Essential and Sustainable

The World Steel Association, Brussels, says life cycle analysis results point to the sustainability of steel as a basic material.

April 11, 2012
RTGE Staff

Steel is essential to the modern world, and sustainable development in the next half century will be impossible without steel. Steel’s claim to be the backbone of modern society is not solely based on its position as the most versatile material.

Steel can be recycled again and again, indefinitely, without loss of quality. Thus, 100% recyclability is another of its key characteristics.

Steel is essential in transport, construction and power generation. Demand for steel will significantly increase up through 2050, to ensure the sustainable development of growing populations in the developing world.

The economies of China, India and other major developing countries are the key drivers of this increase in demand.

The steel industry is committed to providing intelligent steel products to help build a low-carbon world and to minimize steel’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Climate Action Programme
The World Steel Association (Worldstseel, Brussels), has an ambitious programme for every steel company to measure its CO2 emissions per tonne of steel produced.

Every steel company needs to know its carbon footprint, to identify the potential for improvements. We have put into place a common methodology, definitions and agreed boundaries. This methodology is being developed into an ISO standard.

Already, two-thirds of Worldsteel members, and several non-member companies, have collected and reported CO2 data. We continue to press for this to be extended to all the steel-producing companies in the world.

The data collection enables individual steel plants to compare themselves against average and best performance and to identify their scope for improvement.

In the last 30 years the steel industry has reduced its energy consumption per tonne of steel produced by 50%.

Future directions
Worldsteel has established four building blocks for its climate change policy. Each involves actions by the world steel industry and also has policy implications for governments.

These include the following:

  1. actions to reduce CO2 per tonne of steel produced
  2. the spread of best practice and benefits of innovation
  3. research and development on breakthrough technology
  4. use of steel and new steels to save energy in transport, power generation, buildings, machinery and appliances.

CO2 from the production of every tonne of steel can be reduced globally by introducing the best available technology and best practices in all major steel-producing countries.

Maximising the recycling of end-of-life steel will make an important contribution. Keeping total global CO2 emissions at current levels or better depends on the development and introduction of radical new steelmaking technologies with lower carbon footprints. However, the feasibilities of these new technologies are still being confirmed, and their development requires major investments in research and the establishment of pilot plants.

Their subsequent implementation will require an almost complete replacement of existing capital equipment at a very large financial cost for the industry, and the timing and costs remain uncertain.

Many of the new technologies are associated with carbon capture and storage, which require government support for implementation. In the long term, a truly sustainable solution will require low-carbon or carbon-free electric power generation.

Life cycle thinking
Once products reach the end of their useful lives, the steel is recycled. Recycling reduces the use of raw materials and energy and is therefore good for the environment.

To understand the environmental performance of a product, its entire life cycle needs to be taken into consideration. A life cycle assessment (LCA) of a steel product looks at resources, energy and emissions, from the steel production stage to its end-of-life stage, including recycling.

Worldsteel recently launched a programme to persuade governments around the world to shift the basis for all environmental regulations towards life cycle thinking.

A vivid example of the failure of the current system of emissions regulations exists in the automotive sector. Car emissions regulation is focused solely on the driving phase of the car’s life cycle.

The LCA approach encourages the use of greenhouse gas-intensive materials in an effort to reduce weight and fuel consumption, and the unintended consequence is higher emissions over the car’s total life cycle.

LCA, based on sound methodology and transparent reporting, is an important policy-making tool.

The procedures of LCA are part of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) 14040 series of standards. LCA takes into account the environmental impacts of the manufacturing processes of a product, the extraction of the raw materials used by these processes, the use and maintenance of the product, its end–of-life (recycling, reuse or disposal) as well as the various methods of transport occurring between every link of the chain.

In the steel industry, the use of LCA is becoming more widespread. There are an increasing number of national or regional databases which cover major industrial sectors. Many manufacturing organizations have LCA departments and there are more and more LCA software packages on the market.

Getting Steel-Specific
As the global body for steel, Worldsteel is in a unique position to provide the most consistent and accurate information about LCA in the steel industry.

Steel is a major constituent material for a wide range of market applications and products, such as in the automotive, construction and packaging sectors. At a very early stage, the steel industry recognised the need to develop a sound methodology to collect worldwide life cycle inventory data, to support the markets and customers.

A thorough set of guidelines was developed for companies that carry out or use LCA, which recommended maintaining the highest standards in both the undertaking of LCA studies and their disclosure. This is to prevent the reduction of complex issues to simplistic and partial analysis, which is especially important when using LCA to compare alternative materials.

Worldsteel has been collecting life cycle inventory data from its member companies since 1995, with the launch of the Worldsteel life cycle inventory (LCI) methodology and study.

The Worldsteel methodology provides a common basis of measurement of environmental and efficiency performance around the world. The LCI data quantifies the various “cradle to gate” inputs and outputs of steel production, including:

  • extraction of resources and use of recycled materials;
  • production of steel products to the steelworks’ gate; and
  • end-of-life recovery and recycling.

The data is used worldwide in studies by both industry and universities to ensure informed material selection decisions. The Worldsteel programme helps to identify ways to improve the eco-efficiency of steelmaking.

The third Worldsteel LCI data collection was completed at the end of 2009. Its aims have been:

  • to provide up-to-date and consistent LCI data for steel products around the world;
  • to increase the coverage of steelmaking sites within the new data-sets; and
  • to determine global LCIs for additional steel products.

As the exercise is repeated and improved over time, the LCI framework can also be used as a powerful tool for measuring progress by the steel industry. Approximately 30 companies worldwide participate in the data collection exercise.

Worldsteel’s LCA methodology and LCI data help the industry to:

  • provide customer information;
  • understand the contribution of steel to the environmental performance of product systems in different applications;
  • support technology assessment (benchmarking, determination and prioritisation of environmental improvement programmes);
  • carry out impact assessments to reduce the impacts of its own processes on the environment and to work closely with its customers to gain knowledge about the total impact of steel-using products on the environment, over their complete life cycle; and
  • increase public knowledge of the life cycle environmental benefits of using steel in applications and where it can be effective in improving environmental performance. LCA also plays a vital role in companies’ environmental and greenhouse gas reporting requirements, marketing and sales support, and ensuring compliance with regulations and voluntary initiatives such as environmental product declarations.

Steel’s global approach
The Worldsteel LCA Expert Group was established in 1998. It undertakes a work programme to improve Worldsteel’s methodologies and to align them with other regional initiatives.

The Worldsteel LCA Expert Group also aims to:

  • collect and provide industry-wide LCI data for steel products,
  • inform member companies about developments in LCA and related fields,
  • demonstrate the benefits of steel by using LCA which could lead to environmental improvements and
  • promote good practice in the use of LCA.

The expert group engages all stakeholders to make better use of LCA as a tool in inter-material competition and steel promotion.

Worldsteel has a clear mission to achieve the following objectives in the coming years:

  • provide detailed information so that the environmental implications of the use of steel within different sectors can be understood as well as to support responses to environmental claims against steel;
  • build the LCA Expert Group’s position as the most authoritative source for steel LCI data and LCA methodology;
  • advocate for LCA to be used to promote life cycle thinking and support policy and decision-making;
  • continue discussions and harmonisation with other industries, particularly the metals industry, to help improve the credibility of LCI data and LCA methodology, whilst ensuring that elements that truly reflect steel’s positive position are maintained; and
  • provide our customers with accurate information as they analyse the environmental impacts of their products that contain steel.

LCI data and related documents can be found at Those carrying out an LCA study also can fill in a request form for Worldsteel’s LCI data on the website.


This article was provided by Worldsteel, based in Brussels and found at on the web. Worldsteel represents approximately 170 steel producers (including 17 of the world’s 20 largest steel companies), national and regional steel industry associations, and steel research institutes. Worldsteel members represent around 85% of world steel production.