Man of steel: Decarbonizing one of the most carbon-heavy materials on the planet

chris bataille
Illustration by Drew Shannon

Chris Bataille watched with particular interest as officials around the world pointed to scientific models predicting the progression of COVID-19.

It’s a similar science that Bataille, an energy economist and economic modeller, has been using for more than 20 years to show the impact of rising greenhouse gas emissions on people and the planet.

While his and other climate models haven’t received near the widespread global attention as pandemic-tracking charts used to urge citizens to help “flatten the curve” of the virus, Bataille is hopeful that information will help people take this type of science more seriously.

“Suddenly modelling is relevant to them, numbers are relevant to them, and the credibility of the experts is relevant,” says Bataille, a Vancouver-based energy policy consultant and researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, a non-profit research centre headquartered in Paris.

And while it’s an inexact science, Bataille says modelling can provide much-needed direction in times of uncertainty, especially when well communicated to the public.

“People know they need to do something different, so they are looking for direction,” says Bataille, who is also an adjunct professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University (SFU). “What I am seeing is that, if experts communicate what they know and don’t know and provide clear direction given this uncertainty, and are willing to correct themselves, people will listen.”

It’s not just wishful thinking for Bataille, a key figure in the movement to decarbonize heavy industry, in particular steel – a sector whose emissions, together with concrete, are responsible for 14.7% of global CO2 emissions.

Bataille’s work is slowly but steadily helping the steel sector build a path toward a net-zero carbon future.

Bataille, a 47-year-old married father of two young daughters, first became interested in modelling as an economics and political science student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. One of his UBC professors was renowned economist John Helliwell, whose letter of recommendation landed Bataille a spot in the master’s program in resource and environmental management at SFU.

Bataille worked and studied with Mark Jaccard, a professor with a specialty in developing energy-economy models that assess the effectiveness of sustainable energy and climate policies. Jaccard ran (and still runs) an energy material modelling group at SFU, which also houses the Canadian Energy and Emissions Data Centre.

Bataille says the team built models of the Canadian economy, showing the potential for reducing emissions. “It was a hotbed of energy and economy modelling, and still is,” he says. “A lot of the people who do this in Canada now all came from this group and this school.”

Bataille became the executive director of MK Jaccard & Associates, a spin-off of his work with the professor at SFU from 2006 to 2011, before co-founding Navius Research Inc., where he worked for four years before going out on his own, with a focus on modelling for heavy industry, in particular steel and cement.

Jaccard describes Bataille as “very talented as a modeller” and a “quick study” who has become “a high international roller” when it comes to energy modelling for policy analysis. “He’s a very good, hard-nosed critical thinker,” says Jaccard, adding that Bataille is also skilled at bridging the nexus between academia, government and non-governmental organizations.

Shahrzad Rahbar, president of the Ottawa-based Industrial Gas Users Association, tasked Bataille with four different projects in different roles she’s held over the past couple of decades. She describes him as an “honest researcher” with a “fiercely analytical” mind.

Rahbar hopes Bataille’s work will inspire industry and policy-makers in Canada to put a greater emphasis on decarbonization moving forward.

“I think Canada’s missed opportunity is an international leadership role in the industrial piece of the puzzle when it comes to carbon reduction,” she says.

“As Chris’s work gets more international recognition, I hope that there will be more of a Canadian appetite for looking at the industrial piece in the same manner [as they do internationally] and attempts to craft a viable transition plan.”

If Bataille could set Canada’s strategy for decarbonizing steel during this time of once-in-a-generation public investment, he would get the federal government (and high-carbon manufacturers) to commit to using greener steel and build supply through accelerated research and development, piloting, commercialization and guaranteed lead markets at higher prices for set amounts of greener steel. For a few billion dollars spread over a decade or so, he says, we could make hydrogen-reduced ore in northern Quebec and ship the reduced iron to electric-arc furnaces in Ontario, where it could be made into steel.

Bataille says it was the initial work with Rahbar that enabled him to go out on his own to pursue his “obsession” with industrial decarbonization. That led to his various research papers, talks, policy influence work and work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Some of his work includes being lead editor of a special issue of Climate Policy on the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) in 2015/16 and a two-year project to review technology and policy options for net-zero emission decarbonization of heavy industry, including detailed physical and policy transition plans for the Canadian steel, chemicals, mining and forest products sectors. Bataille says the policy package written for the 2014/15 DDPP helped inform Alberta’s climate plan under then-Premier Rachel Notley, which helped them form the template of the federal climate plan.

He’s also a lead author for the industry chapter of the sixth cycle of the IPCC Assessment Report (2019 to 2021).

Bataille sees his mission as normalizing conversations about industrial decarbonization, making it part of forecasts such as the one announced in March by the Canadian Steel Producers Association to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The net-zero commitment from the federal government on down is a necessary beginning. It [requires] a huge jump in technology, and we aren’t going to incrementally bumble our way there,” he says.

It’s his ability to work on different sides of the debate, including industry and academics, that Bataille believes enables him to break through barriers.

“I’m a hybrid academic and corporate person,” he says. “On one hand, I get what it means to run a business, to have things go really well, then south when you’ve got people on payroll . . . Then, on a deep level, I’m a researcher. I’m a person always trying to look forward and explore the world ahead of us . . . [Having experience with both] allows me to realize what policies are likely to have traction and not have traction because of the stickiness of reality.”

Despite pilot projects like the Swedish HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology), described as “the world’s first fossil-free steelmaking technology,” overall progress on decarbonization has been slow. Nonetheless, Bataille believes his work is helping drive change long-term.

“I would like to see HYBRIT’s hydrogen DRI iron ore reduction technology, or something like it, become the new standard for making steel in my lifetime.”

It’s that hope that inspires him to press on.

“People need a purpose in their lives, and for me it’s an endless font of purpose. It’s not going to be solved when I’m done working, but it’s work worth doing.”


Brenda Bouw is a freelance writer  and editor based in Vancouver.

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