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Opinion

Our climate emergency requires huge amounts of green hydrogen

Energy source provides unmatched potential to cut global emissions

| Australia
A liquefied hydrogen carrier transporting its first cargo from Australia extracted from brown coal is docked at Kobe Works yard in Kobe, western Japan, on Jan. 13: not all hydrogen is the same. (Photo by Naoki Hori)

Malcolm Turnbull was the 29th prime minister of Australia, from 2015 to 2018, and is the inaugural chair of the Green Hydrogen Organization (GH2). Andrew Forrest is the founding chair of Fortescue Metals Group and a founding member of the GH2 Board.

Only about 50% of the world's energy and products can be supplied by electricity connected to renewable energy or a battery. The rest requires another source that can supply energy anywhere and make things like steel and fertilizers.

That source is green hydrogen, made from splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, a process called electrolysis, using only renewable energy.

This results in almost zero emissions of carbon dioxide. It is feasible to supply the missing balance of the world's energy through green hydrogen, and it must be in place well before 2050. The question is not whether hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It is about how soon we can make it happen.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's most recent report again makes it clear that we cannot keep pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Without "immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions" in emissions, curbing global warming to either 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100 is "beyond reach," the report said. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has summed it up well: Coal, gas and oil must be replaced "before they destroy our planet."

Hydrogen is the answer. But not all hydrogen is the same. Blue hydrogen, which is produced from gas or coal, or with electricity generated by burning gas or coal, has nothing clean or green about it. Green hydrogen, which is produced through the electrolysis of water with renewable energy, is a proven technology with vastly underappreciated potential to decarbonize large sectors of the global economy.

Heavy industries like steel, cement and fertilizer production and heavy-duty transport, such as shipping, trucking and aviation, together account for nearly one-third of global CO2 emissions, which is expected to double under some business-as-usual scenarios.

Green hydrogen's versatility as a store of renewable energy, a clean-burning fuel and a chemical feedstock for industrial processes provides unmatched potential to address emissions from these hard-to-abate sectors and help decarbonize the global economy.

More than 20 countries, collectively representing over 70% of global gross domestic product, have proposed national hydrogen strategies. However, these strategies are often colorblind, or technology neutral, alarmingly sidestepping the fact that hydrogen produced from fossil fuels will generally result in more CO2 emissions, not less.

The fossil fuel sector has a vested interest in persuading us that it can produce "clean hydrogen" by capturing CO2 emissions and storing them.

Carbon capture and storage has received billions of dollars in support over the past two decades. There were high hopes for it, and we shared them. But it has failed to meet expectations on almost every occasion, and the most recent attempts have been some of the worst. Green hydrogen will soon be more cost-effective anyway. We do not have time to invest precious attention and resources into false solutions.

The International Monetary Fund, among others, has shown how global energy markets are distorted by massive subsidies for fossil fuels and underpriced carbon emissions. These have regressive social outcomes and devastating environmental impacts.

Infrastructure and energy sector policies that promote blue hydrogen are reinforcing these distortions and delaying a sustainable transition. Subsidies and support for fossil fuels should be eliminated. Globally, 80% of global emissions remain unpriced. A credible global carbon pricing scheme is essential.

It is for this reason that we have launched the Green Hydrogen Organization (GH2), which will dramatically accelerate the uptake of green hydrogen to rapidly decarbonize industries like steel, cement, fertilizers, shipping and aviation.

Renewable energy and green hydrogen must be prioritized where the electric grid or batteries cannot reach. Investment is growing, but not quickly enough. Governments should prioritize renewable energy and green hydrogen in infrastructure and energy policy.

Government leadership is vital in establishing a stable legislative and policy framework that encourages industry to invest for the long term. Governments should invest in modern energy infrastructure, including electricity grids designed for renewable energy technologies and refitting natural gas networks to accommodate hydrogen.

Enhanced international cooperation is needed across the board, but especially for developing global standards and accreditation schemes for the trade of green hydrogen.

We have another long-term goal. We believe energy systems can be ethical, decentralized and fair. Jobs and stable energy resources can be created in all countries through the green hydrogen sector. Globally, almost 800 million people lack access to electricity.

Addressing this should be a priority, using renewable energy and green hydrogen, not perpetuating a dependence on fossil fuels. Importantly, there are massive resources of renewable energy in the developing world, where vast populations exist below the poverty line.

Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, India, pictured in January 2020: there are massive resources of renewable energy in the developing world.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

Green energy conversion to green hydrogen is an excellent way to democratize economic growth and provide enormous wealth creation and employment opportunities within these countries.

The International Energy Agency has projected energy use in emerging markets and developing economies will increase by 50% to 2050 and will account for most future greenhouse emissions. It has also shown that if we follow existing "stated policies," 750 million people will still have no access to electricity in 2050, with more than 95% of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is unacceptable, and the development of huge untapped energy resources to supply the industrial world with green hydrogen can also supply the necessary electricity, which we all take for granted, to the developing world.

It follows that emerging and developing economies must play a central role in developing green hydrogen's potential. If emerging and developing countries do not have a seat at the table and are not genuinely engaged, we are guaranteed to fail. We need to rapidly accelerate investment in renewable energy and green hydrogen if we are to reduce energy poverty and meet the U.N.'s sustainable development goals.

We call on government, industry and civil society leaders to join us in prioritizing green hydrogen. This energy transition will be demanding.

But there are extraordinary opportunities to stimulate investment, create millions of new jobs, build better and safer communities and safeguard the environment.

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