The British steel industry needs all the help it can get. Under siege from a mix of high energy costs, competition from often subsidised foreign rivals and jitters about how Brexit will affect the sector, it must now also contend with the Government’s commitment to make the UK emissions-neutral by 2050.
Over the next decade, steel will be the second worst-hit sector after energy as adapting to environmental regulations costs the global economy an estimated $2.5 trillion, by Euler Hermes’s sums. The insurer reckons that the thin margins of the world’s steel industry will leave it particularly exposed to increases in carbon prices, costing $300bn (£235bn) by 2030.
But in its triple mission to make Britain greener, “level up” left-behind regions and boost industry, the Government could kill three birds with one stone.
Building HS2 – the 250mph railway line that will link London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – using recycled steel would not only reduce carbon emissions by about 60pc but herald a renaissance for UK manufacturing, according to Julian Allwood, a professor of engineering at the University of Cambridge.
2020欧洲杯足球即时比分“It could be the necessary step for the UK to retain any steel industry at all,” he says.
Given that Britain collects 10 million tons of scrap steel a year and exports 80pc of it, mainly to Turkey and China, Prof Allwood claims the UK would have enough recycled steel to build what is on track to be the biggest infrastructure project in Europe and “it would last just as long”.
By encouraging firms to reuse scrap metal in electric arc furnaces instead of making primary steel in blast furnaces, the Government could nudge them in the direction they will need to take if they are to survive the green turn, he argues.
A spokesman for Cardiff-based Celsa, which already produces more than 1.1 million tons of 98pc recycled steel a year – all of which is UK-sourced – in its electric arc furnaces, says the company would welcome the use of recycled steel for HS2.
“The cost will be unchanged by the process route used to make the steel,” he adds. “With our products there is no price benefit or penalty of the steelmaking process.”
Sheffield-based Liberty Steel also backs the idea. Its owner Sanjeev Gupta, once hailed as the “saviour of steel” by the Prince of Wales, this month announced a €2bn (£1.7bn) investment programme, which he said would be “just the beginning” of work to hit Liberty’s target of being carbon-neutral by 2030.
“HS2 is a game-changing project and it represents an opportunity to rethink the way we build railways,” Cornelius Louwrens, the company’s UK chief executive, says. “In Britain, the perception has always been that only traditionally produced primary steel can be used for railway tracks. That’s a myth.”
There are international precedents: recycled steel is already used for rail tracks in the US, where about half of all domestic steel demand is met by recycling domestic scrap. Nucor, the country’s biggest steelmaker, built its business around small-scale mills recycling steel from scrap using arc furnaces. And from September, French steelmaker Ascoval’s Saint-Saulve mill will be the only European plant to manufacture products for the electric rail network by recycling scrap steel.
Despite concerns that electric arc furnaces employ fewer people than blast furnaces, Louwrens adds: “The project has the potential to support more than 2,000 steel industry jobs in a sector that’s been going through a difficult period.”
That’s the same number UK Steel has estimated would be supported if recycled steel was not used. Gareth Stace, the trade body’s director, says HS2 receiving the green light from Boris Johnson2020欧洲杯足球即时比分 was excellent news but using recycled steel would not dent the wider steel industry.
He said British firms “stand ready to supply” the two million tons of steel the Department of Transport estimates will be needed over the next decade for HS2 but “it’s not make or break for the sector”.
Most of the steel needed for HS2 will be for construction materials, mainly reinforcing bar – known as “rebar” – for concrete structures, which is one of Celsa’s key products. Much more steel for rebar will be needed than for rail and train components. However, the HS2 company is dragging its feet when it comes to recycled steel.
That’s despite a promise on its website to “make sure as little carbon reaches the atmosphere as possible”, while touting the environmental benefits of super-fast travel by public transport.
2020欧洲杯足球即时比分Indeed, a 2011 report it commissioned said “the proposed scheme would include a commitment to using sustainable materials, such as... recycled steel”, and five years later, another report noted on its behalf that there was an opportunity in the construction of the line to improve its carbon efficiency through “increased use of recycled materials (particularly steel)”.
But a spokesman for HS2 was reticent to say whether the company had carried out any further research on how to implement the recommendations and, perhaps significantly, did not comment on what control HS2 would have over the type of steel used by its suppliers beyond an overarching ambition for its contractors to reduce their carbon output by 50pc.
Attitudes may change after a court ruled on Thursday that plans to expand Heathrow Airport should be thwarted because it failed to take climate policies into account. The Government’s proposed £28.2bn roads programme could, too, face legal challenges. Perhaps the question for the Transport Secretary is, yet again: “Why the delay?”