Steel is a metal, an alloy of 97.9-99.998% iron and 2.1-0.002% carbon to be specific, that is one of the world's most versatile and vital materials. Strong, inexpensive to manufacture, and 98% recyclable, steel is virtually ubiquitous in the modern world, used to construct buildings, automobiles, trains (and tracks), appliances, weapons, boats, bridges, and millions of additional items. Different varieties of steel can be created through the addition of materials such as boron, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, tungsten, or vanadium during the production process. For example, the addition of chromium results in stainless steel.
While steel is used extensively all over the world, only 64 of the world's 193+ countries manufacture steel in any significant quantity. These 64 countries produced 98% of the world's steel in 2020. Unlike many industries, steel production weathered the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well, with year-on-year production falling less than 1% in 2020. Global steel production reached 1,950.5 million tonnes (Mt) in 2021, an increase of 3.7% from the previous total of 1,880.4 Mt in 2020.
Top 10 Steel-Producing Countries in the World — million tons (Mt) in 2021:
- China — 1,032.8
- India — 118.1
- Japan — 96.3
- United States — 86.0
- Russia — 76.0 (estimated)
- South Korea — 70.6
- Turkey — 40.4
- Germany — 40.1
- Brazil — 36.0
- Iran — 28.5 (estimated)
Steel production and its impact upon the environment
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, steel production is one of the world's most energy-intensive and carbon-rich industries. In 2020, the production of steel was responsible for approximately 7% of all global carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas in the Earth's atmosphere and a major contributor to global warming.
As a result, many countries are actively pursuing greener manufacturing techniques and/or seeking to reduce their reliance upon and/or production of steel.
The top 6 countries that produce the most steel
In 1990, China was only the fourth-largest steel producer in the world, trailing Japan, the United States, and the USSR. Today, China is far and away the global leader in steel production, with an output higher than that of the rest of the world combined.
With a plethora of massive, state-owned steel companies at its disposal, China has approximately 10 times the steel manufacturing capacity of the United States. However, even the most modern steel-manufacturing techniques release substantial amounts of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, which works against China's goal to become carbon-neutral by 2060. As a result, China has attempted to minimize pollution by cutting down on steel production—2021's total output is actually lower than 2020's—however, steel production plays a significant role in the Chinese economy, so it is unclear to what degree China can afford to reduce its steel output.
India surpassed Japan to become the second-largest producer of steel in the world in 2019, and continues to expand the capacity, efficiency, and modernization of its steel industry. India’s Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan states that there is no set annual goal for steel production and that individual companies decide on the quantity of steel that needs to be produced based on commercial considerations and market requirements. The government remains engaged, however, and the Indian Ministry of Steel updates the National Steel Policy every year to reflect the latest developments in topics such as the steel supply chain, market demand, international competition.
Like many developed countries, Japan is working to achieve carbon neutrality—or to even become a carbon-negative country. This has led to a deliberate downsizing of Japan's steel industry, which is a significant source of air pollution. Additionally, while Chinese steel was once considered inferior to Japanese steel, the gap has now narrowed considerably, enabling China to be more competitive in the export market. Domestically, Japan's construction sector has the highest demand for steel, followed by the industrial machinery and automobile industries. Demand in the shipbuilding industry has historically been lower, but has gradually increased in recent years.
Although "only" fourth in the world in terms of size, the U.S. steel industry is more environmentally friendly and technologically innovative than many other large competitors. As a result, steel manufacturers in the United States release up to 320% less carbon per ton of steel produced than do manufacturers in most other countries—particularly China, India, and Russia. More than 60% of steel currently produced in the United States recycles scrap metal for use as source material instead of raw ore.
Russia possesses the third-largest iron ore reserves in the world, behind only Australia and Brazil, and is one of the world's leading exporters of both iron ore and steel. Steel production in Russia has decreased since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but this can largely be attributed to the fact that some of the Soviet Union's most prolific steel producing regions are separate countries now, such as Ukraine.
How Russia's invasion of Ukraine impacts the steel industry
Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022—and the heavy sanctions levied against Russia by the international community as a result—upended the global steel production chain. The world's third- and eighth-largest exporters of steel, Russia and Ukraine exported a combined 43.8 million metric tons of steel in 2020—a total exceeded only by China (51.4 Mt). However, the invasion effectively removed both Russia and Ukraine from the global steel export market.
This sudden shift sent steel prices skyrocketing as supply lines shrank and shortages loomed. It remains to be seen how long it will take for prices to return to the levels seen before the invasion—not to mention before the 2020 pandemic, which had already created significant shortages even before the invasion. However, given the extent of damage in the Ukraine and the severity of the sanctions against Russia, the recovery is expected to take quite some time.
Along with electronics, telecommunications, chemicals, and automobiles, steel is among one of the largest industries in South Korea, and has played a significant role in the nation’s economic growth. As in many other countries, South Korea’s steel industry is currently focused upon increasing self-sufficiency and incorporating greener production techniques while simultaneously improving manufacturing efficiency.