shell hydrogen production plant

The inauguration of a hydrogen production plant at the Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rheinland in Wesseling, Germany was held on July 2, 2021.

(Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Climate Group Warns World Must Not Fall for Hydrogen 'Hype'

"Rather than betting on unproven and inefficient hydrogen technologies, we need rich countries to put their money towards a just energy transition," said a Friends of the Earth campaigner.

Amid preparations for COP28, the United Nations climate summit kicking off next week, a leading green group warned Tuesday that "hydrogen is big polluters' latest trick, and we can't afford to fall for it."

"Hydrogen is being promoted as a 'clean' alternative to the fossil fuels used for domestic heating, transport, and heavy industry," explains the new Friend of the Earth International (FOEI) paper, Don't Fall for the Hydrogen Hype, put out ahead of the global clilmate talks. "But it's expensive to produce, inefficient, and far from a low-carbon solution. In fact, the majority of the global hydrogen supply is made from fossil fuels."

An "energy carrier," hydrogen stores and transports energy produced from resources such as biomass, fossil fuels, and water—but FOEI says industry promises of hydrogen's potential should not be trusted.

"Hydrogen, just like the fossil fuels and other false climate solutions pushed by that same industry, further reinforces neocolonial patterns of extractivism and exploitation."

The group's paper begins by debunking the hydrogen "rainbow." Citing the International Energy Agency, it states:

Globally, more than 62% of hydrogen production is derived from fossil gas (known as grey hydrogen, blue hydrogen when coupled with carbon capture and storage, or turquoise hydrogen when produced from methane pyrolysis). About 21% comes from coal and lignite (black/brown hydrogen), 16% is produced as a byproduct at refineries, 0.5% derived from oil, whilst only 0.1% is produced via water electrolysis (green from renewable electricity, purple/pink from nuclear).

While some groups support green hydrogen, critics including FOEI emphasize that along with being incredibly uncommon, it "demands huge amounts of cheap renewable electricity to function, rendering the process highly inefficient," and "requires vast amounts of water, an increasingly rare and precious resource that shouldn't be wasted."

"Pushed by the same fossil industry that has caused—and continues to fuel—the climate crisis, hydrogen is yet another false solution, sold by the industry as a magical fix which allows business as usual to continue," the paper asserts. "Like other false solutions, it represents a dangerous distraction from the urgent, deep, real emission cuts that are needed to address the climate crisis."

Climate scientists and energy experts have long said that humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to avoid the most catastrophic effects of heating the planet and meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise this century to 1.5°C. A U.N. analysis revealed Monday that currently implemented policies put the world on track for 3°C of warming by 2100.

The FOEI paper points out that in addition to propping up polluters by "justifying more fossil gas, hydrogen conveniently allows the fossil industry to push another one of its lifelines: carbon capture and storage," an "unproven techno-fix" that global climate groups are also warning about in the lead-up to COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.

"It is unsurprising that hydrogen, just like the fossil fuels and other false climate solutions pushed by that same industry, further reinforces neocolonial patterns of extractivism and exploitation," the publication continues, highlighting how the oil and gas sector "has shown time and again its disregard for communities and the environment, especially in the Global South."

Yegeshni Moodley from Friends of the Earth South Africa/groundWork said in a statement that "in the Global South, 'green hydrogen' receives public money yet serves only private interests. As governments collude with corporations over mega-infrastructure projects, communities struggle to keep their ancestral lands and scant water resources intact."

The paper notes that like other "false solutions" to the climate emergency—including geoengineering, offsets, and so-called nature-based solutions—on top of "disproportionate social and environmental costs, hydrogen also comes with a high financial cost."

FOEI advocacy officer Lise Masson argued that "rather than betting on unproven and inefficient hydrogen technologies, we need rich countries to put their money towards a just energy transition, one that puts power in the hands of people, not corporations."

Already, some governments are pouring money into hydrogen. U.S. President Joe Biden last month announced a "historic investment" of up to $7 billion for seven hubs across the United States, the nation that has historically contributed the most to human-caused global heating.

Meanwhile, in the European Union, "the gas lobby has succeeded in securing several pieces of legislation promoting hydrogen—including legislation that allows public funds to go to fossil gas infrastructure as long as it promises to be 'hydrogen ready' despite the fact that Europe already has more gas infrastructure than necessary," FOEI detailed.

In Belgium, the European Commission, Hydrogen Europe, and the Clean Hydrogen Partnership are co-hosting European Hydrogen Week 2023—which activists with We Smell Gas disrupted with a protest involving fake green vomit on Tuesday.

"From Chile, to Namibia to South Africa, the story is the same. Communities are not being consulted on [hydrogen projects] destined for European consumption [with] the costs of false solutions violently outsourced," We Smell Gas said on social media Tuesday. "Hydrogen imports are imperial greed painted green."

"Our current energy system relies on appropriating space, resources, and cheap labor from racialized and working-class people inside and outside European borders," the group continued. "For the profit of E.U. multinational and the economic dominance of Western states. [Hydrogen] at scale reproduces this system."

The FOEI position paper stresses that "addressing the climate crisis can only come through deep systemic change, dismantling the neocolonial, patriarchal, neoliberal capitalist system that created the crisis, to build a more just and equitable world for all."

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