Hydrogen no break from fossil fuels, energy colonialism: Report

The Corporate Europe Observatory is sounding the alarm on the hydrogen industry at the centre of the EU climate agenda.

Transport and Digital Infrastructure Minister, Volker Wissing (FDP) fills up an iX5 Hydrogen BMW car
German Transport Minister Volker Wissing fills up an iX5 Hydrogen BMW car. Germany has played an influential role in setting the European Union's agenda on climate and industrial policies [File: Michele Tantussi/Reuters]

The push towards hydrogen as a source of clean energy ignores “several dirty facts”, the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) has found, including the appropriation of land and resources in the Global South.

Germany has played an influential role in setting the European Union’s agenda on climate and industrial policies, with Brussels now planning to spend billions in public subsidies to make the alleged “miracle gas” the centrepiece of a climate-neutral economy.

Yet the report “Germany’s great hydrogen race” (PDF), released on Thursday, highlights that 99 percent of today’s globally produced hydrogen is “grey” hydrogen made from fossil fuels, with annual CO2 emissions exceeding those of the entire country.

Fossil-based “blue” hydrogen, which is being promoted as a “low-carbon” alternative, has a climate footprint that is nearly as bad when its total emissions are taken into account.

“Green” hydrogen, considered “carbon free”, accounts for only 0.04 percent of global hydrogen production in 2021 and comes with serious challenges and risks.

“It is energy inefficient, behaves as a potent indirect greenhouse gas, and production on a large scale requires vast amounts of land, water and renewable energy,” the Brussels-based watchdog found.

Additionally, its production can fuel “green grabbing”, or the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends.

“A big chunk of the green hydrogen that the EU plans to use will be imported from North Africa and the Middle East,” Belen Balanya, researcher at CEO, told Al Jazeera.

“While the EU is in bed with the gas industry and big corporations – who are steering the continent’s response to the energy crisis – it’s ordinary citizens in Europe and North Africa who will bear the brunt of this deeply flawed hydrogen strategy.”

‘Green grabbing’

“German-backed green hydrogen projects abroad follow colonial patterns,” the report said. “Resources are appropriated while negative impacts like ecological damage and energy scarcity are conveniently outsourced. Conflicts over land and water use are already becoming apparent and could intensify over the next years.”

One example of human rights violations connected with green hydrogen projects was Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity Neom, CEO found, where German multinational Thyssenkrupp was installing a huge electrolyser to produce hydrogen for export.

“Ancient tribes have been forcibly evicted from their land to make way for Neom,” according to the report, while several residents who resisted evictions were sentenced to death.

Nonetheless, the German-Saudi Arabia cooperation is going ahead. “Such cooperations risk the reproduction and legitimisation of authoritarian regimes in the name of sustainability,” CEO said.

Similarly, land conflicts have already erupted in South Africa, where a planned port and export processing zone for green hydrogen in Boegoebaai is being developed on 160,000 hectares (395,370 acres) of expropriated land.

In the Pecém Industrial and Port Complex in Brazil, where a subsidiary of gas multinational Linde is involved in a planned green hydrogen export hub, conflicts with Indigenous communities around land, water and environmental pollution have been reported for years.

Mapping of 27 countries – mostly located in Africa – did not reveal a single hydrogen project in which the community had been consulted prior to the decision to proceed with the project.

While the EU “developed nice-sounding standards to create acceptance for green hydrogen projects abroad”, these standards apply only to a few select sites.

“Hydrogen projects in the Global South tend to be centralised mega projects and lack civic participation,” the report said. “They ignore key issues such as communities’ prior and informed consent.”

Climate crisis

According to CEO, hydrogen is failing to deliver on global justice as much as it is failing to deliver on its key promise: to tackle the climate crisis.

“Hydrogen is yet another dangerous distraction, and a lifeline for fossil fuel companies. Just because you put the word ‘green’ in front of an energy source doesn’t make it sustainable or fair,” CEO’s Balanya said.

Hydrogen is produced from fossils, mostly gas. Unlike the creation of grey hydrogen, the production process for “blue hydrogen” involves capturing and storing CO2 emissions underground in a process called CCS, or “carbon capture and storage”.

The efficacy of this process in curbing emissions is still under debate.

According to the report, the “hype” around hydrogen is deflecting attention from much-needed structural changes including increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, transitioning to agroecological farming and reducing traffic.

“Destructive industries like fossil fuels and aviation can also use the hydrogen hype for greenwashing rather than for actually shrinking their dirty businesses,” CEO said.

Source: Al Jazeera