The push for 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 South.
Germany has played an influential role in setting the European Union’s climate and industrial policy agenda, with Brussels now planning to spend billions in government subsidies to make the supposed ‘miracle gas’ the centerpiece of a climate-neutral economy to make.
But the report “Germany’s great hydrogen race” (pdf), released Thursday, highlights that 99 percent of current globally produced hydrogen is “grey” hydrogen, made from fossil fuels, with annual CO2 emissions higher than those of the entire country.
Fossil “blue” hydrogen, promoted as a “low carbon” alternative, has a climate footprint that is almost as bad when total emissions are taken into account.
“Green” hydrogen, considered “carbon-free”, will account for only 0.04 percent of global hydrogen production in 2021 and poses serious challenges and risks.
“It is energy inefficient, behaves like a potent indirect greenhouse gas and large-scale production requires massive amounts of land, water and renewable energy,” the Brussels-based watchdog found.
In addition, its production can encourage “green grabbing”, or the appropriation of land and resources for environmental purposes.
“Much of the green hydrogen that the EU plans to use will be imported from North Africa and the Middle East,” Belen Balanya, a researcher at the CEO, told Al Jazeera.
“While the EU is in bed with the gas industry and big business – who are driving the continent’s response to the energy crisis – it is ordinary citizens in Europe and North Africa who will bear the brunt of this deeply flawed hydrogen strategy.”
“German-backed green hydrogen projects abroad follow colonial patterns,” the report said. “Resources are appropriated, while negative effects such as ecological damage and energy scarcity are conveniently outsourced. Conflicts about the use of land and water are already becoming apparent and could intensify in the coming years.”
One example of human rights violations associated with green hydrogen projects was the planned megacity of Neom in Saudi Arabia, CEO found, where German multinational Thyssenkrupp was installing a massive electrolyser to produce hydrogen for export.
“Ancient tribes have been forcibly displaced from their lands to make way for Neom,” the report said, while several residents who resisted evictions were sentenced to death.
Nevertheless, cooperation between Germany and Saudi Arabia continues. Such partnerships risk the reproduction and legitimization of authoritarian regimes in the name of sustainability.
Similarly, land disputes have already erupted in South Africa, where a planned port and export processing zone for green hydrogen in Boegoe Bay 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 export hub for green hydrogen, conflicts with indigenous communities over land, water and environmental pollution have been reported for years.
Mapping 27 countries – most of them 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 only apply to a few selected locations.
“Hydrogen projects in the Global South are often centralized megaprojects and lack citizen participation,” the report said. “They are ignoring important issues such as communities’ prior and informed consent.”
According to the CEO, hydrogen is no more successful in delivering global justice than its main promise: tackling the climate crisis.
“Hydrogen is yet another dangerous distraction and a lifeline for fossil fuel companies. The fact that you put the word ‘green’ in front of an energy source does not make it sustainable or fair,’ says CEO Balanya.
Hydrogen is produced from fossils, usually gas. Unlike making gray hydrogen, the production process of “blue hydrogen” involves capturing and storing CO2 emissions underground in a process called CCS, or “carbon capture and storage.”
The effectiveness of this process in reducing emissions is still under debate.
According to the report, the “hype” surrounding hydrogen is diverting attention from much-needed structural changes, including increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, moving to agroecological farming and reducing traffic.
“Destructive industries such as fossil fuels and aviation can also use the hydrogen hype for greenwashing rather than actually downsizing their dirty businesses,” said the CEO.