Green hydrogen is an effective and ecological option, but it is rare. Delve a little deeper into the rainbow of hydrogens used, and you find murky waters where the production of ‘clean’ fuel does more damage to the environment than the fossil fuels it intends to replace.
Hydrogen is often referred to as the “energy of the future”. It has been marketed as a reliable, versatile and clean energy source that could solve the climate crisis. While this is true of green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy and is completely emission-free, it is hugely energy intensive and too expensive to be commercially feasible. So most of the hydrogen currently produced is blue, which is two to three times cheaper.
Green and blue: What’s the difference?
The distinction between the two is substantial. While blue hydrogen does not produce emissions during burning, its production process is far from clean. It is extracted from natural gas through a process that requires a lot of energy and emits vast amounts of carbon dioxide. The plan is to capture and store carbon dioxide underground, but there are concerns over what to do with the stored gas in future and whether this solution has long-term viability. The assumption that the captured carbon dioxide can be stored indefinitely is optimistic and unproven.
Moreover, the production of natural gas releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can warm the air 86 times more than carbon dioxide in just 20 years. Inevitable methane leaks occur during drilling, extraction, and transportation.
Take the case of Australia, which ships out tonnes of liquid hydrogen to Japan. The process of liquifying the gas and the inevitable carbon footprint of shipping across the ocean negates most of the ‘green’ benefits of using this energy source. Moreover, 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 was 90 Mt (metric tons) in 2020, produced almost exclusively from fossil fuels, resulting in close to 900 Mt of CO2 emissions.
Research has shown that if you consider the uncaptured carbon dioxide and the large emissions of unburned fugitive methane emissions, the carbon footprint from creating blue hydrogen is more than 20 per cent greater than using either natural gas or coal directly for heat, or about 60 per cent greater than using diesel oil for heat.
Calling hydrogen a low-emission fuel, let alone a zero-emission fuel, is clearly far from the truth, given the production process today,
I urge governments worldwide to take rapid, more decisive actions to lower the barriers that are holding back the faster growth of green hydrogen. This is essential if the world is to have a chance of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
Green hydrogen industry in the UAE
In the UAE, our government is making great strides in developing a robust green hydrogen industry. We have the natural resources, technological expertise, and 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 — follow suit.
Green hydrogen technology is still nascent and has a long way to go 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 to support the transition to a decarbonised energy system.
I disagree. I see this as a ploy to give “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 the time for them.
The climate crisis is already in motion, driving people out of their homes in vulnerable countries and causing a massive loss of 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 race with a firm resolve to win, we will lose. There is much at stake, and 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 demands and not settle for international lip service on the global green agenda.
— Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi is a former UAE minister of Infrastructure Development and for Climate Change and Environment.