Behind the scenes at COP27: The hydrogen hype shaking the Middle East
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, widely found in water, stars and the crust of our planet.
It’s also been dubbed the “fuel of the future” because it doesn’t release greenhouse gases when burned to power engines. No wonder, then, that it’s everywhere at COP, where climate activists have warned of a “hydrogen hype” sweeping through the negotiations.
Everyone seemed to be launching grand hydrogen plans on the sidelines of COP27, including the host, who announced on the second day the commissioning of a production plant in partnership with Norway. And at least eleven other hydrogen deals were announced throughout the summit by various states.
Gulf states, in particular, showered the conference with a string of side events on the topic, brandishing the two words like a magic wand that could ease the world’s way out of fossil fuel dependency.
"There’s a lot of concern about hydrogen, because we hear about all these green hydrogen projects, but there are also blue and grey hydrogen projects that are not being as covered"
But what exactly is hydrogen? Is it really “clean”? And beyond the hype, what do we know of its potential and limits?
The dash for hydrogen
Gulf states, whose economy is dominated by oil and gas, have been a big part of the global push for hydrogen. Strategically positioned near European and Asian energy markets, and gifted with an abundant solar energy potential, many see themselves as future hubs in tomorrow’s hydrogen-reliant economy.
Qatar paved the way as early as 2019 when it became the world’s fifth-largest export of gas after reorienting its large helium-production capacity to hydrogen.
Regional heavyweights like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia followed suit with ambitious investments in hydrogen, the most famous being Saudi Aramco’s plan to build the world’s largest hydrogen plant – able to produce 600 tons of hydrogen per day – to power transportation in NEOM, a futuristic city on the shores of the Red Sea. Developers claim the plant will mitigate the equivalent of 5 million tons of CO2 per year.
Now, even resource-poor states like Jordan ambition to develop hydrogen production, with an eye on European markets. In June 2022, the Hashemite Kingdom hosted a regional conference on hydrogen on the shores of the Dead Sea, officially unveiling plans to be at the heart of a regional “hub” leading the sale of green hydrogen to Europe.
With so many plans in the making, hydrogen was already expected to be a hot topic on the sidelines of COP. But deals were also boosted by a favourable international context linked to the war in Ukraine.
Europe, which is desperate to wean off Russian gas, has made a “dash for African gas” on the sidelines of COP. Striking these deals while advocating for other countries to cut their emissions is hardly climate-friendly, activists pointed out.
But Europe also has plans to invest massively in hydrogen produced abroad and signed three large-scale agreements on this during COP with Namibia, Egypt and Japan. Under the REPowerEu, EU countries plan to import 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen by 2030.
A clean source of energy?
Hydrogen is considered a “clean” fuel because it doesn’t release greenhouse gases when used. But the same cannot be said of the process by which it is obtained. In fact, most hydrogen currently on the market is produced by reforming natural gas, which is categorized as a fossil fuel.
“There’s a lot of concern about hydrogen because we hear about all these green hydrogen projects, but there are also blue and grey hydrogen projects that are not being as covered,” Ahmed El Droubi, the Regional Campaigns Manager of Greenpeace, told The New Arab.
The overwhelming majority of hydrogen produced today (95%) is obtained from using energy generated from fossil fuels and is known as “grey” hydrogen.
“Green” or renewable hydrogen, by contrast, is produced by electrolyzing water using renewable sources of energy – like solar or wind. In between lies “blue” hydrogen, which involves the burning of fossil fuels paired with carbon capture and storage technologies, which are supposed to limit the warming effect of fossil fuels.
There’s a big difference between green and blue hydrogen in terms of contribution to global warming.
Carbon capture technology is hugely contested by scientists, and researchers from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) recently found that most carbon capture implemented so far had underperformed or failed. “Blue” hydrogen still emits 20% more greenhouse gases than burning coal, and can hardly be counted as clean energy- but that’s exactly what some states are pushing for at COP27.
"The hype around hydrogen is probably inflated, and claims that it is “clean” are misleading. But that doesn’t mean green hydrogen doesn’t have a role to play in the global transition away from fossil fuels"
“We do not plan to differentiate between blue and green hydrogen,” an official from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Energy said at a panel on the Kingdom’s plans to produce hydrogen for exports, held this week at COP27. “We should not focus on the source of energy used to create hydrogen, but on emissions,” he added.
But climate activists don’t see it that way. “Until hydrogen is one hundred percent renewable, it will continue being produced from fossil gas, worsening the energy and the climate crisis,” warned the European branch of the Climate Action Network (CAN) – a large umbrella organization of climate NGOs and advocacy groups – in a media advisory released during the first week of COP.
Water and energy
That’s not the only issue. Nine litres of purified water are required to produce a single kilogram of hydrogen, making mass hydrogen production for export an unrealistic perspective for water-scarce countries of the Middle East.
To get around that, hydrogen providers plan to desalinate seawater. But this is also an energy-intensive process, and the accumulated energy costs of desalinating seawater, electrolyzing it and shipping the final product halfway across the world are likely to make Middle East-generated hydrogen uncompetitive on distant markets.
In this context, climate activists have criticized the hydrogen hype for driving attention away from much-needed commitments towards slashing emissions.
“We call out the presence of oil and gas industry representatives in [COP meetings] not only because they work to drive ambition down in the talks, but also because they limit our imagination of what’s possible,” Catherine Abreu of the climate advocacy group Destination Zero told The New Arab.
“Rather than conversations about scaling up energy efficiency and renewable energy, we are creating a whole bunch of conversations about hydrogen – which is another offer from the oil and gas industry to continue producing while presumably driving down their emissions,” Abreu added.
Setting a realistic horizon
The hype around hydrogen is probably inflated, and claims that it is “clean” are misleading. But that doesn’t mean green hydrogen doesn’t have a role to play in the global transition away from fossil fuels.
“There is probably a limited role for hydrogen produced using renewable energy in industry and some transportation applications,” Abreu recognized. But this renewable hydrogen “must be targeted only to those sectors where direct electrification through renewable energy cannot yet be pursued: energy-intensive industries such as the steel and fertiliser industry, or long-distance transport with shipping and aviation,” CAN Europe said in its advisory.
Instead of producing hydrogen for exports, Middle Eastern states could focus on attracting decarbonizing industries. Industrial sectors that currently rely heavily on fossil fuels, like steel production, may consider relocating to parts of the world where cheap, green alternatives are readily available. And considering its strategic location, the Middle East could also become a leading provider of hydrogen for global shipping and cargo.
Green hydrogen also has immediate applications: the world currently uses 94 million tons of hydrogen per year – mostly extracted from fossil fuels – in oil refining and fertilizer production, two sectors where grey could be switched for green.
“The extent to which hydrogen is being talked about at the moment likely exceeds the amount of hydrogen that will be needed in that world,” Abreu concluded. The International Energy Agency projects that the share of hydrogen and its derivatives in the global energy mix – which is currently under 0.1% – could grow to 10% by 2050, in a scenario where the world reaches carbon neutrality.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais