When I say to people that steel is a vital part of the solution to the climate crisis, I get a lot of confused looks. The global steel market is currently worth an estimated $2.5tn (£1.8tn) and produces 9% of global emissions. Decarbonisation is coming to us all, that’s simply a reality. What is in question is how we as an industry choose to adapt. Do we want to see wholesale disruption and the subsequent loss of thousands of good, union jobs, or a just transition where jobs are retained, and workers are supported to retrain for the new green economy? As a steelworker, it’s my job on the line if we don’t get this right.
Past experience illustrates the value of a just transition. Take, per esempio, the way that unions reacted to plant closures in the early 2000s, providing training to literally thousands of steelworkers to help them move into other industries, in everything from horse dentistry to self-employed roles. Mass retraining was the correct response to a declining industry, but this time round UK steel will need to grow to support decarbonisation since steel is a key part of the green economy. Wind turbines, electric cars and all other products of a green future will require steel. To get it imported from overseas is simply shifting the carbon burden on to others; steel transported within the UK produces 50% less CO2. .
Così, instead of jobs being lost, jobs will change. Some are likely to move downstream, and some may be created in facilitative industries such as hydrogen, but many will remain central to the steel industry. The key is that members are fully supported to take on these new challenges. The steel industry supports thousands of high-quality jobs in some of our most disadvantaged communities. Steel jobs are good union jobs. They are jobs that pay well, above the national average, and they support families and communities as they do so. We don’t want to see these jobs go under any circumstances.
But of course, future-proofing the steel industry requires thinking about how we make our steel. Neither employers nor the government can abdicate responsibility on this – they need to come to the table ready to make the investment that the steel industry needs.
There are some really positive steps being made at Tata, per esempio, bringing in a CO2 surcharge on every net tonne of material sold, money that is then invested in helping the sector to decarbonise. And at a local level we’re making small changes that add up, like switching to more energy efficient lightbulbs. That doesn’t seem like a big change, but the cumulative impact is significant.
Today, high energy costs are making it hard for the industry and are counterproductive as all of the viable low carbon solutions to steelmaking require more electricity than we use today. Perciò, the government also needs to do something about electricity prices, to ensure that in circumstances where it’s the right move to use electric arc technology or any other technology, it is a sustainable business model.
Looking ahead, a lot of people think that hydrogen steelmaking will be the future. But for that to become a reality requires government investment to ensure that the infrastructure is there. It seems to be a question of who will make the first move. Will companies commit to a hydrogen transition, or will the government commit to delivering the infrastructure that they can plug into?
The steel industry does not stand still. To keep up with changing technology and react to new developments means constantly adapting and reacting – and the climate crisis demands a new wave of innovation, investment and inventive thinking. The government needs to work with unions and employers to deliver the investment that’s needed to keep steel going and support net zero. The cost if we don’t get this right is incalculable. We know that our window for limiting the damage to our planet is closing fast.
On a more personal level, we saw what happened to the steelworkers in Redcar when industrial change is not managed properly. Thousands of jobs gone, entire communities without work, knock-on effects felt by generations.
I’ve seen first-hand the impact of industries lost. Communities like Aberfan, Merthyr Vale or Ebbw Vale, just three miles from where I lived, were destroyed by crude industrial policies, and left ill-equipped to handle the transition away from coal. As a child I remember going with my mother to collect food for the striking miners. I did it once, I don’t want to do it again. We need a greener steel industry, a just transition, and we’ve no time to waste.