Only genuinely clean hydrogen can help solve the climate crisis

Opinion by Malcolm Turnbull

Originally published: 17 August 2023

Only genuinely clean hydrogen can help solve the climate crisis
At the COP28 we need to rally behind all hydrogen trending toward near zero emissions by 2030, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Today we use nearly 100 million tonnes of hydrogen as a feedstock for chemicals and fertiliser production worldwide. The problem with this is that this so-called grey hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. Around a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year are associated with this hydrogen production, equivalent to approximately 2% of global emissions.

With demand for hydrogen set to grow up to six-fold in the decades ahead, everyone agrees that the production of grey hydrogen has to stop.

The good news is that it is possible to produce hydrogen using little or no emissions. That hydrogen can then be used as an alternative to fossil fuels in other heavily polluting industries such as steelmaking, shipping or aviation. The bad news is that the notion of “clean” or “low carbon” hydrogen has become ubiquitous and a subtext for promoting fossil-fuel derived hydrogen with emissions which are still too high for our planet to cope with.

In this scenario grey hydrogen is replaced with blue hydrogen, meaning that the carbon emissions from gas or coal used in its manufacture are captured and stored.

At the moment, there is not much blue hydrogen out there. It is expensive and neither captures enough CO2 nor sufficiently minimises the leakage of highly polluting methane. Unless it is held to rigorous emission reduction requirements it has no place in our clean energy future.

There is an alternative to fossil fuel based hydrogen, which is renewable electrolytic green hydrogen, produced using water and renewable electricity. By using wind, sun or hydropower to produce hydrogen, an energy supply chain is created with very low emissions. The Green Hydrogen Standard places an upper limit of 1kg CO2e per kg hydrogen produced and the plan is to lower this limit further. Green hydrogen also offers energy security and price stability advantages to consumers.

The UN Climate Change Conference in the United Arab Emirate at the end of the year will be a watershed moment in the fight against climate disaster. Actions will be critical, and so too is the need to build credibility and trust in paths aligned with a 1.5 degree world. COP28 starts with a trust deficit, because of its strong ties to the oil and gas industry.

The International Energy Agency, International Renewable Energy Agency and UN Climate Change High-Level Champions say that hydrogen production routes “will need to achieve verifiable low-carbon intensities that trend towards near zero by 2030.”

While this statement stops short of setting a rigorous threshold today, it is a clear call for carbon dioxide and equivalent emissions from hydrogen production to reach near zero by the end of the decade. If supporters of blue hydrogen want to be part of the solution, they need to get behind this statement. If blue hydrogen meets this high standard then it has a role to play. Norway’s Equinor claims it can produce blue hydrogen with just 0.6kg CO2e per kg hydrogen under certain conditions but this needs to be proven in the real world.

As chair of the Green Hydrogen Organisation, I know it is dedicated to renewable green hydrogen, made with genuinely low carbon emissions.

As our industry grows from almost nothing today, we will struggle to compete with fossil fuel hydrogen unless strict emissions limits are set. We cannot afford to play footloose with this key part of the energy transition. We call for an end to any talk of undefined “clean” or undefined “low carbon” hydrogen.

Standards, certification, taxation or support schemes which do not include a credible emissions limit for hydrogen production must end.

At the COP28 we need to rally behind all hydrogen trending towards near zero emissions by 2030. The race is on. We have six years to get grey hydrogen out of our energy system and replace it only with truly clean hydrogen.

Source: The Guardian