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WorldSteel's Ian Christmas on the issues that count most

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His current steel hero is Francis Mer, former chairman of Arcelor SA, with Tom Usher, former top executive at U.S. Steel Corp., coming in a close second. And after more than a decade heading what's now known as the World Steel Association, Ian Christmas has a large and ever-expanding pool of candidates to choose from.

Traveling around the globe from WorldSteel's headquarters in Brussels, Christmas has met and is on first-name terms with industry executives from Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C., to London, Luxembourg, Tokyo and, in more recent years, Beijing, where WorldSteel opened an office in 2006 in a move Christmas describes as "very important" for a variety of reasons.

"Over the past 10 years, Chinese growth has had a dominant impact on our industry," he said. "Now, with the financial downturn, one of the locomotives of the world, which is China, has slowed down. And we have a problem.

"The big issue is China has too much steelmaking capacity for its needs," Christmas said. "But there is an even more fundamental issue, and that's the shift of economic power in the world from the Atlantic Basin to the Pacific Basin. We see it in the growth in China but also the growth in Asia and now India."

WorldSteel, which officially changed its name from the International Iron and Steel Institute late last year, encompasses some 180 steel producers that collectively account for about 85 percent of global steel production. Nowhere is the impact of China's emergence as a major steel producer more evident, perhaps, than in the statistics WorldSteel compiles and on which it bases its annual listing of the world's top steel producers.

Based on crude steel output, four of the top 10 steel producers in 2007, the latest listing available, are Chinese. In contrast, not a single China-based company ranked among the top 10 global steelmakers in the association's 1997 listing. As an aside, the U.S. claims only one entry among the top 10 for both years USX Corp. was No. 8 at 8 million tonnes in 1997 and U.S. Steel was No. 10 at 21.5 million tonnes in 2007.

Predictably, the rise of the East and more specifically China's emergence as a steel superpower has presented a challenge for both Christmas and the organization he heads. "My job has been to try to manage that transition and to ensure that as we have become a global industry we have established an understanding and dialogue between the old and the new, which enables us to get through that transition," he said.

Although Christmas readily acknowledges cultural gaps between China and other WorldSteel members, he is more upbeat than many on Beijing's future as a world mover and shaker. "I am a great believer in the power of markets, of competition to drive innovation and change," he said. "Some of those things are lacking in China, but it is a very dynamic and very innovative economy.

"I think China generally recognizes that it has a new major role in the world, and it has to be careful about that role" Christmas added. "I am actually more optimistic than some that the changes that are happening in China are actually going to lead to a good future for all of us."

For all its significance, the emergence of China is far from the only—or even the most critical—issue vying for time with Christmas and his WorldSteel team. Few topics are hotter these days in Brussels—or, for that matter, in the Washington offices of the American Iron and Steel Institute—than carbon emissions.

"I would say climate-change policy takes up about 50 percent of my time," Christmas said. "Some people argue about the science. Our view is there is no point arguing about the science. Whether you like it or not, governments around the world and scientists have said this is a key problem. And the question throughout the steel industry is what is your role to solve that problem going to be?"

To address carbon emissions, WorldSteel's board of directors approved a climate change policy in 2007 that embraces a global steel sector approach involving the collection and reporting of carbon emissions data by steel plants in all major steel-producing countries.

"The data collection has been going on for about a year now," Christmas said in May. "We have common ways of measuring. And we have kept that relatively simple to encourage the maximum number of steel plants to participate. Over half our membership has already provided the data."

To date, the lowest level of data is from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries, with the exception of India, which Christmas describes as "ahead of the game." That is not the case with China, which is routinely—and, some argue, unfairly—viewed as an unbridled source of carbon emissions. Christmas fully expects that view to change.

"The Chinese know they have a huge environmental and energy problem, which is going to be a major impediment to their future economic and social development," he said. "They don't want to be seen as forced by anybody to do it. But I have no doubt about the sincerity of the Chinese to address the issue. They see it more in terms of energy than they do of the atmosphere. But in terms of actual action, it comes down to the same thing."


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