Europe needs to set stable standards for pure hydrogen to mobilize investment from the Middle East

Comment: Europe needs low-carbon hydrogen and the Middle East and North Africa can produce it

Last year, the European Commission set out its ten-year plan to reduce 55% of emissions from the European economy. It has three main pillars.

First, electrification and renewable energy for most consumer needs. Second, a large increase in the hydrogen economy to replace the fuels used by industry. Third, high-carbon mechanisms designed to reduce the economic impact of the transition for the countries and communities most affected.

None of these pillars is easy to reach, but the hydrogen segment is the most unstable. The EU has achieved a 24% reduction in emissions by 2019 compared to 1990 levels, but heavy transport emissions have indeed increased during this period and industrial decarbonisation efforts have fallen sharply since 2009.

Studies predicting European demand for hydrogen vary, but all show a huge increase. Even in the lowlands, growth of over 700% is expected by 2050. Europe will need as much hydrogen as it can get. A significant amount will be imported, as local production is unlikely to scale fast enough to meet this rapid increase in demand.

Sources: Guidehouse, European Hydrogen Backbone 2021, DNV Pathway to Net-Zero 2021 and CATF Europe Decarbonisation Pathway Analysis 2022

Europe only has seven and a half years to go from a 24% to 55% reduction in emissions, so there is absolutely no time to waste.

In essence, electrifying sectors – such as heavy industry and heavy transport – will require a new set of low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia to replace today’s fossil fuels, as well as carbon capture and storage (CCS) to eliminate residual emissions. . Hydrogen and ammonia are relatively easy to replace in fuel-focused processes. They do not contain carbon molecules, so they are considered “zero carbon” at the point of use.

The main climate challenges come with the production of these fuels.

Upstream emissions and the risks of carbon capture

Within the EU, hydrogen produced by renewable energy cells remains the main focus. This is a commendable strategy that deserves enthusiastic support, but it is not a quick solution.

Europe is in a race to build renewables fast enough to decarbonise the electricity grid, so it may not have the extra renewable electricity needed to produce significant amounts of green hydrogen in the near future. Europe’s largest port estimates that it will import 20 million tonnes a year in 2050, which is more than twice the current total consumption in Europe.

There are many challenges associated with the alternative: producing hydrogen from fossil gases by capturing and storing carbon, often called “blue hydrogen”.

First, there is the potential for significant upstream emissions in the form of methane. Scientists believe that methane may dominate blue hydrogen emissions, even at high levels of carbon capture, as you can see from the chart below.

Impact on climate change related to natural gas-based hydrogen production (Photo: Bauer et al / Sustainable Energy and Fuels)

Methane is 80 times more powerful than CO2 and is emitted and released into the entire fossil gas network, as shown by our colleagues from CATF. Purification of methane emissions is perhaps the most urgent action for the climate in this decade. Fortunately, leading research shows that significant reductions are achievable with technologies that are already available, at low or negative costs. This must happen whether or not fossil gas is used to produce blue hydrogen.

Second, there are unavoidable CO2 emissions when extracting hydrogen from fossil gases, which must be taken into account. To solve this, blue hydrogen plants must adopt a technology that prevents CO2 from entering the atmosphere and then store it permanently in geological formations.

CCS technology has been operating safely and efficiently for nearly 50 years, and hydrogen production facilities achieving 90% total carbon capture or more can be built today using commercial technology.

With much lower methane leakage levels and advanced high-capture carbon capture units, it is possible to produce hydrogen, leading to about 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the direct use of fossil fuels.

However, similar levels of capture have not yet been demonstrated on a large scale. As with any new climate technology, there are risks that the promised emission reductions will not materialize, and many groups have opposed attempts to introduce CCS into the technology mix because of these risks.

This is for a major reason why we are yet to see such levels of scale capture: we have not yet tried it.

Only 0.6% of the hydrogen produced today, extracted from fossil fuels, is made by carbon capture technology. Without political pressure to increase the production of low-carbon hydrogen, manufacturers have no reason to reduce emissions of the ‘gray’ hydrogen produced by the fossil fuels we use today.

Where the European Union must take action

Reaching scale is a huge concern when it comes to the low-carbon hydrogen economy.

EU High Representative for Climate Change Frans Timmermans recently said that “Europe will never be able to produce enough hydrogen of its own” in a speech to potential producers of low-carbon fuels in neighboring countries.

A combination of blue and green hydrogen is probably needed to meet European and global hydrogen demand at least until the middle of the century – the IEA Net Zero report by 2050 shows a 62/38 percent split between the two even in 2050.

However, hydrogen can only be considered a viable option for Europe with appropriate climate control, such as strong methane management and significant carbon capture and storage.

To some extent, this is already reflected in European policy. The term “low carbon” is included in the EU Hydrogen Strategy and the gas package, but no details are available. It is crucial that the gas package, in particular, sets out the conditions to ensure that hydrogen imports are beneficial to the climate.

There is currently no certification system for low-carbon hydrogen and the Commission plans to introduce one only in 2024. It is too late. Many Member States have already concluded import transactions and are in the process of adopting their own schemes, which will inevitably lead to confusion among producers. In addition, these certification schemes do not take into account adequate life cycle analyzes, ignoring the upstream and transport emissions that need to be considered. The EU must intervene.

The lack of clarity has slowed investment by potential hydrogen producers in the Middle East and North Africa. These are countries that have long been Europe’s energy partners and have the know-how and resources to increase much-needed hydrogen production, but have the impression that only green hydrogen will be accepted by importers in Europe. Blue hydrogen production means significant investment in infrastructure – it will not happen overnight.

The longer it takes Europe to set out its vision for hydrogen imports, the longer it will take both regions to move from the status quo to continued mining, transport and consumption of fossil fuels without reduction.

As the EU builds new energy relations around the world, it must seek profitable solutions that meet the scale and speed needed to achieve climate goals, while tackling the challenges of energy security.

Olivia Azadegan is the Director of the Clean Air Task Force for the Middle East and East

Magnolia Tovar is Global Director for Zero Carbon Policy of the Clean Air Task Force

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