Letter | Published:

Carbon emissions due to deforestation for the production of charcoal used in Brazil’s steel industry

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 359363 (2015) | Download Citation


Steel produced using coal generates 7% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions annually1. Opportunities exist to substitute this coal with carbon-neutral charcoal sourced from plantation forests to mitigate project-scale emissions2 and obtain certified emission reduction credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism3. This mitigation strategy has been implemented in Brazil4,5 and is one mechanism among many used globally to reduce anthropogenic CO2 emissions6; however, its potential adverse impacts have been overlooked to date. Here, we report that total CO2 emitted from Brazilian steel production doubled (91 to 182 MtCO2) and specific emissions increased (3.3 to 5.2 MtCO2 per Mt steel) between 2000 and 2007, even though the proportion of coal used declined. Infrastructure upgrades and a national plantation shortage increased industry reliance on charcoal sourced from native forests, which emits up to nine times more CO2 per tonne of steel than coal. 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. Effective climate change mitigation in Brazil’s steel industry must therefore minimize all direct and indirect carbon emissions generated from steel manufacture.

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Valuable contributions to the manuscript were made by J. Canadell and N. McIntyre. L.J.S. received funding from the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, The University of Queensland and the Australian Government (APA scholarship). B.S.S-F. received funding from the Climate and Land Use Alliance, Programa das Nações Unidas para o Meio Ambiente/Global Environment Facility, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de Minas Gerais, and Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico.

Author information


  1. The University of Queensland, Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry, Sustainable Minerals Institute, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Laura J. Sonter
    •  & Damian J. Barrett
  2. University of Vermont, The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA

    • Laura J. Sonter
  3. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Energy Flagship, Black Mountain Laboratories, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • Damian J. Barrett
  4. The University of Queensland, Sustainable Minerals Institute, St Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Chris J. Moran
  5. Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Centro de Sensoriamento Remoto, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerias 31270–901, Brazil

    • Britaldo S. Soares-Filho


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L.J.S. designed the project and conducted the analysis. All authors analysed results and co-wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Laura J. Sonter.

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