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This article is part of our special series "The Tough Stuff: Decarbonizing steel, cement and chemicals." Read more.

Chart: Here’s where the carbon-intensive steel industry is concentrated

China makes half of the world’s steel, and steel makes up a huge portion of the world’s carbon emissions.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Canary Media’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

Steelmaking is the most carbon-intensive heavy industry in the world; it alone accounts for as much as 9 percent of all human-caused CO2 emissions each year. 

And while this is the definition of a global problem — every country uses steel — production is concentrated in a handful of countries, most notably China. 

Last year, China made more than half of the nearly 1.9 billion metric tons of steel produced worldwide. India is the second-largest producer of the material in the world, followed by Japan, the United States and Russia. Taken together, these five countries produce 73 percent of all steel.

The majority of the world’s steel — about 70 percent — is produced using coal-fired blast furnaces. That makes steel and iron production the second-largest use of coal around the world, behind only electricity generation.

One way to produce steel more cleanly is by recycling scrap steel in electric arc furnaces — a process that emits roughly three-quarters less carbon than blast furnaces. In the U.S., about 70 percent of steel is made this way, but in China just 10 percent is. Broader adoption of electric arc furnaces, especially in China, could help curb emissions from the sector. But given the long lifespan of steel products, there’s a limited supply of scrap steel, so this won’t be a complete solution to the industry’s climate problem.

Canary Media has reported this week on potential solutions for decarbonizing the steel industry, like using clean hydrogen to process iron ore for steelmaking or embracing other innovative approaches like electrowinning. But these technologies will only solve the industry’s climate problem if they are adopted everywhere — and in particular by the steelmaking giant that is China.

To that end, Chinese steelmakers are facing pressure to clean up their operations. Steel is responsible for around 15 percent of China’s total carbon emissions, and the country has pledged that its emissions will peak before 2030. Several steelmakers in China have also already announced plans to invest in hydrogen-fueled blast furnaces and direct-reduction technologies, and according to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, China is also on track to become a leader in clean hydrogen production, which could be crucial to cleaning up its steel production.

But at the same time, China and India are building dozens of new coal-based blast furnaces — and both countries have plans to build many more. These plans, which are at this point much more concrete than far-off commitments to still-developing green-steel technologies, will hamper the global steel industry’s ability to get its emissions down to zero.

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Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.