Green steel?

Most of the news about climate change is a long and uninterrupted doomscrolling session. Just occasionally I’ll see something that makes me raise an eyebrow in a good way. For the non-Australians, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest is one of our richest, having made most of his wealth through mining company Fortescue Metals. Last week the ABC published one of his lectures about climate change and what he’s doing about it.

A few things took me by surprise. Australian mining executives are among the most protected species on the planet. They just need to keep their heads down. Despite that, he’s come out with some real talk, not exactly the kind of thing our neoliberal government wants to hear from business leaders.

But the markers of our era won’t be Tyrannosaurus teeth or asteroid craters. They’ll be giant landfills of single-swig, plastic water bottles, effectively fossils the moment they’re made.

We have no idea how long the Anthropocene will last. But if we don’t stop warming our planet, it will be geological history’s shortest era.

He openly describes the enormous carbon footprint of his company, contextualises it, clearly understands the scope of the problem—and he’s committed to fix it, with efforts expected to come online within the next few years.

How? Primarily green hydrogen, created by electrolysis from renewable sources, and the production of green steel using either hydrogen fuel in the furnace or applying renewable electricity directly to the iron ore. The main renewable sources are expected to be geothermal and hydro electricity.

This is pragmatic renewables: recognising that non-intermittent energy sources play an important role, and realising that we need a dense and efficient way to transport energy from one place to another for the same reasons we use coal and oil today. Fortescue is big enough that they can plan out this entire ecosystem of generation and consumption all by themselves. It’s organised and targeted, unlike swathes of Australians independently whacking solar panels on their roofs, creating problems for their distribution network around midday while doing nothing to reduce peak load in the evening.

For all that effort, Twiggy sees this as a business opportunity rather than a cost—a way to get into creating steel locally and build hydrogen fuel technology at scale. There are plenty who would say that capitalism is incompatible with addressing climate change, but you’ve got to admit things are easier when they have some goals in common.