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28 October 2021updated 29 Oct 2021 12:52pm

Green steel is the answer

Now is the time for a transformative surge in investment to secure the steel sector’s future.

By Roy Rickhuss

In my decades in the trade union movement there has not been a single bigger challenge to jobs, communities and nations than climate change. Record temperatures and extreme weather conditions like those responsible for more than 200 deaths across Europe this summer are being recorded on an increasingly frequent basis, and the window to turn back the clock is closing rapidly.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a damning report showing the scale of the disaster we need to avert. It warned that a failure to act now may result in a catastrophic 4.4°C average temperature rise, putting our planet, countless lives and jobs across the country at risk.

It is clear that a plan is needed for our key industries that works for jobs, communities and our planet. There is no magic bullet solution to solving the climate crisis; it’s more about each industry doing its bit to change and improve the way we live. Our steel industry is one such example of this.

The global steel market is currently worth an estimated $2.5trn and produces 9 per cent of global emissions. There is a common misconception of steel as a climate problem when, in fact, steel is vital for any climate solution. However, the steel industry cannot hope to do its bit alone, and government support will be needed to deliver this. As we go into Cop26, the government must be serious about making this a reality.

So what does this look like? The government must work with industry to develop a comprehensive green strategy with steel at its core.

Our climate solutions involve more steel, not less. This might sound confusing at first, but the logic is sound. Wind turbines, electric cars and other products of a green future will require steel. To import it from overseas is simply shifting the carbon burden elsewhere, while increasing the emissions generated as it is transported.

When planning our infrastructure of the future, we must look beyond simply the cost and examine the social and environmental impacts. Once we do this, the case for steel at the centre of our green industrial strategy couldn’t be clearer.

The government must back £3bn of investment to decarbonise British steelmaking. The Labour Party has previously committed to a ten-year £3bn green steel fund, including a long-term plan to achieve near-zero emission steel production by 2035, with a Labour government match-funding projects for the development of clean steelmaking. It would also meet up to half the cost of helping industry roll out capital investment in new steel-processing equipment.

The government should be similarly ambitious, put its money where its mouth is and invest properly in greening our steel industry. It is both possible and preferable; it just needs the financial backing to do so. With the UK’s two blast furnace-based producers coming to a key point in their long investment cycle, now is the time for a transformative surge in investment to secure the sector’s future as a world leader in green steel, based on an ambitious, credible industrial pathway toward decarbonisation.

This could be done through hydrogen steelmaking, carbon capture and storage (CSS) and electric arc furnaces, to support both primary and secondary (scrap iron) steel production. The Hybrit plant in Sweden, based on investment by the Swedish government and a Finnish publicly owned steelmaker, is on the path to becoming one of the first net-zero steel producers globally. There is no doubt a strong and sustainable British steel industry is vital for delivering our climate objectives. Building back better and greener is going to require millions of tonnes of steel, and government must back us to seize this one-off opportunity.

Lastly, but most crucially, the government needs to facilitate a just transition with workers’ voices at the centre. A just transition, simply put, is where industries with high carbon footprints decarbonise while providing just pathways for workers in those industries to transition to other roles.

A just transition leads to a greener economy while protecting jobs and communities. A just transition ensures that no worker is left behind.

The UK has a poor track record in this area. We saw what happened to steelworkers in Redcar – a harrowing example of what happens when industrial change is not managed properly. Thousands of jobs gone, entire communities without work, knock-on effects felt by generations.

As we transition to a net-zero green economy, government must engage and consult with workers. It must provide a comprehensive training programme to upskill and retrain all workers whose industries may be affected by climate change.

Nobody wants a repeat of Redcar. That is within the government’s gift – it just needs the political will to make it happen.

Cop26 may be our final opportunity to get this right. The window to prevent catastrophic damage to our planet is closing rapidly. Time is of the essence, and we need to act quickly.

We know what it is we need to potentially save tens of thousands of jobs, and entire local economies, and tackle nearly a tenth of global emissions. We need a comprehensive green industrial strategy with steel at the centre, £3bn of investment to decarbonise British steelmaking and a just transition with workers at its core.

A commitment to these principles could create jobs, protect communities and save lives. We cannot afford any further delay.

Roy Rickhuss CBE is general secretary of Community