to decarbonise its steel-making by 2050, with for example SSAB planning to reduce its emissions in Sweden “by 25% in 2025”, and ArcelorMittal in Europe “by 30% by 2030”. Green hydrogen produced using renewable energy will replace coal as iron ore reducing agent in many cases, and fossil-free H-DRI plants are planned to become commercial from 2025.

This aim is backed by the EU and governments, including the UK, and will mean significant reductions in coal use in Europe for steel-making starting around 2025, and followed by likely major drops in the 2030’s. The UK can produce most or all of its steel using EAFs well before 2050, both from UK scrap (now mostly exported) and from H-DRI (imported or otherwise), or from other non-coal methods.

WCM are thus very wrong in claiming that the big shift to coal-free steel-making won’t happen within the 50 year lifetime of the mine. My sources can be checked here:

Steel-making can and must shift away from using coal, for the UK and EU to comply with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord temperature goals, which include “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels”. You will see from charts of global temperature change that we are likely to hit +1.5 degrees C around 2030 if not before. This is two decades before UK’s NetZero 2050 target, meaning the latter is too late. XR already knows this, but supporters of the mine ignore these facts about climate (and steel). Thus XR is correct in its ‘Heads in Sand’ implications.

Note that any claimed “emissions savings” from shorter transport distances for the coal would only be a tiny percentage of the end-use emissions of that coal – which at 8.5 million tonnes CO2e per year would be huge and non-compliant with the Paris temperature goals.

Dr Henry Adams

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