Environmentalists welcome new Canada-Germany hydrogen pact

Plan to jumpstart trade of renewable energy comes as Europe seeks to displace Russian gas amid the war in Ukraine.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz walks alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held meetings this week in Canada to discuss energy and the war in Ukraine, among other issues [Christinne Muschi/Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – Environmental rights groups have cautiously welcomed a new agreement between the German and Canadian governments to begin shipping hydrogen across the Atlantic as early as 2025, as the two countries shift towards more renewable energy.

The Canada-Germany Hydrogen Alliance, announced this week following meetings in Canada between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, comes as Europe tries to wean itself off Russian energy amid the war in Ukraine.

“The Hydrogen Alliance between Canada and Germany is a significant milestone as we accelerate the international market rollout of green hydrogen and clear the way for new transatlantic cooperation,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice-chancellor, said in a statement on Tuesday.

That same day, Canadian green energy company EverWind also said it had reached a deal with Germany-based firm Uniper to export “green ammonia” derived from hydrogen from a partly wind-powered facility that is under construction in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.

“This alliance and the project deal that came with [Scholz’s] visit send a signal that another way is possible and desirable to achieve energy security,” Caroline Brouillette, national policy manager at Climate Action Network Canada, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“That is, accelerate the transition to renewable-based energy.”

Push for LNG

Scholz, the German chancellor, has been trying to secure alternative energy sources amid threats from Moscow, angered by international sanctions over its offensive in Ukraine, that it will shut the taps on Russian gas flows to Europe. The European Union (EU) got approximately 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia last year, and concerns are rising that the bloc could experience power shortages during the colder winter months.

Almost since the very start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Canada – the world’s fifth-largest natural gas producer – faced calls from energy companies and pro-oil lawmakers to ramp up energy exports to help its allies in Europe. In March, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Ottawa would increase oil and gas production this year by up to 300,000 barrels per day to address the “energy security crisis”.

But Germany also had urged Canada to increase exports of liquified natural gas (LNG) to Europe specifically, something Scholz reiterated this week amid the green energy deals, saying he still hoped Ottawa would supply more. Trudeau threw cold water on that prospect on Monday, telling reporters that Canada needed a “business case” for it due to infrastructure and financial hurdles.

“Trudeau is wasting the opportunity of a generation, saying NO to billions of $, NO to more paycheques for our people, NO to energy security for us & our allies,” legislator Pierre Poilievre, a frontrunner in the race to be the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, tweeted. “As PM, I’ll scrap his anti-energy laws & champion Canadian energy.”

Yet Canada does not have any functioning LNG export facilities, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development think-tank recently said that with Europe needing supplies now, “this results in a fundamental mismatch. Canada cannot ramp up supply before 2025, while Europe’s energy needs will largely be resolved by that time.”

“It’s clear that the war in Ukraine is going to accelerate the transition off of fossil fuels. Energy security now means renewable energy,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, who welcomed the announcements this week as “a part of that transition”.

“It’s good to see because we’re recognising that there is opportunity in this new economy and that we actually have concrete proposals moving forward,” Stewart told Al Jazeera. “It’s no longer dreams put out there by Greenpeace; it’s the German chancellor and the prime minister standing there, talking about how they’re going to harness the wind to help provide the energy services we need.”

Focus on ‘green hydrogen’

But environmental activists also say the devil will be in the details of the Germany-Canada Hydrogen Alliance’s implementation.

Canada and Germany currently do not share the same definition of “clean hydrogen” – the term used in a Canadian government statement outlining the deal, explained Brouillette. “The German definition and preference is for green hydrogen, which is basically made from energy produced from renewables,” she told Al Jazeera, while Canada is talking about a mix of green hydrogen and “blue hydrogen”, a term used for hydrogen produced from natural gas.

Since blue hydrogen production creates carbon emissions – which are then captured and stored – Brouillette said the Canadian position “kind of gives cover for continued fossil – in this case, gas – production, rather than transitioning to sources of energy that we know across the life cycle are less [damaging] to the climate”.

Justin Trudeau and Olaf Scholz tour a trade fair
Amid meetings with Germany’s chancellor this week in Canada, Trudeau said Ottawa would need a ‘business case’ to boost LNG exports to Europe [File: Andreas Rinke/Reuters]

Sascha Muller-Kraenner, federal executive director of Environmental Action Germany, said in a statement that a focus on green hydrogen is critical and urged Germany to “not give in here”. “Canada is keeping the door open for the production of fossil-based hydrogen … We can only warn the Canadian government not to rely on the export of these extremely climate-damaging energy sources for its future economic development,” Muller-Kraenner said.

Rights advocates also stressed that any major project, including those producing renewable energy, must respect Indigenous rights and have buy-in from local communities. “Making sure that it’s done right is important,” said Stewart.

“I think seeing international cooperation to accelerate an energy transition is a big deal,” he added.

“[On] the global scale of things, this is a small part of the solution, but we need lots of these types of solutions all around the world. And the more that we see them coming to reality, the more we can imagine that future.”

Source: Al Jazeera