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Over the past few years, hydrogen has been transformed into a cornerstone of EU energy policy. Yet, oil and gas majors are taking advantage of the EU’s unrealistic targets for green hydrogen in order to sneak fossil-based hydrogen in through the back door, Belén Balanyá writes.
A look at the top 100 highest spenders on EU lobbying reveals that the hydrogen lobby is particularly extravagant, shelling out a whopping €75.75 million per year.
To give some context, this is substantially more than what big tech (€43.5m) and big finance (€38.75m) declare in the top 100 for their annual lobby spending.
The ranking sheds some light on the IEA’s newly released figures showing that an astounding 99% of globally produced hydrogen is made from fossil fuels. Yes, we are talking about the very same fossil fuels that are stoking the climate crisis.
In 2022, the total global hydrogen production of 95 million tonnes (Mt) was responsible for over 900 Mt of carbon emissions. This exceeded the nearly 800 Mt that was emitted by the entire global aviation industry.
Although the EU’s targets for green hydrogen are trumpeted with great fanfare — 20 million tonnes per year by 2030 — the fact is that current green hydrogen production around the world remains negligible. In 2022, less than 0.1% of global hydrogen (less than 0.08 million tonnes) was produced from renewable electricity.
Over the past few years, hydrogen has been transformed into a cornerstone of EU energy policy. Let’s look behind the scenes to see who is profiting from today’s inflated targets, massive subsidies and support schemes.
Meet Big Hydrogen
Unsurprisingly, oil and gas majors like Shell, Total, ExxonMobil, BP, Equinor and their lobby groups figure on the list of the top 100 spenders on EU lobbying, drawn from LobbyFacts data.
These interests, fully aware that hydrogen will continue to be mostly fossil-based in the coming years, have successfully hyped hydrogen as a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis. They are taking advantage of the EU’s unrealistic targets for green hydrogen in order to sneak fossil-based hydrogen in through the back door.
They are building on their campaign to sell the so-called “blue” hydrogen — produced from fossil fuels, mainly gas, with part of the carbon emissions “captured” — as clean.
Although it is often described as a low-carbon, low-emissions, and even CO2-neutral gas, blue hydrogen is a climate killer.
In fact, when their total CO2 and methane emissions are added up, the climate footprint of blue and other fossil hydrogen is greater than the direct burning of fossil fuels. Yet it has become a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry.
Other polluting industries with a vested interest in the hydrogen economy have also jumped on the bandwagon, including chemical and fertiliser corporations such as BASF, Dow, and Yara, and big players from the transport sector like BMW and the powerful ACEA car lobby.
Manufacturers including Siemens and Bosch are along for the ride, as is the influential Hydrogen Europe lobby group.
In the increasingly urgent context of the climate crisis, the hydrogen hype offers a perfect cover for polluting companies.
Why reduce traffic, or transition to agroecological farming, or decommission fossil gas pipelines when hydrogen allows you to continue your dirty business?
The slippery slope towards neo-colonialism
The continuation of the fossil fuel era is not the only risk posed by the hydrogen hype. The EU’s hydrogen plans deepen neo-colonial extractivist practices, including the large-scale appropriation in producing countries of land, water, and energy that could otherwise be used to meet local electricity needs.
in a new report by Corporate Europe Observatory, we look at projects with a planned production capacity of more than 1 gigawatt of green hydrogen. We found that 41 of the proposed 109 projects are planned in countries already facing high water stress, including Spain, Namibia, Chile and Morocco.
According to industry figures, the production process consumes around 10 litres of ultra-pure water (requiring 20-30 litres of seawater or 12-13 litres of fresh water) for every produced kilogram of hydrogen.
This places additional demands on water in a context where food production and drinking water are already under stress.
The wind and solar farms needed for the hydrogen economy also require vast areas of land. For example, with an area of 8,500 km2, the Aman project in Mauritania — one of the world’s biggest planned green hydrogen projects — covers more territory than many global megacities.
Additionally, many of the countries that the EU considers as potential candidates for hydrogen imports produce little green energy.
For example, in the Gulf countries, less than 1% of the electricity came from renewables in 2022 (the exception is the United Arab Emirates, with 4.5%).
A vision away from the resource-grabbing corporate economy of today
For similar reasons, the African People’s Climate and Development Declaration, signed by over 500 African civil society groups in September 2023, rejects green hydrogen as a “false solution”, stating that “green hydrogen for export does nothing to increase access for the 600 million Africans without access to energy. Instead, it turns our African renewable energy into an exportable commodity and ships our energy overseas.”
This is not to say that there is no role for green hydrogen. Mohamed Adow, who leads the climate think tank Power Shift Africa, outlines what he considers as a “socially, ecologically and economically appropriate use of hydrogen” in Africa: “small to medium scale, for domestic use (not for export), not in water-stressed regions, and to produce fertilisers for food sovereignty rather than for cash crops for export”.
His vision could not be further from the resource-grabbing and corporate-controlled hydrogen economy currently under construction in the EU.
Yet, it seems that nobody is hearing him, or many others who might have a much healthier, resilient, and mindful vision for our joint future.
Belén Balanyá is a researcher and campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory, a non-profit research and campaign group aiming to expose any effects of corporate lobbying on EU policymaking.
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