Cautionary case study: a climate change mitigation initiative that increased GHG emissions

An article in the current issue of the journal Nature Climate Change illustrates how poorly designed climate change policies and initiatives can be worse than useless.

The research, by a scientist at the University of Queensland, Australia, reviewed the results of an initiative in Brazil to replace coal used in the making of steel with charcoal from sustainably managed forest plantations. Superficially this might appear to be a very worthwhile initiative, especially as the global steel industry accounts for 7% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The project resulted in a decline in the use of coal by the steel industry. However the analysis shows that it also resulted in a doubling of greenhouse gas emissions.

Infrastructure upgrades and a shortage of plantation forests resulted in increased industry reliance on charcoal sourced from native forests, which, on a net basis, emits up to nine times more CO2 per tonne of steel than coal. The authors state that preventing use of native forest charcoal could have avoided 79% of the CO2 emitted from steel production between 2000 and 2007; however, doing so by increasing plantation charcoal supply is limited by socio-economic costs and risks further indirect deforestation pressures and emissions.

The results of this project illustrate the importance of reviewing the lifecycle implications of a climate mitigation project before launching the project. Ideally the review should be conducted by an independent third party who has not been involved with design of the project and who can most effectively identify unintended consequences which can arise from a number of sources. In the Brazil steel project discussed in this article the unintended consequences arose because of an insufficient supply of charcoal from sustainably managed plantations. Sourcing the charcoal from native forests led to an increase in net GHGs when steel-making emissions using charcoal were compared to those arising from the previous use of coal.

The abstract (free) and the full article (fee or subscription required) are available at


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