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We must decarbonise our steel industry to save it

We must decarbonise our steel industry to save it
4 min read

The crisis at Liberty should be a turning point to invest in British steel and recast it as a world leading sustainable industry of the future.

The future of Liberty Steel has been in the news, but behind the headlines it is the livelihoods of people in the communities that I represent which are being debated. Once again, their future is in question.

They deserve better than this. It is high time the steel industry was put on solid foundations instead of shaky ground.

This is not about special pleading to prop up one failing company: it’s about refusing to accept the inevitably of decline when there are underlying structural problems we can fix and opportunities we can exploit. It’s about making a proactive effort to drive innovation and investment, and help our economy evolve and compete. It’s about supporting change, so an industry of strategic national importance is not stumbling from one crisis to the next.

There is one obvious way to do that which promises enormous benefits in other ways – and that is to decarbonise. Over the weekend, IPPR North published research showing that investing in making the steel industry in the north of England carbon neutral will not only save tens of thousands of existing jobs, but also generate new green jobs, help our companies lead the world in new, innovative technologies, and make a substantial contribution to our national carbon targets. 

The old model of relying on cheap and carbon intensive steel imports no longer stacks up

Along with measures to boost competitiveness and use British-made steel for new infrastructure, this approach has the potential to transform an industry which is strategically critical not just for our economy but for our security – and give the workers at Liberty and elsewhere the certainty they deserve. But it needs the government to ditch its rigidly Thatcherite ideology, and act now. Once a company like Liberty Steel goes into administration, much of the damage will be irreparable.

Steel has underpinned and shaped the communities that I represent for centuries. Here in South Yorkshire, we are proud of the role that we played in powering our economy in the past. We stand ready to power a greener, fairer economy for the future. We’re going to need steel more than ever as we revitalise our infrastructure and build a low-carbon economy. From buildings to wind turbines, steel is irreplaceable: we have to find a way to make it clean.

South Yorkshire is already leading the way in this transition. We are home to many of the UK’s electric arc furnaces, the low carbon technology that will need to be harnessed in the decades to come if we are to achieve net zero steelmaking. Alongside this, we need to rapidly scale up the development of renewable energy, low carbon fuel sources like hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage infrastructure to decarbonise not just steel but all our heavy industry.

There really is no need for any more debate. If we care about communities like mine, if we are serious about security, and if we’re ambitious about building better, greener industries for generations to come, then we must make that commitment now. The old model of relying on cheap and carbon intensive steel imports no longer stacks up if we are to have the ambition this country needs.

The crisis at Liberty should be a turning point. We should use this moment to invest in British steel and recast it as a world leading industry of the future. My region stands ready to play its part, and can provide the expertise and energy needed to deliver this transition.

That action on steel should only be part of a wider ambition. It is possible to build a better, fairer country than the one that went into the Covid-19 pandemic. Among other things, it requires significant, sustained investment in building a structurally better economy: higher value, higher tech, and more sustainable. But that needs us to forget the ideologically-driven apathy of the past, and recognise that as a society we have to act. With rigor, with purpose, with innovation, we need to take control of our fate. 

 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and Mayor of the Sheffield City Region.

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