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Port Talbot pays the price of ‘going green’

Port Talbot
By Robyn Evans
01 February 2024
Energy, Transport & Infrastructure
Energy networks
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)
Planning Communications and Consultation
net zero

It has been a harrowing few weeks for communities in South Wales since the news that Tata Steel will be pushing ahead with its plans to close the two coal-fired blast furnaces at its Port Talbot steelworks by the end of 2024. 

The Indian-owned firm says that it is restructuring the plant to cut its losses, and transition to a more sustainable, green steel business. It will now spend £1.25bn, including a £500m UK government grant, building a new electric arc furnace at the plant which will produce recycled steel from scrap.  

The plans could cut Wales’ carbon emissions by as much as a fifth, but going greener means going leaner, and the decision puts up to 3,000 jobs at risk. These job cuts account for 63% of the 4,000-strong workforce, whilst the Tata workers at Port Talbot make up 12% of the Welsh coastal town’s total population.  

It is a devastating blow to the people in this small town built on steelmaking. Dominating the skyline, the steelworks truly are the lifeblood of Port Talbot, and as well as directly impacting workers and their families, the decision puts a further 12,000 jobs at risk in the supply chain. The community will now fear that history is repeating itself. Having previously survived the decline in heavy industry in the 1980s, the steel industry looks to have now met its ultimate match – net zero.  

There’s no doubt that industries must continue to innovate and the environmental case for decarbonising the steel industry is clear. However, in doing so we must ensure that we do not damage the country’s ability to create long-term reliable growth that turns net zero measures into more sustainable, green jobs.  

The transition to a carbon neutral economy is so often talked about as a chance to fuel growth which will create new high-quality jobs. But when we speak of decarbonisation and new green jobs, any decisions that result in the loss of existing manufacturing jobs must be challenged. It has been known for years that jobs were at risk at the Port Talbot site and yet the workers still find themselves in this dire situation. Lessons need to be learnt about how we create the green skills needed to meet our climate targets, otherwise the race to net zero could all but decimate existing British industry.  

Indeed, decarbonisation of industry and the growth of new sustainable sectors cannot be seen in isolation. Tata’s decision will leave Britain as the only G20 economy unable to make its own virgin steel and it will be a step into the unknown for Britain’s steel industry. This could hamper the country’s wider net zero ambitions, begging the question of how Britain will be able to bolster its renewable energy sector without access to virgin steel.  

The Port Talbot debacle shows how failing to prepare for a just and fair transition to a low carbon economy could have devastating consequences for workers, communities, and industry at large. We need to be building public confidence that the green transition is something that will benefit both current and future generations. Ultimately, without the necessary investment, collaboration and cooperation between government and business, the green transition could become a burden for workers, rather than a positive move to a more prosperous, greener future.