The European Union’s strategy to boost the production of hydrogen risks locking Europe into burning fossil gas for generations, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said this week.

The European Commission unveiled yesterday its strategy to upscale hydrogen – a fuel that, if produced sustainably using renewable electricity, can become a strong ally in the race to climate neutrality.

The strategy would raise over €200 billion in investments to boost the technology and infrastructure needed to produce, store and transport renewable hydrogen.  A significant amount of funds will also come from the EU’s post-coronavirus recovery plan, which is currently being finalised.

Priority will be given to hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as the steel and cement industry and shipping and aviation, the Commission said.

However, the proposal also foresees fresh investments to boost the production of hydrogen made from fossil fuels. Most worryingly, the Commission estimates that fossil gas will still account for 15% of Europe’s energy mix in 2050 – the year the EU is meant to go climate-neutral.

While welcoming the focus on renewable hydrogen, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) warned of a “double-edged sword”. Barbara Marianithe EEB’s senior policy officer for climate and energy, said that Investing in fossil-based hydrogen, whose production is already available at industrial scale, risks making truly clean and fossil-free hydrogen uncompetitive for the EU market and creating stranded assets.”

The EEB said the strategy risks turning into yet another gift to the fossil fuel industry rather than a chance to advance on the climate agenda.

This was echoed by other NGOs. Tara Connelly, a clean energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said that “the Commission has fallen for the fossil fuel industry’s hydrogen hype […] leaving the door open to fossil hydrogen and […] handing a new lifeline to the failing fossil fuel industry.” 

The European Parliament and member states will discuss the strategy in the coming months, with a view to consolidating a final strategy before the end of the year.

How clean is hydrogen?

The Commission and NGOs agree that only hydrogen that is produced via electrolysis using renewable electricity can be defined as clean.

But here is the catch. Around the world, hydrogen is currently mostly produced from fossil fuels, including gas and coal used to generate electricity or as feedstock. This process, which the strategy refers to as ‘low-carbon’, is emits as much CO2 as the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined each year.

The Commission plans to invest heavily in expensive carbon capture and storage (CCS) and in a very early-stage process known as pyrolysis, which can mitigate the carbon emissions resulting from the production of hydrogen made from fossil gas.

This is a solution which the EEB regards as a huge mistake. “Firstly, to be commercially scalable and profitable, both CCS and pyrolysis require the continued use of fossil fuels at the expense of renewable solutions. Secondly, CCS cannot trap all carbon emissions, and frequent leakages must be taken into account,” the group said.

“EU leaders must gear up for a complete phase-out of fossil gas by 2035, in line with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This is not going to happen if we invest in false solutions such as fossil-based hydrogen and carbon capture technology, which together would create the perfect storm for deepening Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels,” Mariani added.

While useful in a supportive role to reduce emissions in the short-term, relying on carbon capture technology would be a costly gamble – one that would keep Europe dependent on gas imports from countries such as Russia and the United States and delay the transition to climate neutrality.

Fossilising the future

Despite the hype, renewable hydrogen may account for about 10% of the final energy demand in the EU and UK by 2050. This scenario assumes that all fossil fuels will be phased out by 2040, including gas used to produce hydrogen.

However, in another strategy published today on the future of energy system integration, the Commission estimates that fossil fuels will still account for 15% of Europe’s energy mix in 2050. “The Commission is paving the way for the production of fossil-based hydrogen, which undermines its own climate neutrality target set in the European Green Deal,” the EEB said.

Source: EEB and CAN Europe, 2020. “Building a Paris Agreement Compatible energy scenario” Developed in cooperation with grid operators and industry representatives.   

The EEB reiterated that Europe does not need more fossil fuels. The projected increase in electricity generated from renewable energy is set to boost the production of truly clean hydrogen in the next 10 to 30 years.

Steel and cement manufacturing; Image by skeeze.

However, because of current production costs and limited availability, its deployment will have to be strategically assessed. A cost-effective role for renewable hydrogen would be in the decarbonisation of Europe’s most energy-intensive industries and transport – particularly steel and cement manufacturing as well as shipping and aviation – where electrification may be more challenging, according to the European Commission.

For all other sectors, including heating, the EEB said that Europe can already count on scalable solutions such as solar power, renewable electricity, and heat pumps. Renewable energy, coupled with the increasing energy efficiency of buildings, industrial processes, and consumer products, can deliver most of the progress needed to decarbonise our energy system.

The gas industry’s invisible hand

Last month, gas companies and operators urged the European Commission to include substantial funding for fossil-based hydrogen. In a letter, the lobby groups claimed that Europe must continue burning fossil fuels to achieve zero carbon emissions.

This means that the gas industry is not only going to pocket huge sums of money in public and private investments, but, if left unchecked, it will also largely dominate the upcoming policy discussions about hydrogen.

This is the concern of many following the Commission’s announcement of a Clean Hydrogen Alliance. The initiative was meant to bring together researchers, industry representatives and NGOs to oversee the implementation of the strategy. Regrettably, it turned into a one-sided club made up mostly of gas companies, according to Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the EEB. He warned that “we cannot trust them to lead an alliance for clean hydrogen when it is in their commercial interest to continue selling a polluting version of it. We need more civil society participation if we want the Hydrogen Strategy to be a success.”

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