In recent years, the sustainability agenda has gained significant momentum. From an increased sense of personal responsibility to a deep commitment to holding governments and brands accountable for their actions to carrying out professional practices in a much more responsible manner - the construction industry has felt this tectonic shift in attitude. As a result, architects strive to design built environments in more considered ways, specifiers want to choose products with clear sustainability attributes - and suppliers and manufacturers are increasing their focus on supporting sustainable design outcomes and product stewardship.

The steel industry is undoubtedly on the rise when it comes to environmental responsibility and a rapidly-increasing sense of accountability, with organisations like BlueScope leading the way in accelerating the transition towards more sustainable steel. With a commitment to create and inspire smart solutions in steel to strengthen communities for the future, the Australian steel manufacturer has just released their first standalone Climate Action Report. The report clearly outlines BlueScope’s path to decarbonisation.

Firmly anchored in the goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions across their operations by 2050, dependent on several enablers based around technology, renewable energy and public policy, the organisation takes its sustainability journey very seriously. And in doing so, it aims to accelerate the sustainability journey for the wider industry. This is crucial, given how vital steel is both to the built environment and to harnessing renewable energy.

As a strong, durable and adaptable material, steel is the most commonly used metal in the world and is essential in construction. In addition, as a critical building material for wind turbines, hydropower and solar power, and electricity transmission, it has an essential role to play when transitioning to a clean energy future. A typical individual wind tower can include up to 300 tonnes of steel. Steel is equally critical for the components required for solar farms such as piles, tubes and backing frames.

With increasing global demand, it is more important than ever for specifiers to gain a deeper understanding of the steel industry to help to achieve their sustainability goals.

Recycled doesn’t always mean more sustainable

Steel has strong circular economy credentials, being infinitely recyclable without loss of quality. However, the proportion of recycled content used in steel manufacturing can vary significantly. “Primary steel” is manufactured from a mix of pig iron created from metallurgical coal and iron ore and recycled scrap steel. “Secondary steel” is predominantly manufactured from recycled scrap steel and electricity and is sometimes supplemented by virgin iron. Of course, on the surface, it would appear that specifying secondary steel should offer more sustainable outcomes, which is why industry professionals sometimes consider specifying secondary steel over primary steel as a means of meeting their sustainability objectives.

However, this approach is problematic because according to the International Energy Agency, there isn’t enough scrap to supply the increasing demand for steel as most steel products remain in use for decades before they can be recycled.

The over-specification of steel with high levels of recycled content can have unintended consequences, such as requiring the scrap steel to be freighted large distances across the globe. This can result in significant emissions - and negates the point of specifying recycled steel in the first place as steel is already the most recycled material in the world. And so, while it might improve the sustainability rating of a particular project, recycled steel is not always the best option for the environment. And that’s problematic. “Specifying steel with a high recycled content for a particular building or project does not change the overall emissions profile of the steel industry and may simply result in burden shifting,” explains Philippa Stone, BlueScope’s Sustainability Manager. “In order to support steel decarbonisation, we need to look at the steel sector as a whole rather than at individual project outcomes,” she continues.

The holistic approach

There are technological explorations underway around the globe that are bound to improve the emissions profile of primary steel production, such as hydrogen and electrolysis, with substantial advancements expected to take place over the coming decades. However, as it currently stands, they are not viable on a commercial scale yet. “The challenge for steelmakers, and the broader industry, is to reduce emissions associated with primary steelmaking as far as possible with the technology available today while planning for the net zero by 2050 transition,” says Philippa.

To get the best possible outcome for the environment, specifiers should expand their field of vision - and BlueScope’s work in the sustainability space can help them achieve that.

ResponsibleSteel™: a significant step towards sustainable steel

ResponsibleSteel™ is the first global, multi-stakeholder certification scheme for the responsible sourcing and production of steel. The only steel standard of this ind, ResponsibleSteel™ was originally driven by BlueScope and a small group of committed businesses in the Australian steel value chain.

Focusing on the decarbonisation pathway of the sector, ResponsibleSteel™ helps stakeholders by defining the fundamental elements and levels of implementation that characterise the responsible sourcing and production of steel. “The scheme requires the corporate owners of ResponsibleSteel™ certified sites to demonstrate commitment to the global goals of the Paris Agreement, including setting and reporting against emission reduction targets,” says Philippa.

ResponsibleSteel™ offers an holistic approach that goes beyond climate action and promotes “responsible”, and not just “green steel” with considerations like greenhouse gas emissions but also biodiversity, water stewardship and human rights at its core. Because of this comprehensive profile, the scheme can help to avoid contrary outcomes in the steel value chain, such as achieving low emissions at the expense of human rights.

“ResponsibleSteel™ brings a much-needed credible label to the building industry for the responsible sourcing and production of steel. It provides a simple and robust framework for organisations and design teams to meet their climate objectives and manage risk in their supply chains,” sums up Philippa.

As part of their climate action commitments, which have seen the organisation appoint a Chief Executive Climate Change and set a goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,  BlueScope is seeking ResponsibleSteel™ certification for its Port Kembla Steelworks by December 2021. In their efforts to advance not only their own but the broader steel industry’s sustainability journey, BlueScope continues to demonstrate sustainability leadership.

For more information visit BlueScope here.