When seeking solutions to combat climate change, hydrogen is often hailed as a miracle solution – an energy source that is clean and in abundance when needed. But is this really the case? In this guest post, Dr Abdullah Belhaif Alnuaimi, former minister of Infrastructure Development, and for Climate Change and Environment, of the UAE discusses why hydrogen may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Green hydrogen is an effective and ecological option, but green hydrogen is rare. Delve a little deeper into the rainbow of hydrogens actually being used and you will find murky waters where production of a ‘clean’ fuel could actually do more damage to the environment than the fossil fuels it is intended to replace.
We hear “energy of the future” in relation to hydrogen. It has been marketed as a reliable, versatile, and clean source of energy that offers a solution to the climate crisis. But while this is true in the case of green hydrogen that is produced using renewable energy and is completely emission-free, green hydrogen is hugely energy intensive and too expensive right now to be commercially feasible, so most of the hydrogen currently being produced is blue, which is two to three times cheaper.
The distinction between the two is substantial.
While blue hydrogen does not produce any emissions when burned, the process of its production is far from clean. Blue hydrogen is extracted from natural gas in a process that requires a lot of energy and emits vast amounts of carbon dioxide. While the plan is to capture and store the gas underground, there are concerns as to what to do with the stored supply of gas in the future, and whether this solution has a long-term viability. The assumption that the captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely is both optimistic and unproven.
Moreover, producing natural gas releases methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas that can warm the air 86 times more than carbon dioxide in just 20 years. Inevitable leaks of methane happen during drilling, extraction, and transportation.
Take Australia, for example, now shipping out tonnes of liquid hydrogen for use in Japan. By liquifying the gas, and the inevitable carbon footprint of shipping across the ocean, most ‘green’ benefits of using this source are negated by the damage done in the process.
There is no infrastructure to support hydrogen production and distribution across the globe.
According to the Global Hydrogen Review 2021, released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the demand for hydrogen stood at 90 Mt in 2020, produced almost exclusively from fossil fuels, resulting in close to 900 Mt of CO2 emissions.
Considering both the uncaptured carbon dioxide and the large emissions of unburned fugitive methane emissions, research has shown that the carbon footprint from creating blue hydrogen is more than 20% greater than using either natural gas or coal directly for heat, or about 60% greater than using diesel oil for heat.
Calling hydrogen, as it is produced today, a low-emission fuel, let alone a zero-emission fuel, is clearly far from the truth.
I would urge governments across the globe to take rapid, more decisive actions to lower the barriers that are holding green hydrogen back from faster growth. This is essential if the world is to have even a chance of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
In the UAE, our government is taking great strides in developing a robust green hydrogen industry. We have the natural resources, technological expertise, and the political will needed to become a key player in the global green hydrogen supply chain. I hope to see other leading nations such as China, the United States, Australia and India – some of the biggest hydrogen producers – to follow suit.
Green hydrogen technology is still nascent and has a long way to go to get where it needs to be to help the world reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Some might argue that until commercial-scale green hydrogen production is successfully deployed and becomes cost-competitive, blue hydrogen offers a bridging technology that can be used to support the transition to a decarbonised energy system.
I disagree. I see this as a ploy to give a “green” credentials to those who are stalling and unwilling to take real steps towards climate action.
It is merely a halfway solution, and we don’t have time for them.
The climate crisis is already in motion, driving people out of their homes in vulnerable countries and causing massive loss in our precious biodiversity. Every year, climate change aggravates the frequency, intensity, and duration of natural disasters that are destroying people’s lives and livelihoods.
We are in a race against time. Unless we go on that race with a firm resolve to win, we will lose. There is much at stake here, and the future generations will have to face the consequences and pay for our inaction. Meeting climate pledges requires faster and more decisive action.
As we embark upon a new year, let’s show real commitment to building the climate-safe future that the young generation is demanding, and not settle for international lip service on the global green agenda.
Dr Abdullah Alnuaimi is the former minister for Infrastructure and Development, and former Climate Change minister, for the UAE government. Splitting his time between UAE and the UK he consults and lectures on renewable energy and environmental matters.
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