Green Tech

Behind Public Citizen’s campaign to get cars made with ‘green steel’

The nonprofit advocacy organization lists Ford as its first target to get fossil fuels out of steelmaking.
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· 4 min read

Modern vehicles contain more software and tech than ever, but they’re still essentially steel on wheels.

Steel is the most common material in cars; it’s found in everything from the chassis to the wheels, making up at least half of a vehicle by weight.

The automotive industry accounts for about 16% of global steel consumption, per a 2023 Greenpeace report. Steel is responsible for more than 30% of a vehicle’s material emissions, the report said, and the percentage of automotive-life emissions from materials is slated to rise to 60% by 2040 as electrification eliminates tailpipe emissions.

That is why climate advocates say the auto sector is uniquely positioned to push for decarbonization in the steel industry, which accounts for about 7% of global carbon emissions.

That’s the thinking behind a new campaign from Public Citizen, a nonprofit progressive consumer rights advocacy organization, that demands that the auto industry step up its game on green steel, or steel that’s made without fossil fuels.

“The idea is that by encouraging top automakers to make these changes to their supply chains, it will catalyze major action by other automakers—and ideally, wider heavy industry,” Carly Oboth, senior supply chain campaigner for Public Citizen’s climate program, told Tech Brew.

“If [automakers] can signal their demand for green steel,” she added, “it will encourage and convey to steel producers that they need to invest in the technology and they need to use fossil-free steel.”

Green steel

Traditional steelmaking, Oboth explained, relies on a substance known as coke, a coal-based fuel that is a “significant contributor to planet-warming greenhouse-gas emissions,” as well as to health-harming air pollution.

Now, there are emerging efforts to clean up steelmaking by using renewable energy sources such as green hydrogen to process the materials used to manufacture steel. Green steel is not yet in commercial use, but dozens of projects around the world look to make it a reality—including a pair of projects in the US that recently got $1 billion in investment from the Department of Energy.

With steel demand growing globally and corporations aiming to hit decarbonization goals in the years to come, clean-energy think tank RMI estimates that green-steel demand in the US will grow to 6.7 million tons a year by the end of the decade. The auto industry is projected to make up half of that demand.

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“Car makers are uniquely poised to lead in the low-emissions steel market, with 77% of annual US car sales originating from companies that have already publicly committed to clean up their supply chain,” RMI experts wrote in a 2023 report, “some of which have even publicly committed to start using near-zero emissions steel.”


Public Citizen’s campaign calls on automakers to use their influence in the steel industry to advocate for green-steel production.

The campaign kicked off last month with Public Citizen publicly targeting Ford. Oboth said that the nonprofit decided to focus on Ford because it’s a top player in the US auto market and because the automaker already has taken some steps toward promoting green steel, including joining the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition.

Ford, which aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, has committed to purchasing at least 10% low-carbon aluminum and near-zero steel by 2030, per its latest sustainability report, where the company notes that it has signed nonbinding memoranda of understanding with several steel suppliers.

The company reported that it is “taking steps to secure a supply of near-zero emissions steel and low-carbon aluminum for future products” to help meet its carbon neutrality goals and fulfill its First Movers Coalition commitment. Ford last year met with steel suppliers “to understand the required transformation, including the significant increase in demand for carbon-free electricity and hydrogen,” according to the report.

Ford declined to comment on Public Citizen’s campaign.

Public Citizen’s campaign’s demands, detailed in a letter to Ford CEO Jim Farley, include Ford signing a procurement agreement by the end of 2025 for 30% green steel by 2030 and establishing a target of using 100% fossil-free steel by 2050.

“You must send a clear demand signal to US steelmakers—and their investors—for fossil-free steel processed in the US,” the letter states, “as a means of transforming the US steel industry and preventing these harmful blast furnace relines.”

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