There is also set to be a huge government investment of £20bn in the Trojan Horse of carbon capture technology. This unproven, un-implemented technology is being promoted by big oil and gas businesses as a way to allow them to carry on as normal. It will be the oil and gas giants who yet again pocket public money.
That is why Environmental groups from across Scotland have called for a protest at: Thursday 30 March, 12.30 UK Government Offices, 1 Sibbald Walk EDINBURGH, EH8 8FTSupported by: Edinburgh Climate Coalition, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Stop Cambo, ScotE3 Bring placards, banners and friends!
Decisions made now will affect generations to come. Join the protest.
This article by John Szabo and Gareth Dale was first published in shortened form in the Conversation and then on 13th January by the Ecologist. We are grateful to the authors and the Ecologist for their permission to publish it here.
The hydrogen economy appears to enjoying its great leap forward. Assuming its construction goes to plan, a €2.5bn undersea pipeline will from 2030 convey “green hydrogen” from Spain to France. It is one element in a hydrogen infrastructure package that the European Commission announced earlier this year.
In the USA, some power stations are being upgraded to allow hydrogen to be blended with fossil gas, and the Norwegian oil company Equinor is teaming up with Thermal SSE to build a 1,800MW “blue hydrogen” power plant in Britain. China, earlier this year, unveiled a long-term hydrogen plan which includes major technological and infrastructure investments.
If the number of projects is growing at pace, one may suppose, a large supply of the resource must exist somewhere. Well, it does and it doesn’t.
Hydrogen is produced in multiple ways. A colour spectrum is used to render it simple. “Grey” and “brown/black” refer to hydrogen produced from fossil gas (methane) and coal (brown or black coal) respectively—a process that, for every ton of hydrogen, emits between ten and twelve tons of carbon dioxide for grey hydrogen or eighteen to twenty for brown.
“Blue” is the same process but filed under “low carbon” because the carbon dioxide is supposed to be captured and stored underground. “Green” hydrogen is conventionally defined as generated from renewable electricity passed through water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen.
When you zoom in on hydrogen’s “colours,” however, they appear slippery. The hydrogen economy is not a palette of technological options but a grey-brown oil refinery behind an eye-catching blue-green front gate. All the chatter is of the latter.
Green and blue hydrogen yield 11 million and 320,000 Google hits respectively, as against 95,000 for grey and 49,000 for brown. The reality curves in the opposite direction: only 0.04 per cent of hydrogen is green, and blue hydrogen is also less than one per cent. At least 96 per cent is grey or brown, most of which is used in oil refineries and for manufacturing ammonia and methanol.
It’s an enormous industry, responsible for emitting more carbon dioxide than all of Britain’s and France’s emissions combined. The test of any government or corporate hydrogen agenda, then, is the nature—or even the existence—of its plans to decarbonise the 96 per cent. In some cases this is beginning to happen. But if the focus is on producing more ‘blue’ and more ‘green’ for other purposes, something is amiss.
When you look closely at green hydrogen, some of it resolves into shades of grey. It’s not simply that its production is extremely energy-intensive or that in its double transformation—from electricity to hydrogen and thence to its final usage—so much energy is wasted.
It is partly that, if combusted, it emits nitrogen oxides, and also that, if scaled up to play a significant economic role by 2050 (as in recent projections by the International Energy Agency), its freshwater requirements will exceed one quarter of today’s global annual consumption, causing water stress in some regions.
Above all, green hydrogen is meaningfully green only if the renewable energy that generates it cannot be fed into the grid to replace power from gas or coal plants.
A similar but much more harmful trick of the light occurs with blue hydrogen. Look closely and you see that in reality it’s either chequered blue/grey or even blank, a mere fiction.
Blue hydrogen is still in its infancy and we don’t yet know whether most of the CCS costs will be loaded onto taxpayers, as the gas companies demand.
Price projections should be treated with the utmost scepticism. One boosterish paper cites blue hydrogen from Alberta (Canada) at $1.50 to $2.0 per kg. It adds that blue hydrogen production will help Canada achieve its decarbonisation goals.
In fact, research at Shell’s CCS plant in Alberta discovered that it emits more carbon than it captures. For the foreseeable future, this is not a “low carbon” product in any sense of the term. It is a hypothetical solution the costs of which remain unknown, as the development of projects has been slow and costly with few realised, while future operating costs are also unclear.
Given the question marks that surround blue hydrogen, it’s widely hoped that a silver lining of today’s high gas prices will be that green hydrogen becomes cost competitive.
In terms of inputs, the green-blue price difference boils down to the cost of electricity versus fossil gas. With the global energy crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, many are asking: will high gas prices favour green hydrogen? Spoiler alert: probably not.
In the EU, as in many economies, electricity pricing is based on the principle of marginal costs, and that usually means the price of power from fossil gas plants. When it is high, renewable electricity generators will seek to sell to the grid. In this way, blue and green prices are largely interwoven in the current market setup; their inputs move in sync.
Of course, there are geographical and temporal differences. During sunny spells, electricity prices may collapse as solar PV-based generation picks up.
This unlinks electricity and natural gas prices, but only momentarily, often only for a few hours—not enough to justify investment in electrolysers to produce green hydrogen. On the whole, the price gap between blue and green will remain fairly narrow until electricity markets are fundamentally restructured.
There’s worse. The high price of hydrocarbons has turbocharged the industry’s expansion. The US government is exhorting oil and fracking firms to ‘drill baby drill.’ Britain’s government has issued over one hundred additional licenses to drill. Colossal new fossil fuel investments have been announced across the Middle East and Africa.
All this will have long-term ramifications. First, in a few years when the new production comes on stream, and particularly if the current growth slowdown substantially depresses demand, gas and oil will again become cheaper—until the next price spike prompts new rounds of investment, and the infernal cycle continues.
Second, the owners of the new-drilled wells and other infrastructure will fight tooth and nail to defend those assets, and to stall the decarbonisation agenda. The peculiarity of hydrogen is that it is a means to both the stalling and the decarbonisation.
The latter can be simply stated. Green hydrogen will be important to the decarbonisation of certain sectors such as steel, and ammonia for fertilisers, and possibly shipping and trucking.
The role of hydrogen in stalling the transition is complex but no less important. It begins with the recognition that the fossil fuel corporations are rebranding themselves as agents of “carbon management.”
The goals are to prevent their assets from getting stranded by repurposing them, above all by marketing grey and blue hydrogen as “bridge” fuels; to lock in hydrocarbon production for decades to come; and to defray the costs onto taxpayers.
For this, hydrogen offers the perfect vehicle, in view of its confusion of shades and colours. Fossil fuel interests use it to counter opposition to new investments in fossil gas through an aggressive marketing and lobbying campaign that presents a largely fictional substance, blue hydrogen, as a low-carbon “bridge” to an unspecified future genuinely-green transition.
Other sectors have joined the oil-led coalition. As the engineer Tom Baxter observes, it is seen by gas network operators and boiler manufacturers as their survival route.
Likewise, power utility companies are keen, as hydrogen’s inefficiencies mean they’ll sell more power. Relatively conservative trade unions, such as Britain’s GMB (General, Municipal, Boilermakers), are onboard too.
To tackle this stalling operation, a strong role for public policy is indispensable. Governments will need to regulate or tax carbon out of the market while simultaneously ramping up renewables.
Fiscal and subsidy schemes need to pivot from supporting fossil fuels to supporting renewables. The approach to electricity pricing must shift, to decouple the prices of electricity and fossil gas.
Instead of the marginal pricing system, it requires incentivising rewards for generators according to their average costs plus a slight surplus, either through a robustly regulated market system or by nationalising the energy companies and setting prices and production.
Such interventions would give green hydrogen a competitive advantage, one that can be furthered by other subsidies, such as tax credits on the model of the US Inflation Reduction Act. Above all, energy demand needs to be scaled down. The lower the demand, the less the upward pressure on price.
In any future energy system, hydrogen will have a role. But its expansion needs to be carefully designed, to prevent the promise of green hydrogen being mis-used, in opening the back door to its ecologically malign blue and grey cousins.
John Szabo is a Fellow at the Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies as well as an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Eötvös Loránd University International Relations and European Studies, Eötvös Loránd University. His research focuses on the energy-society nexus, especially in the context of the energy transition.
Thanks to the People and Nature blog for alerting us to this excellent short video which sums up many of the reasons why the hype that surrounds hydrogen is so misguided. You can find links to a couple of longer articles on this issue on our ‘further reading‘ page and to blog posts here and here.
Boris Johnson’s ten point plan has received largely uncritical responses from the main stream media. We’re pleased to repost here the Campaign Against Climate Change’s ten point response. We welcome other contributions that develop or extend this critique.
We’ve had the big announcement: Boris Johnson’s ten point plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. But following initial positive headlines, the details start trickling out. £12 billion was announced, but just £3 billion, it emerges, is new money. This is paltry. Other countries have already made much larger commitments, including Germany’s green stimulus of over €40bn and France around €35bn.
Most importantly, how does it stack up compared to the scale of the task facing us? Two years on from the IPCC’s ground-breaking report calling for an urgent transformation of the global economy to stay within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, global emissions are still (excluding the limited impact of the pandemic) on an upward trend. As temperatures continue to rise, sea level rise is accelerating as polar ice melts. And in the background a steady stream of records broken for ‘natural’ disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, hitting the poorest hardest.
The UK’s carbon budgets reflect out of date targets, an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. Previous policy failure means we are nowhere near on track to even stay within these deficient targets. This latest set of announcements is therefore doubly inadequate. It leaves a major hole in meeting even these out of date commitments. However we don’t just need to close that gap. Last year the government set a new climate commitment of ‘net-zero’ carbon by 2050. In relation to this new target, the gap is even greater. But unfortunately even ‘net zero by 2050’ doesn’t cut it. We need to act even faster than 2050 to be compatible with the Paris Climate Agreement.
Meanwhile, we also face a devastating pandemic leaving in its wake widespread unemployment. Now is the time for a real climate jobs programme to tackle the climate and jobs crises.
What would a real 10 point plan to tackle the climate crisis look like?
1. A comprehensive approach
Climate change cannot be tackled as an add-on, or a piecemeal approach that takes us one step forward, two steps back. We need a commitment that every economic policy, every spending commitment, every piece of legislation, will put us on track for a safer future, not jeopardise it by locking us in to business as usual.
If the government had really taken on board the scale of the crisis, it would be rethinking the policies of unconditional corporate bailouts, planning deregulation, aviation expansion, road building, stifling onshore wind. It would not be giving a £16.5 billion windfall to military spending.
2. Meeting the needs of both people and planet
Austerity has left us, more than ever, with a grossly unequal society with continued deep inequalities in race, gender and for disabled people. Underfunded public services are struggling. The move towards a zero carbon society must also ensure access to food, healthcare, education, income, job security, good, affordable, housing, clean and affordable energy and heat, public transport, clean air and green spaces for everyone.
There is huge public support to ‘build back better’ as part of recovery from the pandemic, investing in public services and frontline workers. Instead, a public sector pay freeze is being mooted. These are the wrong priorities: we need huge investment and expansion in the public sector and the people who work in it.
3. ‘New Deal’ levels of spending
Boris Johnson has tried to compare his plans to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In today’s money, Roosevelt’s spending programme amounted to about £4,300 – for every American living through the turmoil of the Great Depression. In contrast £12 billion is about £180 each.
Our own ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ report or Green New Deal plans give more of a sense of the levels of investment and ambition needed if the government is taking this seriously. Other recent analyses include an IPPR report which estimates that £33 billion a year in additional annual investment is needed to meet the government’s net zero target, creating 1.6 million jobs, including £8 billion on homes and buildings and £10.3 billion on transport.
The pandemic has shown that money can be found. It has been found for other spending, including billions to private companies for medical supply and services in contracts awarded with no oversight, regulation or transparency. These are the sums of money that now need to be directed into tackling the climate crisis, sums that can actually make an impact in reducing emissions and would truly justify the term New Deal.
4. Not relying on techno-fixes that don’t solve the problem
There are valuable technologies that help us cut waste and greenhouse gas emissions. But those we’d call ‘techno-fixes’ are a double-edged sword. Despite serious drawbacks, these pull resources away from proven solutions (for example onshore wind and solar are not even mentioned in Johnson’s plan). They often support the continuation of fossil fuel infrastructure, and give a sense of false security about the need to radically cut energy use. Boris Johnson’s ten point plan overly relies on these techno-fixes which seriously undermine any genuine and far reaching attempt to transition the economy.
There is more detail below about why we are concerned about the emphasis on hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy. The promotion of ‘Jet Zero’ (zero carbon flying) also hides the fact that the scope for genuine decarbonisation of aviation is limited and the pursuit of ‘sustainable aviation growth a mirage. There should be no further airport expansion in a serious plan to tackle the climate crisis. While not mentioned explicitly in this latest plan, biofuels and biomass (burning wood for power) also fall into the same category – unsustainable while subsidised as ‘green’ technology.
5. Provide decent, well paid, secure jobs
With a wide range of sectors hit by the pandemic, unemployment is expected to rise in 2021 to levels not seen since the 1980s. The transition to a zero carbon economy needs a workforce, but opportunities are being lost even when the investment is made. Manufacturing contracts for offshore wind supply have not been used to provide work for a skilled workforce in Scotland. Instead Scottish workers who could have been making the infrastructure needed for offshore wind have been made redundant. We need a proper climate jobs strategy, not a piecemeal approach rooted in a market based thinking. A strategy which is driven by understanding of the huge transition that is needed across manufacturing, transport, agriculture, construction, insulation, managing our land and biodiversity, in training and education. And one which seeks to create well paid secure jobs across these sectors to meet this challenge.
The difficulties and delays with the recent Green Homes Grant are a warning example of what happens without this strategic approach including workforce skills. Trade unions have a key role. There are more accidents in non-unionised offshore wind jobs than there are in offshore oil. A worker-led Just Transition is needed. As set out in the One Million Climate Jobs report, a National Climate Service could take on key aspects of the transition to zero carbon, providing well paid, secure, flexible, permanent jobs in the public sector.
6. Keep it in the ground: phase out fossil fuel extraction
Extraordinarily, the UK’s Infrastructure Act introduced in 2015 a legal obligation to maximise economic recovery of oil and gas. It was clear then, and even clearer now that we can’t continue fossil fuel extraction. Keeping the planet safe means leaving remaining fossil fuels in the ground.
The oil and gas industry has already been hit hard by the economic impacts of the pandemic. We need instead a just transition for oil and gas workers as part of a strategy to phase out UK fossil fuel extraction. Many of these workers could be and want to be retrained to be part of a new offshore wind industry.
We also need an immediate end to the anomaly whereby the UK offers billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in financial support to companies that bid for work on fossil fuel projects overseas
7. Tackling car dependency and increasing public transport, walking and cycling
The transport sector accounts for around a third of emissions in the UK. Surface transport alone represents around a quarter of our total emissions, while air pollution is a serious health problem. So far, electric vehicles have barely made a dent (less than 2% of new car sales), while SUVs represent over 40% of new cars sold.
But this cannot be solved by a simple like-for-like switch to electric vehicles. We need a property resourced and integrated public transport system under democratic public ownership. Alongside this, we need a reallocation of road space in towns and cities away from cars to walking, cycling and public transport, and a presumption in favour of development that reduces travel.
These changes would not just benefit our climate: the social inclusion and health benefits would be huge. It is shocking that the £27 billion currently intended for road building, which will significantly worsen our climate crisis, is far more than the entire ‘green industrial revolution’ budget touted as tackling the climate crisis.
8. Decent homes for all
We do need a programme of mass retrofitting our homes and buildings to be warm and energy-efficient, but it must be much more ambitious. We also need to be wary of corner cutting which does little other than inflate the profits of companies. Poorly fitted cavity wall insulation has been a scandal affecting thousands of homes with damp and mould, while post-Grenfell, there are still tower blocks with unsafe cladding. This is an example of where a National Climate Service could ensure high standards of work by employing a well trained public sector workforce with the goal of delivering warm homes and energy use reduction rather than quick and easy profits at the taxpayers expense.
It is much easier and cheaper to build homes and public or commercial buildings to near-zero carbon energy standards, than it is to retrofit. The scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes standard in 2015 was a huge step back, and proposed new energy standards are totally inadequate. One of the major problems facing the UK is a lack of affordable housing, in particular social housing. We need to invest in jobs to ensure decent homes for all – quite literally ‘build back better’.
9. Land use and agriculture
With the UK’s biodiversity in crisis, and agriculture a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, it is not simply a matter of ‘plant more trees’. Alongside reforestation and protecting habitats, we need to consider land ownership, the vital role of access to nature for all, even and especially in urban environments and the potential of rewilding. Meanwhile, we are still waiting for the government to take the simple step of banning peat burning, an easy climate win which appears to be being blocked by grouse shooting interests.
There is huge potential for agriculture which is better both for climate and biodiversity. The government has been remarkably reluctant to promote, for both climate and health reasons, a dietary shift to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Without forgetting, when talking about diet, that the obesity crisis still coexists with real food poverty in one of the world’s richest nations.
With food and environmental standards likely to be a casualty of post-Brexit trade deals, it is clear that our unhealthy food system also has implications for workers rights and animal welfare. The prospect of further zoonotic diseases – and future pandemics – cannot now be ignored. Land use, our food system and biodiversity have to be a key part of any climate strategy.
10. Climate justice beyond our borders
Any real climate policy must be rooted in climate justice. This is a global problem and the UK has a historically disproportionate contribution to the climate crisis. As well as doing our fair share in reducing domestic emissions, the UK’s policies must address this historic responsibility.
The goods we import, as well as having their own carbon footprint, may also hide ecosystem destruction and exploitation of workers. So do the deals made by UK banks, pension funds and insurance companies. There must be no ‘solutions’ for this part of the world which rest on further damage and explotation of nature and people in other parts of the world, whether that be in mineral extraction or land grabs for carbon ‘offsetting’. Solutions must be rooted in climate justice, collaboration and internationalism.
We need a real climate jobs plan, a real Just Transition, a real Green New Deal.
Techno-fixes – what’s the problem?
Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) has promised to make fossil fuel burning environmentally friendly by capturing carbon dioxide from the smokestack emissions of power stations or industrial plants. However, additional fossil fuel burning is needed for energy to capture the carbon. The new funding promises to bring the total government funding back to £1 billion – the same amount promised for a pilot that was suddenly cancelled at the last minute in 2015. But CCS technology still has not been successfully scaled up elsewhere, with problems of finding reliable storage for the captured CO2. Certainly for power plants it seems more an attempt to continue fossil fuel production than a significant climate solution.
Hydrogen sounds like a great idea – a fuel that when burned, produces only water. But so-called ‘blue’ hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels and requires carbon capture and storage. It has been heavily promoted by gas companies. Meanwhile green hydrogen, generated from renewables, also has significant limitations. It is approximately 4-5 times less efficient than using renewable power directly because you have to convert power to a gas and back into power, and will probably take around 10 years to generate at scale. Hydrogen may have a place in the zero carbon economy for some hard-to-decarbonise uses. But the idea that it is a cost or energy efficient way to heat the nation’s homes – and could be rolled out in the time needed – seems far less plausible.
Nuclear is a dangerous, unnecessary and expensive diversion which will pull away investment from safe and cheap renewable energy which could come on stream quickly.