China’s Cheap Steel Has High Cost to the Environment

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Xi Jinping, China’s President visited Britain in the same week that Tata Steel announced job cuts at its U.K. steel plants. Global steel price is at its lowest level in more than a decade, so it is no surprise that the U.K.’s production is becoming economically unviable. China’s economic slowdown has caused a fall in their demand for steel of four percent last year. It could be six percent lower this year. It’s estimated that despite China’s current slowdown, it will still produce one billion tons of steel per year by 2030; that’s roughly half of all global production.

The U.K. steel crisis threatens severe knock-on effects, with jobs threatened throughout the supply chain for the industry. Many towns with steel plants rely on the sector’s workers to spend money in local shops and other businesses. Steel itself provides the basic material for infrastructure and construction needs around the world. It is the material to build climate resilient cities and coastal protection, as steel-based protective designs minimise the impacts of natural disasters. It could be the solution to many challenges from increased emissions of CO2, use of scarce resources and growing challenges to the disposal of waste. As steel can be recycled, its by-products and waste energies are valuable resources.

Yet, at what cost does China’s cheap steel come to the world’s environment? In 2013 a study published by America’s National Academy of Sciences found that air pollution in the north of China reduced life expectancy by five-and-a-half years. Throughout the country, the rivers are filthy, the soil contaminated. In 2014 The Guardian ran a story about China’s pollution that mentioned the pond owned by Baotou Steel, which lacks a proper lining; for the past 20 years, its toxic contents have been seeping into groundwater, trickling towards the Yellow River, a major drinking water source for much of northern China, at a rate of 20 to 30 metres a year. Water shortages and water pollution in China are such a problem that the World Bank warns of “catastrophic consequences for future generations." 

Since August this year, China has been enforcing tougher environmental rules, ordering local governments in two key steel-producing cities to take tougher action against polluters from the sector to improve air quality. Tangshan, which is 200 km east of Beijing and produces more steel a year than the U.S., has been on the frontline to cut smog. The city has pledged to reduce its annual crude steel capacity by 28 million tonnes from 2013 until 2017. Its steel firms are now being forced to undergo costly upgrades. Is this China’s turning-point? Some environmentalists believe it is too little, too late.

China is the world’s worst polluter, but also its largest investor in green energy. Its economic rise will have as big an impact on the environment as on the world economy or politics. In the past, it has been a key force in preventing a global climate deal in the past, but now, an agreement in Paris at the Climate Change conference this December that has China’s full support is likely. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia