COP28 push for hydrogen
a gift to the fossil fuel industry
“There’s never been a better time to be in the energy business.”
An immediate halt to new coal, oil and gas projects and a rapid phase-out of production is what the COP28 climate summit needs to deliver. But polluters are undermining climate action through various distractions and false promises, including hydrogen. The European Union and the summit host, the United Arab Emirates, in cahoots with the hydrogen lobby and global consultancies serving their fossil fuel clients, have been busy fuelling the hydrogen craze in the run-up to COP28. The widespread global adoption of hydrogen being peddled by this lobby is a powerful smokescreen, and could potentially extend – and even increase – the use of fossil fuels.
2023 bore witness to the hottest world in thousands of years. From Pakistan to Canada, and from Greece to Libya, heatwaves, floods and wildfires brought death and devastation. UN chief António Guterres declared: “The era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived.” Scientists around the world unanimously agree that a rapid shift away from the burning of fossil fuels is the only way to avert a catastrophic global temperature rise that would be incompatible with a liveable climate.
Despite this emergency situation, Big Oil and Gas are eager to keep drilling. By 2025, the fossil fuel expansion dreams of ten major polluters – amongst them ExxonMobil, TotalEnergies, Shell, QatarEnergy, Adnoc, Saudi Aramco and PetroChina – would see planet-warming CO2 emissions increase from their existing production portfolio by nearly 20,000 million tonnes, according to research by Oil Change International. For perspective, this increase is more than 5.5 times the current total annual emissions of all 27 EU countries combined.
Polluters have concocted clever distractions and greenwashing jargon to distract from the harm that ramping up fossil fuel production will inflict on the planet. The past decades have seen the creation of multiple ‘escape hatches’, including techno-fixes like carbon offsets, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage (CCS). These schemes are the underpinning of the often repeated ‘net zero’ claims by the fossil fuel industry and echoed by many governments. Such pledges are based on improbable targets and wobbly promises of technologies that are unlikely to ever work at scale; in the meantime, they are already causing damage. More recently, industry’s protective strategy has involved redirecting the debate away from the elimination of oil and gas and towards a mere reduction in emissions. As a corporate news site recently framed it: “Emissions are the enemy – not oil and gas”.
The two-pronged business model of Big Oil and Gas – pumping out more fossils while simultaneously capitalizing on alleged low carbon technologies and products – gained traction after the war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis. Countries ramped up oil and gas deals and investments, and the sector took advantage of this opportunity to backtrack on many of its promises and pledges to phase out fossil fuels.
“There isn't one single type of #Energy that will get the world to #NetZero – that's why our strategy includes scaling up lower carbon solutions for tomorrow's energy system AND keeping oil & gas flowing for today's.” Twitter post by BP.
During COP28, companies will take this twofold approach to the world stage, and hydrogen will play a starring role. They will have the support of major economies, including the European Union, which wants to position its corporations as global players in the hydrogen economy. And all signs indicate that they will also have the support of summit host United Arab Emirates (UAE) and COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, who is also the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).
COP28: fuelling the hydrogen hype
Al Jaber, in his controversial role presiding over COP28, has repeatedly suggested an ambitious outcome from the summit: an agreement by governments to double current global hydrogen production from 95 million tonnes to 180 million tonnes per year (Mtpa) by 2030. Whether or not this proposal makes it onto the COP's final agenda, such inflated hydrogen ambitions are no cause for celebration from the perspective of the climate. According to Hydrogen Insight, such an increase this century is “near impossible” and would “necessitate” the production of much more hydrogen made from fossil fuels, thus driving up emissions.
This skepticism is well grounded in fact. According to the International Energy Agency, almost all of the hydrogen produced around the world today – 99 per cent – is made from climate-wrecking fossil fuels. In 2022, hydrogen production was responsible for over 900 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions – more than was emitted by the entire global aviation industry (almost 800 Mt) and greatly exceeding Germany's carbon footprint (635 Mt). At the same time, less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s hydrogen (less than 0.08 million of the total of 95 Mt) was green hydrogen (derived from renewable electricity). In a nutshell, reaching the suggested COP28 presidency goal of 180 Mt with green hydrogen would require a 2,068-fold production increase in seven years. This is a highly unlikely scenario, so the assumption is that this new target will go hand-in-hand with a massive boom in fossil hydrogen.
Dirty facts about ‘clean’ hydrogen.
Nearly all of the hydrogen produced today – 99 per cent – is made from fossil fuels in a process that does not involve any capturing of emissions.
'Blue' hydrogen is also produced from fossils, mostly gas, but the CO2 from the production process is either captured and stored underground (via carbon capture and storage, CCS) or used further directly (with carbon capture and utilization, CCU). In 2022, blue hydrogen accounted for 0.6 per cent of global hydrogen production, according to the International Energy Agency. Blue hydrogen is often referred to as low-carbon, low-emission, or clean gas. But this shady framing ignores several critical truths, including the fact that the fossil fuel industry uses nearly three-quarters of all globally captured carbon for so-called ‘enhanced oil recovery’ in order to pump out – and ultimately burn – previously unextractable fossils. In fact, research shows that the climate footprint of blue hydrogen is actually greater than the direct burning of fossil fuels.
'Green' hydrogen, is produced through a process called water electrolysis that uses electricity from renewable energy sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Green hydrogen is touted as the Holy Grail of the energy transition, but it also comes with serious challenges and risks. It is energy inefficient, behaves as a potent indirect greenhouse gas, and production on a large scale requires vast amounts of land, water and renewable energy. Its production may also fuel ‘green grabbing’ – the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends. An inflated demand for green hydrogen is being used as a Trojan horse to prolong the use of fossil fuels.
Fast-tracking the global hydrogen trade
Whether or not the goal of doubling global hydrogen production by 2030 is agreed in Dubai, industry has long anticipated that COP28 will provide a huge boost to hydrogen. The Hydrogen Council, the world's highest-profile hydrogen lobby with more than 150 member companies from across the hydrogen supply chain (including the main oil and gas multinationals), has been carefully laying the groundwork over the past months. Overblown production targets for hydrogen allow industry to argue that a massive influx of new pipelines and other infrastructure will be needed to transport 'clean' hydrogen across long distances. With the help of global consultancies serving fossil fuel clients, they have carefully prepared for the uptake of their plans at COP28. It is no wonder that companies rejoiced when Sultan Al Jaber was designated COP28 President: “We fully support the COP28 mitigation goal to keep the 1.5 degrees celsius goal alive and in reach through accelerated uptake of hydrogen.”
In October 2023, for instance, the Hydrogen Council and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) co-organised a roundtable in Abu Dhabi on “the hydrogen economy and ecosystem required to achieve 180mt by 2030”. This 'by invitation only' roundtable for ministers, CEOs and policymakers was part of the high profile Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition Conference. With the aim of brokering an agreement before COP28, conference delegates explored what would be needed to achieve an agreement based on a 180 Mtpa ambition for “low carbon hydrogen” [emphasis added]. The event was hosted by Daria Nochevnik, chief lobbyist of the Hydrogen Council. She and Esben Hegnsholt, managing director of BCG, are two of the five members of the special Hydrogen Expert Committee reporting to the COP28 Presidency. The Hydrogen Council's 2023 update of Global Hydrogen Flows (co-authored by international consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, which is also advising COP28 in the interests of its fossil fuel clients), forecasts a demand of 375 Mtpa of low carbon hydrogen by 2050.
Despite growing evidence for how little sense it makes to transport hydrogen, new plans are announced almost every day. In Europe, a mind-boggling 500 large-scale hydrogen transport projects have been proposed – almost entirely by the fossil gas transport industry. At COP itself, more deals will be announced at the High-Level Ministerial-CEO Roundtable on Hydrogen. This roundtable will host the first meeting of the International Hydrogen Trade Forum (IHTF), a group set up in July 2023 and led by the UAE and the Netherlands. The Hydrogen Council, with a key role at the IHTF, wants to fast-track a global market for hydrogen in which Africa, the Middle East and Latin America become key exporting regions for Europe and other major economies. SidenoteOther members include the US, Japan, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Germany, the UK and the European Commission on behalf of the EU). Many governments are buying into the hydrogen lobby's engineered ‘need’ for hydrogen, despite the fact that it is useful only in limited cases.
A lucrative hydrogen trade fair
COP28 will showcase many other large and small initiatives that are promoting and scaling up hydrogen, and will offer the ideal chance for hydrogen lobbyists to mingle. For example, on 29 November, the evening before the climate summit kicks off, the bosses of US gas and chemical company Air Products (one of the world’s largest fossil hydrogen producers), the US utility AES and other corporate executives met in a “special CEO dinner... by invitation only” to discuss “The Race to Define (and Deliver) Clean Hydrogen”.
Dii Desert Energy a consortium of over 100 companies and groups including Shell, E.ON, Engie, Linde, TotalEnergies and Siemens, organized a Leadership Summit in Dubai on 28 November with a “prominent pre-COP reception, to discuss strategies and projects to speed up the journey towards 'no harmful emissions'”. The following day, the company's partners hobnobbed with VIP guests in another ‘by invitation only’ dinner reception featuring “an adrenaline-filled menu of Japanese Korean cuisine” to celebrate emission-free partnerships.
On 7 December, the Hydrogen Transition Summit will bring together some 500 participants to “address the urgent climate crisis by embracing a hydrogen-based economy.” Among the attendees at this packed one-day event will be prominent actors from the industry: hydrogen producer Air Products and German car manufacturer BMW; industry lobby groups including Hydrogen Europe and the Hydrogen Council; and various ministers and other policymakers. During the Energy Transition Changemakers awards on 5 December, a PR event organised by Al Jaber and his crew, private sector projects in the field of “low-carbon hydrogen” will take the spotlight.
The European Union: driving the hydrogen hype
The EU has made hydrogen a cornerstone of its energy policies, thanks in no small part to the intense and coordinated pressure from its fossil fuel and hydrogen lobby. Hydrogen Europe is the most influential hydrogen lobby group in Europe. It comprises over 500 member companies and associations from across the hydrogen supply chain, including fossil fuel majors (Aramco, Shell and BP for a start) and companies specialized in CCS/CCUS technologies (like Topsoe from Denmark and Teco from Norway). The European Commission has taken on board the lobby group's demands for overblown hydrogen targets and massive public funding for the sector.
Following the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis, the EU’s 2030 targets for green hydrogen quadrupled to 20 million tonnes, with half to be produced domestically and the other half imported, mainly from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Not only did RePower, the EU's scheme to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels, quadruple the EU's green hydrogen targets for 2030, but it also included an external energy strategy to secure green hydrogen imports from third countries.
The hydrogen lobby gladly welcomed this development; it had been angling for the formation of international hydrogen partnerships around the world in order to position its corporations as global players.
The EU wants to secure cooperation with the Gulf states, which are extending their investments in hydrogen (as well as their political reach) abroad as an opportunity to lead the export of technologies to the region. Documents obtained via access to information requests by MEP Manon Aubry show that both current Commission President van der Leyen and former Commissioner Timmermans prepared for COP28 through meetings with Sultan Al Jaber. Their mission involved establishing trilateral cooperation so the EU and the UAE could join efforts to spur hydrogen development in partner countries.
In Europe, Germany and the Netherlands have taken the lead in brokering hydrogen deals with the Gulf states; over the past couple of years, both countries have signed agreements on hydrogen with the UAE. In the case of the Netherlands, it was EU Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra (currently leading the EU at COP28) during his tenure as Dutch Foreign Minister who engaged with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. He ultimately oversaw the signing of four deals between UAE company Masdar and Dutch companies on the production of green hydrogen in Abu Dhabi and its export to Europe. Incidentally, Hoekstra's ability to represent the public interest in his role as EU climate chief at the COP is currently being questioned; not only did he have a pro-fossil fuel track record as Dutch Minister but he previously worked for more than a decade for consultancy firm McKinsey.
Hydrogen Europe and the European Commission: too close?
Documents obtained by Corporate Europe Observatory reveal how Hydrogen Europe has been at the forefront of the European Commission’s crusade to establish deals enabling access to hydrogen imports while simultaneously securing raw materials for European industry. Last year at COP27, Hydrogen Europe facilitated a key EU-Egypt hydrogen deal. In the run-up to COP28, the lobby has used its privileged access to both the European Commission and the Egyptian government to demand public funds to benefit companies like the Suez Canal and the Port of Rotterdam. SidenoteIn March 2023, Hydrogen Europe and its Egyptian counterpart organized a meeting with the Egyptian government and DG Energy and INTPA (International Partnerships) during which the Suez Canal and the Port of Rotterdam presented industry concerns and proposals for how to solve them with funds from the H2Global Foundation and the ERBD.
Other documents also reveal the shocking extent to which the European Commission has actively sought out Hydrogen Europe's involvement. In June, the European Commission's DG INTPA wrote to Hydrogen Europe informing them of a visit by the Mauritanian energy minister and asking its CEO Jorgo Chatzimarkakis to meet with him. “We would appreciate if you could consider availability to have a discussion with the Minister during the above timeslots, apologizing in advance for the time urgency of our request.” Following the meeting, Chatzimarkakis concluded that “we are happy to look into any possibility to make Mauritania a partner country of the European Union”.
Hydrogen Europe, TotalEnergies and other polluting giants are members of the newly established Global Gateway Business Advisory Group, which gives business undue influence in choosing priorities for the investment plans. In October, the Commission launched a Global Gateway plan to develop green hydrogen in Mauritania. According to Alexandra Gerasimcikova from Counter Balance, “It’s not clear if and when Mauritania will see any benefits of these projects, as there are serious doubts hydrogen in the country can really take off. Moreover, some of the key beneficiaries are big polluters such as German Conjuncta, Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal, and France’s TotalEnergies.'' SidenoteEmail by Alexandra Gerasimcikova, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Counter Balance. Sidenote
The UAE’s ambitious hydrogen plans...
The United Arab Emirates is a major oil and gas producer, and according to new research, Adnoc has the largest net zero-busting expansion plans of any company in the world. The wealthy host of COP28 has jumped into the hydrogen global race – partly to divert attention from the fact that its plans are completely incompatible with a safe planet, and partly to cash in profits from a growing market. The country's national hydrogen strategy, presented just before COP28 on 8 November, aspires for 25% of the total hydrogen world market. Its unrealistic targets – 1.4 million tons per annum of low-carbon hydrogen by 2031, and 15 million tons annually by 2050 – provide fuel for governments' global race to create a lucrative future hydrogen market.
Adnoc already produces more than 300,000 tonnes of fossil hydrogen per year, and plans to scale up to 500,000 tonnes annually. The company also wants to join the ranks of today’s big hydrogen manufacturers (including Ireland-based Linde, France-based Air Liquide, and US-based Air Products) to become one of the world’s biggest producers of blue hydrogen. But the UAE’s role as COP28 host is primarily being greened by its connection with Masdar, a renewable energy company also chaired by Al Jaber. Masdar's stated aim is to produce up to 1 Mtpa of green hydrogen by 2030, half in Abu Dhabi and the rest internationally. However, critical reports have recently questioned the company's overblown renewable figures.
The UAE plays an increasingly central role in hydrogen plans – not only for the MENA region but also on the entire African continent – and is behind many of the numerous deals announced over the last years. One example illustrating the mutual interest between European countries and the UAE is a $34 billion green hydrogen project in Mauritania. Masdar, the German project developer Conjuncta, and Egypt's renewable energy company Infinity signed a MoU for this project with the Mauritanian government in March 2023. Plans include a production capacity of up to 8 million tonnes of green hydrogen (or other hydrogen-based end products). Much of the exports will use German technology and will be destined for Germany. This project illustrates how the EU’s global hydrogen quest reinforces what geography professors Christian Brannstrom and Adryane Gorayeb have called a “global division of decarbonization”: the divide between countries that benefit from renewable energy (where multinationals are headquartered and the most energy is consumed) and countries that are mostly harmed (through the direct impacts of hydrogen installations).
...with a little help from their friends
The UAE’s hydrogen strategy was developed together with GHD, an Australian consultancy, and Fraunhofer CINES, a German research and consultancy group that plays a leading role in the country’s aggressive hydrogen policy. At the launch of the UAE’s hydrogen strategy, an official from the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action expressed the government's gratitude: “We are very honoured that we could support you in the process of developing the strategy with Fraunhofer... We value the role Germany is given as a key partner for exports. The ramp up of the hydrogen market will be a booster for bilateral trade and enable sustainable economic growth.”
Germany has already established hydrogen alliances and partnerships with over 26 potential export countries, many of them in the Global South. Berlin plans to cover two-thirds of its future green hydrogen demand with imports, and is set to become Europe's biggest importer of the gas, with an estimated 60 to 70 per cent share of the future EU/UK import demand.
However, much of the hydrogen hype is built on a house of cards, and the status of the German government’s ambitious green hydrogen plans is unclear after the constitutional court removed €60 billion from its federal budget on 15 November.
Dii Desert Energy, which started as a German initiative but has shifted its activities to the Gulf and is now headquartered in Dubai, also helped to draft the UAE’s hydrogen strategy in collaboration with with Sultan Al Jaber and the Boston Consultancy Group. The chairman of Dii's advisory board, Frank Wouters, offers a dizzying example of how quickly the revolving door between industry and the official process can spin: he has held leading positions in Masdar, was deputy director general of IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency), and ran his own consultancy in Abu Dhabi (Wouters Ltd). Dii's current lead partners are the Saudi NEOM project, ACWA Power, the Chinese utility grid CEPRI, and German engineering giant ThyssenKrupp. Together with the Roland Berger consultancy (another global firm working on the hydrogen push), the company produced an optimistic study on the potential of green hydrogen in the Gulf states, citing a potential annual revenue of $200 billion.
Both Siemens Energy and its parent company Siemens, the German engineering giant and global supplier to the energy industry, are members of Dii Desert Energy. Siemens is a COP28 partner (read: sponsor) and Joe Kaeser, chair of Siemens Energy’s supervisory board (plus that of Daimler Truck), sits on the COP28 advisory committee, where he provides “guidance and counsel to the COP Presidency in the run up to COP28 and beyond”. Siemens Energy is involved in fossil and green hydrogen sites around the world and is part of the hydrogen lobby inflating the hype in Europe. Recently, Siemens Energy has come under heavy fire for expanding fossil gas infrastructure and associated human rights violations surrounding its projects (for example, in Western Sahara). The company is facing huge financial challenges, and was recently bailed out by the German government with a €7.5 billion state guarantee (involving €11 billion in loans and €3.5 billion in guarantees covered by a bank consortium).
Yet another COP captured by fossil fuels
“By appearing to transform themselves into key actors in the fight against a warming climate, the Gulf states obscure their ongoing centrality to a globalized fossil capitalism. This is the real goal behind their leadership in the deliberations at both COP27 and COP28 – it is a means of shaping the world’s response to climate change and of resisting any move away from an oil-centred global order.”Adam Hanieh, Professor of Political Economy and Global Development at IAIS, University of Exeter
Much has been written about the scandalous fact that a fossil fuel CEO is leading COP28. In fact, this outcome is the work of some of the world’s most influential PR agencies, supported by their plethora of fossil fuel clients. These backroom players helped to secure the support of global leaders and institutions for Al Jaber in order to place him at the helm of COP28, and governments including the United States and the European Union applauded the news.
The sobering truth is that fossil fuel interests have long shaped the COP agenda. New research by the Kick Polluters Out coalition has revealed that biggest polluting oil and gas firms and their trade groups have attended UN-led climate talks at least 7200 times over the last 20 years. These groups have used their attendance at the COPs to lobby to advance fossil fuel interests. As Melissa Aronczyk, a US Professor of Media Studies specialized in climate misinformation and environmental PR puts it: “Having the head of an oil company presiding over COP28 represents the culmination of 30-plus years of capitulation to the power and money of the fossil fuel industry.”
Kick big polluters out
The way out is clear: big polluters must be kicked out of climate decision making fora. A network of more than 450 organizations is calling for the UNFCCC to adopt an Accountability Framework to prevent the world’s largest polluters from steering global climate policymaking. After many years of campaigning by civil society, the UNFCCC took a first important step last June by mandating that participants disclose who they are representing at the COP. In recent years, government delegates collectively representing almost 70% of the world’s population have requested that these conflicts of interest be addressed. And in the lead-up to COP28, more than 130 EU and US legislators joined the call to ban fossil fuel lobbyists from the summit, calling on their own polluting governments to stop obstructing progress on this issue.
There is no time left for the fossil fuel industry's escape hatches, be they carbon and offset markets, geoengineering or hydrogen. Hydrogen is nothing but a hoax that distracts from the real solutions. It protects polluting assets and profits, and even provides false justification for their expansion.
It is encouraging that more and more climate scientists, environmental justice groups and frontline communities are starting to scrutinise the hydrogen hype. The African People’s Climate and Development Declaration, signed by over 500 African civil society groups in September 2023, calls green hydrogen a “false solution we reject”:
“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... Renewable energy needs to be prioritized for domestic use, not foreign markets.”
Policymakers, too, should be wary of the hydrogen gamble. In order to avert catastrophic climate change, they must turn off the firehose of public money flowing to the sector, scrap the unrealistic targets, and stop listening to the hydrogen lobby.