The hydrogen COP

boosting green colonialism in Africa

This year’s round of global climate negotiations at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, was dubbed the ‘gas COP’, with record-breaking numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists in attendance, and the suicidally enthusiastic embrace of gas as a ‘transitional’ fuel. And where there are gas lobbyists, there is also hydrogen hype, which they call a 'climate solution' despite the fact that almost all hydrogen is currently manufactured using fossil fuels. Yet much less attention was paid to how this was also the ‘hydrogen COP’, with a myriad of events and deals sealed by companies and governments, many with a focus on extracting resources from Africa.

The EU and European companies used COP27 to intensify their efforts to lead the global race for hydrogen. This follows the European Commission’s plans laid out in RePowerEU the plan to end dependence on Russian gas following the invasion of Ukraine – to double to 20m tonnes by 2030 the already questionable quota of green hydrogen (made with renewable energy) to be produced and imported. The southern Mediterranean is expected to meet up to 80 per cent of imports; and a study of renewable-hydrogen plans in North Africa, commissioned by Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute, showed these targets to be highly unrealistic from a cost and an energy perspective.

The Commission estimates that the share of hydrogen in the EU’s energy mix could be as much as 13-20 per cent by 2050. With other regions in the world setting similarly high targets, hydrogen numbers are constantly increasing. According to a 2021 report by industry group Hydrogen Council, and McKinsey, over 200 large-scale projects have been announced exceeding US$300 billion, including $80 billion on mature projects that are already in planning, investment, construction, or operational stage. And COP27 was a huge injection to the hydrogen bubble.

More than 97 per cent of hydrogen produced today is made using fossil fuels, and governments and financial institutions are subsidising and giving regulatory support not only to green hydrogen, but also to ‘blue’ hydrogen made of fossil gas with the promise, yet to materialise, of capturing the emissions from making this blue hydrogen with failed carbon capture and storage technology.


COP27: the hydrogen fair

There are two inconvenient truths about hydrogen. One is the fact that only a tiny percentage of hydrogen is green and the vast majority is made using fossil fuels; the second is that production of green hydrogen at such large scales is unsustainable. But industry and lobbyists promote 'green hydrogen' as a lure to ensure the increased use of hydrogen overall.

This green hydrogen hype was the focus of many events at COP27, for example a high level roundtable on “investing in the future of energy: green hydrogen” was convened by the COP27 Presidency together with the World Economic Forum. Here Egypt's President El-Sisi and the Belgian Prime Minister announced the launch of the Global Renewable Hydrogen Forum, a platform to further accelerate the development and deployment of green hydrogen projects across the globe. The Hydrogen Transition summit organised by Climate Action also focused on green hydrogen, and brought together decision-makers, investors, and industry to discuss policies and funding to “de-risk commercial investment, forcing consumer demand and bolstering infrastructure".

On COP27’s Energy Day, Egypt organised many sessions on green hydrogen and announced eight framework agreements to develop green hydrogen and ammonia projects (the latter made with green hydrogen to produce fertilizers), aiming to win 5 per cent of the global market by 2040. Developers have pledged $42bn in projects in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.


Race for resources, the EU takes position

The EU presented two strategic partnerships on hydrogen during COP27. One with Namibia, on ‘sustainable’ raw materials and renewable hydrogen. With it, the EU is trying to secure the supply not only of green hydrogen but also of raw materials such as rare earth magnets and polysilicon. And one with Egypt on renewable hydrogen, described as a “central block in building an EU-Mediterranean Renewable Hydrogen Partnership”.

This strategy of securing supplies from resource-rich countries follows exactly the demands of the hydrogen lobby, which in May 2022 asked to the EU to build energy partnerships that “should focus on countries with highly competitive conditions for wind and solar energy... and on countries that deliver critical raw materials for the hydrogen value change”. Continuing the Commission's bad habit of putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, its implementation will “involve a Business Forum with representatives from industry, regulators, financial institutions and experts”.


Is green hydrogen the silver bullet?

The massive push for green hydrogen raises a myriad of crucial questions, yet there has been a shocking lack of critical voices. Questions such as, is green hydrogen at the scale proposed sustainable? Are these plans and targets even realistic? Who is benefiting from them? Who’s bearing the risks?

The study commissioned by Corporate Europe Observatory and Transnational Institute showed how the EU’s plan to drastically increase imports of renewable hydrogen from North Africa diverts renewable electricity away from local needs and local climate targets. The renewable electricity generated by these countries could be better used to displace domestic fossil fuel power generation and meet local energy needs.

It makes little sense for these countries to use their renewable electricity to make hydrogen and products from hydrogen, then ship them to Europe at significant loss of energy (and efficiency), so that the EU can achieve climate emissions targets.

This critical view is reinforced in recent reports and articles.

Not only is green hydrogen at such large scales unsustainable, it works as a Trojan horse for fossil hydrogen. The push for green hydrogen and the hydrogen economy has always been supported by Europe’s oil and gas majors, who see it as a back door for hydrogen from fossil gas. In oil and gas producing countries such as Algeria and Egypt, blue hydrogen projects are being explored alongside green.


The hydrogen lobby at work at COP27

Hydrogen-focused industry lobby groups are popping up like mushrooms and took front stage at COP27. After all, as ‘Siggi’ Huegemann, co-founder and Secretary General of the African Hydrogen Partnership (APH) says:

“There are fortunes to be made today from green hydrogen produced and consumed in Africa!”.

Huegemann is also founder and director of Hypowa, a company making hydrogen fuel cells for transport. AHP members include mining giant AngloAmerican, Port of Rotterdam, the International Fertilizers Association, and Hydrogen Europe.

Also at COP27 was Dii Desert Energy, whose partners include Shell, Total, and Uniper. A veteran in the ‘green’ colonialism of Africa, it has reinvented itself as Desertec3.0 to jump on the hydrogen bonanza, after launching the Desertec project in 2009, an ambitious initiative to power Europe from Saharan solar plants which stalled amid criticisms of its astronomical costs and its neo-colonial connotations. In 2020 Dii launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance to help set up energy projects in the region that produce hydrogen for export, and both have also been busy at COP connecting investors and producers for hydrogen projects.

One of the most active and influential lobby groups is Hydrogen Europe, which launched a special COP27 report on the subject. Its members include gas companies such as Equinor, Eni, Shell, BP, and Total and operators of the gas pipelines (TSOs) such as Fluxys, Snam, Enagás, and Gasunie. European TSOs stand to massively benefit from the EU’s hyped hydrogen plans, and under the Hydrogen backbone initiative are proposing hydrogen infrastructure (giving a lifeline to existing fossil gas infrastructure and funding for more) of a 28,000 km pipeline network for 2030 to grow to 53,000 km by 2040.


With a little help from my friends

Governments and financial institutions are providing these companies profiting from the push for hydrogen with such a big financial and regulatory support as to de-risk their commercial investment. But this rush to create a hydrogen market is not in line with technical studies but rather with political ambition, and the European Commission and some governments such as Germany are among the strongest zealots.

The European Commission recently announced the creation of a hydrogen bank with a €3 billion investment to help guarantee the purchase of hydrogen, that tops more than €13 billion in state aid for national and cross-border hydrogen projects. The announcement was made at the Hydrogen week, held just prior to COP27 and co-organised by Hydrogen Europe and the Commission.

This is a dramatic gear change. As we reported two years ago, behind the EU’s hydrogen hype was the gas lobby, and the most influential group was Hydrogen Europe. Recently its now Chief Executive Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, former MEP, claimed the credit for the EU Hydrogen Strategy targets and for the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance (an industry-dominated group that supports the deployment of both blue and green hydrogen projects). Speaking about the crisis sparked by the pandemic, Chatzimarkakis said “We were very, very fast in reacting to what the Commission needed… we came back to them in May with a concrete plan.” That plan was the target for 40 gigawatts (GW) of electrolysers in the EU by 2030 plus a further 40 GW to be exported from North Africa and Ukraine. “Now, the moment we presented that number to the Commission, you should have seen their eyes, the way they reacted,” said Chatzimarkakis. “But it was not, ‘Crap that’s crazy.’ It was, ‘How do you break this down, how do you do that math?’” Hydrogen had just jumped from being a small option for few cases, to be the silver bullet to decarbonize the EU. RePowerEU have doubled that target.


Is Africa benefiting from these plans?

Industry groups tried to whitewash previous warnings that the EU hydrogen export targets were fuelling another periphery-centre neocolonial resource grab. For instance, Chazimarkakis’ foreword of Hydrogen Europe's COP27 report says: “With its abundance of natural resources, Africa can become one of the powerhouses of renewable energy, as well as a valuable energy partner for Europe. In the context of energy cooperation, we must acknowledge Europe’s colonial past and strive to ensure the establishment of fair and equitable partnerships with our African partners.” But does this go beyond words?

“The view from North Africa is radically different”, explains Algerian researcher Hamza Hamouchene, from the Transnational Institute. “There are growing concerns that instead of helping the region with its green transition, these schemes will result in the plunder of local resources, dispossession of communities, environmental damage and entrenchment of corrupt elites.”

In this scramble for green hydrogen, post-colonial authoritarian leaders and elites are the partners of the EU, investors and corporations, to the detriment of local communities in the countries they partner with.

Does the dash for hydrogen (and gas) serve a just transition? Cutting through the rhetoric of the different deals and pledges, what does it mean for communities impacted or displaced by mega projects, with scarce water either extracted or polluted by ‘sustainable’ mining, to produce enough green hydrogen for Europe? Which tragically, is also diverting funding and political urgency from real solutions to the climate crisis.


In the interest of corporate players

As Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in his speech during the recent EU Hydrogen week, the EU is positioning itself in this new global race: “I believe it is clear that hydrogen is about to change the geopolitics of energy. The EU must play a leading role both in terms of setting standards and in terms of driving investment. This starts with our immediate neighbourhood around the Mediterranean, reinforcing our links with African economies and partners in the Middle East… We will never be able to produce enough green hydrogen ourselves. We will need these global partnerships.”

However, importing green hydrogen in these quantities to Europe is very problematic, not in line with technical studies, and not based on listening to groups in the global South, particularly of those around sites of production/extraction. Rather, the plan is based on listening to industry lobby groups (with the heavy presence of the gas lobby) who are the main beneficiaries of the scramble for hydrogen. The deal with Namibia, where the EU is securing the “development of a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials, refined materials and renewable hydrogen” exemplifies the one-direction periphery-centre flow of these increasingly scarce resources.

On top of this, a hyped demand for green hydrogen works to support fossil hydrogen, which is then also supported in theory as ‘transitional’, but in practice is locking us further into a fossil-fueled economy.


Kick polluters out before COP28

These deals are made following the interests and lobby of industry.

We urgently need to kick big polluters out of any decision-making space before is too late. If COP27 broke records on hydrogen deals, the plans are even bigger for COP28, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

At COP27 Hydrogen Europe announced they are preparing a collection of hydrogen deals united in the 'EU African Pack”', with pledges to be presented in Dubai next year. On a grander scale, Hydrogen Europe is designing how the Mediterranean Green Hydrogen Partnership, which will be launched at COP28, should be shaped to create a global hydrogen marketplace and place the EU as a world-leading industry for renewable hydrogen production. Up till now their demands for EU hydrogen targets, support, and for a hydrogen bank have all been swiftly met by the European Commission.

But with a rapidly escalating cost of living and energy crisis, the EU should stop championing the wealth and access to global scarce resources for its corporations, and instead put its political will and money into real solutions that help the people and break dependency on fossil fuels. It should help African countries to focus instead on the massive roll-out of domestic renewable energy, with the goal to decarbonise their economies. But for this to happen, we need a firewall between the massive influence of vested interests, and the policymakers: in other words, we need fossil free politics.


Image credit: Matthew TenBruggencate, unsplash


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