UN scheme blamed for Brazil steel industry emissions spike

UN’s Clean Development Mechanism increased reliance on Brazil’s native forests for steel making, say researchers

Steel production creates around 7% of human-caused CO2 emissions (Pic: Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr)

Steel production creates around 7% of human-caused CO2 emissions (Pic: Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr)

By Sophie Yeo

Carbon emissions from Brazil’s steel industry have doubled as a result of UN-backed measures to cut reliance on coal.

The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism provides a financial reward to industries that replace the polluting fossil fuel with cleaner sources – in this case charcoal grown from specially planted forests in order to reduce global emissions.

But the scheme has backfired, finds a report published in Nature Climate Change.

Emissions from Brazil’s steel industry doubled from 91 million to 182 million tons of CO2 between 2000 and 2007, despite a decline in the use of coal.

This was driven in part by an increase in steel production driven by domestic and global markets, say the authors.

But it was also linked to steel companies starting to rely on Brazil’s native forests for charcoal. These are not considered carbon neutral, as – unlike plantation forests – they do not necessarily regrow.

“Our study found that increased global demand for steel, and a lack of available plantation forest in Brazil, increased the industry’s use of charcoal sourced from native forests, which is not carbon neutral and emits up to nine times more CO2 per ton of steel than coal,” said Laura Sonter, a scientist at the University of Vermont and the lead author of the study.

But by the time plantation forest space had run out, it was too late, explains the study – the infrastructure of the steel industry had already been adapted to charcoal in response to the CDM opportunities. This meant that there was no returning to coal.


Increased use of native forest relative to coal means that the process of steel production became more carbon intensive.

In 2000, the emissions associated with creating one tonne of steel were up to 3.3 megatonnes of CO2. But 2007, this had risen to 5.2.

The CDM does not reward companies who use native forest, and the emissions that come from cutting it down have to be reported to the UN’s climate body.

Not every company was equally carbon intensive. The state of Minas Gerais, which produces 72% of Brazilian steel, uses 18% native charcoal.

There is a risk that a similar problem could unfold in China, which produced 47% of the world’s steel in 2012.

This is because China also has large reserves of native forests and would qualify for CDM rewards. However, there are currently no projects registered of this kind.

“Our findings are significant because the steel industry generates about 7% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions,” said Chris Moran from the University of Queensland, a co-author of the study.

“This outcome is attributed to narrow implementation of climate change mitigation mechanisms. It’s a failure to see the steel industry as part of a broader system involving other land users generating CO2 emissions.”

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