UK steel industry on the brink

British Steel, Scunthorpe
What does the declining UK steel industry mean for the environment?


This month has brought scary news for the 3,000 workers at Scunthorpe British Steel plant, and a feeling of incoming doubt and dread for the 29,000 others working in steel in the rest of the country. 

Tata Steel, the biggest manufacturer in the industry in the UK, is currently feeling doubts after a rescue operation merger with German giant, Thyssenkrupp, was blocked by the European Commission. This is further worry for its UK plants, which have been up for sale since 2016. 

British Steel, which currently sits in second place, has attributed its quick and recent decline to the cost of raw materials and the falling and uncertain value of the pound. 


A not-insignificant part of their money troubles has come from pollution bills. In April, the government loaned the firm £100m to pay an EU carbon debt, after free carbon permits for UK companies were taken away during Brexit discussions. 

Steel and iron account for 4-7 percent of global CO2 emissions. But it’s not just carbon. Manufacturing steel is a heavily polluting process. SOx, NOx, PM2 are all released into the air, along with the major waste product pollutant coke

Scunthorpe, British Steel’s biggest site, is the second most polluted town in the UK. Port Talbot, Tata Steel’s biggest site, is first. 

Dealing with metal ore waste products (‘slag’) is also a challenge. DEFRA has fined the steel industry 47 times since 2000. Coming face-to-face with these toxins and remains cannot be pleasant or healthy for the factories’ employees.

However, the argument often heard is that, living in towns built for steelwork, they simply know no other profession.

Transitioning jobs

All that Michael Gove, the environment secretary and Conservative party leader contender, has said of this situation is that it is a ‘very difficult’ one. But might there be hope for a post-steel UK? 

Transition programs for more climate-friendly manufacturing jobs, such as solar and wind, have shown a lot of potential in similar industries, like coal.

‘just transition’ for workers in negatively-impacting industries has been on the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP’s agenda for a few years, as consumer habits and regulations naturally shift to be more environmentally-aware. 

Reflecting this, many green businesses are seeing year-on-year boosts to their revenue - today the UK cycling industry is worth three times more, and employs twice as many people as UK steel does. And the ‘environmental sector’ is expected to grow: at about five percent per year according to the OECD. They estimate its current worth at $250 billion.

Moreover, movements like these in steelwork have been experienced before. The workforce today is a tenth of the size that it was 50 years ago, when it was responsible for almost a third of a million jobs

Manufacturing elsewhere

So what about the result for steel manufacture itself?

Tata, HQ’d in India, will inevitably move more of their manufacturing operations there. They have said that the planned merger was to allow for more sustainable operations to continue, but that now they will have to ‘look at more options.’

China and India are respectively first and second largest for steel manufacturing in the world - they will surely take on more of the demand. China already produces 51 percent of the world’s steel. Problematically, steel is the heaviest source of pollution of harmful toxins by the Chinese, though regulations have this month been put in place to address this by 2025.

Six years ago, India was ranked fifth in the world. This year it took Japan’s second place spot and is growing. Worldwide, steel output is increasing year on year, expected to go up more than seven percent in 2019 and 2020.

Contrary to how it may seem in the UK, steel production isn’t slowing down, it’s moving out of developed countries and into developing ones. But these countries - which include Russia, Turkey and South Korea (though by a far smaller margin to China and India) - have significantly lower environmental standards and regulations than the UK, Japan and EU, all of whose output is falling. 

Better regulations 

The results are apparent to the people closest to the situation: 60 percent of steel and iron workers in India were found to be suffering with an occupational morbidity, often due to exposure to chemicals and toxins that they ought to be protected from. 

Naturally, air emissions and waste disposal from metal ore handling can be extremely damaging to the local environments and wildlife, if not dealt with to the best degree possible.

Energy use is also a big factor in environmental concerns over steel manufacture moving elsewhere. China uses about recycled scrap steel for about 18 percent of its input.

Compare this to Europe, where about half of all materials used for steel production is recycled scrap due to the well-regulated and committed recycling market there. This has been the biggest factor in EU halving its energy usage for steel in the last 50 years.

More doubt and confusion will be thrown up for UK after Brexit, but perhaps what is most worrying is a world economy where more and more industries will be shifting to places where it’s easier, cheaper, and more harmful to do business. 

This Author 

Laura Mahler is an environmental researcher and documentary filmmaker. She is founder of non-profit production company @filmthechange and has presented both her award-winning academic work and films internationally. 

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