'Green steel' heating up in Sweden's frozen north

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'Green steel' heating up in Sweden's frozen north

The steel-making industry is coming under increasing pressure to curb its environmental impact and contribute to the Paris climate accord, which aims to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Environmental impacts of steel industry

  • For hundreds of years, raging blast furnaces — fed with coking coal — have forged steel used in cars, railways, bridges and skyscrapers. But the puffs of coal-fired smoke are a big source of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that’s driving climate change.

Pollution statistics

  • According to the World Steel Association, every metric ton of steel produced in 2020 emitted almost twice that much carbon dioxide (1.8 tons) into the atmosphere.
  • Total direct emissions from making steel were about 2.6 billion tons in 2020, representing around 7% of global CO2 emissions.
  • In Sweden, a single company, steel giant SSAB, accounts for about 10% of the country's emissions due to the furnaces it operates at mills like the one in the northern town of Lulea.

HYBRIT or Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology

  • It is a joint venture between SSAB, mining company LKAB and Swedish state-owned power firm Vattenfall launched in 2016.
  • The HYBRIT process aims to replace the coking coal that's traditionally used for ore-based steel making with hydrogen and renewable electricity.
  • It begins with brown-tinged iron ore pellets that react with the hydrogen gas and are reduced to ball-shaped “sponge iron,” which takes it name due to pores left behind following the removal of oxygen. This is then melted in an electric furnace.
  • If the hydrogen is made using renewable energy, too, the process produces no CO2.

Other Notable Green Practices Followed by The Steel Industry

  • The steel industry has been instrumental in following sustainability practices like the ones mentioned below: Sustainable Light Steel Frame Construction - This type of construction with steel involves pre-engineered parts that are easy to set up and dismantle as well. Steel frame constructions require less extensive foundations and involve lesser time. They considerably reduce emissions at construction sites.
  • Packaging with Steel - Steel contributes extensively to the circular economy since it can be endlessly recycled and remade without any loss to quality. Companies such as Unilever have started to take advantage of this benefit that steel brings, by using steel bottles and jars to package consumer goods such as shampoos.
  • Using Slag to Sustain Marine Environment - Steel companies such as POSCO, Japan, have been using containers made of slag (a byproduct of steel) to fight the desertification of marine algae forests in the South Korean coast since 2007. Slag is a dense, rock-like material. Algae is planted in the slag containers; their density and weight protect algae forests from typhoons and tsunamis.
  • Pure Skies

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Other Commitments

  • By the end of this decade, the European Union is attempting to cut overall CO2 emissions in the 27-nation bloc by 55% compared to 1990 levels.
  • Part of that effort includes making companies pay for their C02 emissions and encourage the switch to low-carbon alternatives.
  • Sweden’s steel industry has set out plans to achieve “fossil-free” operations by 2045.
  • SSAB in January brought forward its own plans to largely eliminate carbon dioxide emissions in its steel-making processes by the end of the decade.

Reasons for higher emissions in Asia

  • Over 70% of global steel production takes place in Asia, where steel producers don't have access to the same quantities of old scrap steel as countries that have been industrialised for a longer time. That's another reason why average emissions per ton of steel are higher in the global south.


  • Addressing the problem of emissions is an important practice that a lot of steel industries are not currently following in an optimum manner. The air pollution caused by the steel industry must be addressed immediately and in a big way, in order to comply with the norms of respective government.
  • Practices such as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which remove carbon dioxide at source from industrial plants, are both very expensive and require high energy, which in turn may be very polluting. Studies show that CCS can lead to a 25% increase in emissions from burning coal, etc. 4 The only solution is an affordable one that can cover large areas efficiently and is cost effective.
  • An ideal solution for pollution control in steel industries should tackle the problem efficiently, address fugitive emissions, be cost-effective and sustainable.

Exam Track

Prelims takeaway

  • HYBRIT or Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology
  • Pure skies technology
  • Other technologies deployed in India

Mains track

  • In 2020, India overtook Japan to become the largest global producer of steel after China, with a net crude steel production of 99.6 metric tons. However, India needs to keep its promise of decreasing emissions by one-third by 2030 while also striving for development. Explain what technologies to ensure the same are currently deployed in India and what other steps could be taken for it.