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Pollution from industry in the US has a huge impact on public health, clean air and water, and the global climate. A recent report from the Sierra Club, Coming Clean on Industrial Emissions, took a close look at the emissions from four industries: steel, aluminum, met coke and cement.

Since automakers are key end consumers of three of those four products, Lead the Charge dove deep into Sierra Club’s numbers to understand better how the emissions from auto suppliers are impacting public and environmental health across the US. We learned that automakers have a huge opportunity to transform these polluting industries, protect clean air and water, and save lives.  

The report found that an estimated 1071 to 2425 deaths annually in the US could be avoided by cleaning up fine particle pollution from steel, aluminum and met coke production. Steel and met coke facilities are especially polluting sources of tiny particles that enter people’s lungs and blood systems, leading to thousands of ER visits and over a hundred thousand missed work days every year. These facilities release additional pollutants that are currently insufficiently tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In the US, the auto sector accounts for approximately 35% of demand for aluminum and 26 percent of demand for steel, and is the single largest private sector consumer of steel made from the combustion of met coke in blast furnaces. That means that at minimum, hundreds of these needless deaths of US residents every year can be directly attributed to pollution from the value chain for car manufacturing. 

And that’s only accounting for particle pollution in the steel, aluminum and met coke manufactured outside of automakers’ facilities, not including industrial pollution from auto manufacturing facilities themselves. 

These impacts are not borne equally by people in the US. Communities where met coke and steel facilities are located tend to be lower income, have higher rates of unemployment, and include more people of color than the US average. These communities experience worse air quality, including air toxics cancer risk. People living near met coke facilities, a key material for producing the steel used in vehicles, have a 1.5 times higher air toxics cancer risk than average.

The report had a lot of hopeful news too. Transitioning to fossil-fuel-free steel manufacturing will eliminate the need for met coke in the steelmaking process. And significant emissions reductions could be achieved just by bringing up polluting steel and aluminum facilities to industry standard. For met coke alone, a nearly 30% reduction in emissions could be achieved if every facility reached average emissions intensity for their industry. 

But even top performers must accelerate emissions reductions to avoid a worse climate outcome, so just bringing the industry up to its current average standard isn’t enough. Sierra Club wrote: “Deeper emissions cuts will require a much more aggressive shift in industry emissions that comes from the current top performers in terms of emissions in addition to those that are currently the most emissions-intense.”

The report also looked at the emissions from electricity used to produce steel, aluminum and met coke. Transitioning these industries to low-emissions electricity sources can dramatically reduce the emissions from producing these materials, and thus reduce the emissions needed to manufacture vehicles. 

When producing aluminum, most of the emissions come from the electricity used in the process. In the steel industry, clean electricity can also have a substantial impact on overall emissions due to the electricity-intense EAF production process used to make steel, including some automotive steel.

Even aside from decarbonizing the electricity used by these industries, many new technologies are in development to reduce pollution from production of steel and aluminum. The Sierra Club wrote:

“Further, leading scientists, government agencies, and industry experts expect an assortment of emerging technologies will contribute to improvements in emissions. For example, a peer-reviewed 2022 paper identifies 86 “potentially transformative” technologies for the steel and iron industry.”

This report highlights the importance of cleaning up auto supply chains, and the opportunity that automakers have to lead heavy industry in the US to transition away from polluting, dangerous manufacturing processes. For more information, read the full report at the Sierra Club website.