Infographic: The Embodied Carbon in Global Steel and Cement Trade

Authors: Ali Hasanbeigi, Daniel Moran, Prodipto Roy


President Trump just signed an executive order to impose a 25% tariff on steel imports and 10% on aluminum imports to the U.S. While many people are discussing how this can lead to a trade war between certain nations, we decided to take a look at it through the lens of embodied carbon in traded goods.

The UNFCCC’s greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting system works on the basis of national production rather than consumption of emissions. This means that when goods are traded, their embodied emissions (e.g. emissions associated with manufacture) are also traded. However, these imported emissions are not counted towards a country’s reported climate impacts. It is estimated that around 25% of global CO2 emissions comprise goods and services which have been internationally traded.

In the recent study on Embodied Carbon in Globally Traded Goods funded by the ClimateWorks Foundation, Global Efficiency Intelligence, LLC. and KGM & Associate Ltd. use the most recent available data and a cutting-edge model to conduct a global assessment of the extent of the embodied carbon in globally traded goods, so-called carbon loophole. In addition, we have conducted a series of higher-resolution, deeper dive case studies into a few key sectors and geographies of most importance, including steel and cement.

The infographic below summarizes some of our key findings related to deep-dive analysis we conducted for embodied carbon in global steel and cement trade. As it is illustrated, steel trade accounts for a significant amount of embodied carbon in trade. Even though China doesn’t feature in the top three steel import sources for the United States (Canada, Brazil, and South Korea occupy the top three spots), China still accounts for 40% of carbon embodied in the global commodity steel extra-regional trade, and 27% of carbon embodied in overall commodity steel trade.

One of the frustrations of U.S. steelmakers, which led to their support of the U.S. tariff, was China systematically overproducing subsidized steel and flooding the international markets. Furthermore, many steel manufacturers in China and other steel exporting countries like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) produce a comparable unit of steel using significantly more carbon and energy than their cleaner counterparts in their own country or region. We see this disparity of carbon use in production not only in countries like China but also within different states in the U.S.

A tool like the U.S. tariff on steel imports could be good for the climate and the economy if it was based on the carbon footprint of the steel imported and was not just implemented as a blanket tariff. In fact, California recently passed the Buy Clean legislation (AB 262), which calls for the state to create rules for the procurement of infrastructure materials (including steel) purchased with state funds that take into account pollution levels during production. This could be an example of environmental- and climate-friendly procurement and trade tariffs that level the playing field and can benefit both industry and the environment and incentivize high polluting companies that are out-of-state or out-of-country to clean up their production in order to be able to trade with these states or countries.

The study on Embodied Carbon of Globally Traded Goods will be published in September 2018.

Don't forget to Follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook to get the latest about our new blog posts, projects, and publications.