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Energy demand and the UK steel economy

How has the UK decarbonised by de-industrialising? This project examines questions of energy demand and consumption in the UK, with a particular focus on the country’s steel industry.

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Start date: 1 June, 2016 - End date: 1 May, 2018

Until about 40 years ago steel was critical to the UK national economy. However the country’s contribution to global steel production is now minimal. That said, steel production is highly capital and energy-intensive and its carbon footprint is larger than any other industrial sector. So analysing the steel industry’s energy demands and carbon emissions is critical when considering how to reduce industrial climate emissions and create more sustainable industries around the world.

The UK steel economy cannot be understood without analysing its international and historic context. Events over the last 10 months, including the mothballing, closure and downsizing of various UK steel plants and, most significantly, the announcement of the sale of Tata steel’s UK operations in March 2016, have shown this.

The research will aim to look at the economics of the industry, its economic geography and history, and the impact of contemporary policy making on it.

The three main areas of research are:

1. The economic and industrial history of the UK’s steel economy

Using the UK steel economy as a case study, this research aims to develop a historical understanding of the dynamics of ‘decarbonisation by deindustrialisation’ in the UK, and to understand its social, economic, political and environmental impacts. Recent national and international factors attributed to the steel industry’s decline will also be examined.

2. How a political economy of energy demand should be conceptualised

Conventional economics fails to account for all of the ‘costs’ involved in steel production. In addition to energy consumption and carbon emissions, this research will also consider the role of land and labour associated with steel production. The research will also consider the inequalities associated with ‘embodied carbon’, which refers to the carbon emitted to make products manufactured abroad that are then imported and consumed in the UK. Under international climate policy these emissions are allocated to the country of production rather than the country where the products are consumed.

3. What could a low-carbon industrial strategy for the UK could look like?

Research will focus on future possibilities for a circular economy, the term used for an economy that produces no waste or pollution. It will also examine how it could become more efficient with materials. While there is already a compelling case from an engineering perspective for greater material efficiency, significant political and economic barriers must be overcome for this to be realised. This research will examine some of these barriers, including:

  • the role of policy and regulation, politics and finance in shaping current trends and facilitating and/or obstructing future developments
  • the dispersed and fragmented nature of global supply chains in manufacturing and
  • the role of trade, investment, finance and labour.

Project Documents

Project Outline (480 KB - pdf)

Project publications