IEA estimates that global steel sector can reach net zero emissions by 2070 and argues that the carbon-intensive sector must halve its emissions by mid-century to meet global climate goals
A net zero roadmap for the global steel sector published last week by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has come under fire from campaigners who claim that its projections lack ambition and could jeopardise global climate goals.
The landmark report, which sets out the agency's vision for how the energy intensive sector can become more sustainable over the next three decades, calculates that emissions from the steel industry must halve by 2050 to meet global energy and climate goals, and predicts the industry as a whole could reach net zero emissions by 2070.
More specifically, it states that the 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted by the steel industry every year needs to be reduced by 54 per cent by 2050 to meet Paris Agreement goals.
Under its Paris-aligned 'Sustainable Development Scenario' (SDS), the agency estimates that roughly eight per cent of these cuts will come from transitioning part of the sector away from fossil fuels to clean hydrogen. Meanwhile, improvements in material efficiency strategies would play a more significant role, contributing to 40 per cent of the projected emissions reductions.
The relatively limited role for green hydrogen envisaged under the SDS scenario - accounting for just eight per cent of steel produced globally by mid-century - would mean that coal would continue to provide more than half the sector's energy, of which only a third would be used in conjunction with carbon capture and storage.
As such, the agency stressed that meeting global climate targets relied on an overall reduction in global steel demand, which has been growing since the 1970s and is responsible for roughly seven per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
"Without targeted measures to reduce demand for steel where possible, and an overhaul of the current production fleet, CO2 emissions are projected to continue rising, despite a higher share of less energy intensive secondary production, to 2.7 gigatons/year of CO2 by 2050 - seven per cent higher than today," the IEA warned.
However, the report was panned by campaign group Mighty Earth, which last week called on the agency to issue a bolder set of recommendations to industry and policymakers.
"The IEA has squandered its unique opportunity to set the stage for the decarbonisation of steel, offering instead an unambitious plan that fails to ensure a livable earth in 2050 and beyond," said campaign director Margaret Hansbrough. "In its new report, the agency's Sustainable Development Scenario aims for a 1.8-degree scenario that is more likely to be 2 degrees. It projects a reduction of only two gigatons [of CO2] between now and 2030 - essentially a business-as-usual scenario - even as it states there will need to be a reduction of 22 gigatons for their 2050 SDS."
With scientists warning that global temperatures must remain below 1.5C to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, Mighty Earth has called on the IEA, its member nations, and policymakers and corporate leaders in those countries to publish a fresh scenario for steel and all heavy industry that is compatible with 1.5C of warming. "Our leaders must address the gap between their current scenarios and what is needed for a livable world and seize the opportunity to make industrial decarbonisation an urgent part of a global green economic recovery," Hansbrough said.
She added the report's "lack of ambition" was "incredibly disappointing" in the wake of a wave of decarbonisation commitments from the private sector, which include a new science-based target from cement giant LaFarge, a net zero commitment from construction company Arup, and a carbon neutrality pledge from steel behemoth ArcelorMittal.
A spokesperson from the IEA countered that the report's SDS scenario was "in line with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement to limit the global temperature risks to well below 2C and pursue efforts to reach 1.5C".
They stressed that the roadmap was the result of a multi-year effort with key global stakeholders, including academia, industry, governments and financial instituions and had been informed by multiple workshops, regional deep dives as well as an event focused on policy instruments and financing.
However, campaigners will fear that the projected continued reliance on coal power for steel production could have significant implications, given some new coal mining projects around the world - such as the controversial new mine planned for Cumbria in the UK - have used predicted continued demand from heavy industry to underpin their business case at a time when the coal power sector is waning.
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