India’s steel industry faces a long path to net zero

Senior Global Correspondent
Source: Steel Decarbonisation in India, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, JMK Research & Analytics • Scrap refers to when scrap steel is used instead of iron ore to make new steel. Other includes more experimental approaches to making steel, like electrowinning and molten oxide electrolysis.

India’s steelmakers are among the biggest and dirtiest on the planet. The country aims to use hydrogen to clean it up — a process that will take decades to complete, according to analysts at JMK Research & Analytics and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Steel production contributes 2% of India’s total economic output and accounts for 12% of its carbon dioxide emissions. The creation of a clean hydrogen industry could largely clean up those emissions.

India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, is the second-biggest producer of steel (a distant second to China). Its leadership — or lack thereof — could influence other developing countries in Asia.

Steelmaking is difficult to decarbonize, because emissions come not only from burning coal to create heat, but also from the chemical reactions required to turn iron ore into the strong and corrosion-resistant metal used in nearly all modern buildings. That technical difficulty makes it expensive.

The expense is a particularly big hurdle for steelmakers in India operating in a highly competitive market where the incentive is to hold costs down to keep up with the country’s rapidly expanding infrastructure demands.

Demand for steel increased nearly 8% from July 2022 to June of this year, and it could increase sixfold by 2070, according to the country’s Ministry of Steel.

Right now, the industry uses coal for more than 90% of steel production. With the right policy support, that share could be cut to under 30% by 2050 and more than 40% of India’s steel could instead be made from hydrogen made with renewable electricity and another 4% from fossil fuels equipped with carbon capture technology.

The clean hydrogen to make that happen would likely come as part of India’s National Green Hydrogen Mission, a government blueprint for providing support for a nascent hydrogen industry. The government aims to create an industry that produces 5 million metric tons of renewable hydrogen annually for use in steel and in other industries, such as shipping and transportation.