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The hydrogen society

The hydrogen society

Is the widespread adoption of hydrogen a necessary step towards net zero?

This summer’s Olympics in Tokyo was supposed to herald the arrival of Japan as the world’s first “hydrogen society”. The Olympic Village was partly powered by H2 and officials rode between events in vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Even the torch burned hydrogen. Was it just for show? Or is the widespread adoption of hydrogen a necessary step towards net zero?

Japan’s government and its largest carmaker, Toyota, are both deeply invested in hydrogen’s potential as a clean fuel (to the extent that the latter has even made attempts to lobby against the all-out transition to electric vehicles). But after 20 years, Japan’s lonely wager hasn’t quite paid off: sales of Toyota’s flagship hydrogen model, the Mirai, have been sluggish, and a tank of hydrogen in Japan remains five times more expensive than a full charge on a Nissan Leaf.

Still, perhaps the executives at Toyota should take heart that policymakers around the world are gradually caving to the case for hydrogen:

  • In China, the government’s 14th Five-Year Plan lists hydrogen as one of its “six industries of the future”. By 2050, hydrogen will account for approximately 10 per cent of China’s energy system and Beijing is aiming for a million fuel cell vehicles on the roads by 2035. Making all that count towards climate goals won’t be easy. Producing low-carbon hydrogen from water – as opposed to “grey” or “blue” hydrogen from fossil fuels – requires loads of electricity. In China, electricity is still mostly produced by burning coal. The solution: vast “green” hydrogen plants, like this one in Inner Mongolia, powered by wind and solar.
  • The UK published its long-awaited hydrogen strategy last week. The plan is to attract £4 billion of investment by 2030 with the possibility that, by 2050, hydrogen could meet 20 to 35 per cent of the UK’s energy demand. The focus – using hydrogen to decarbonise “hard to abate” sectors first – is a sound one at this stage, but critics have called for the government to clarify exactly what is meant by “low carbon” hydrogen. It has no plans for fuel cell cars just yet, which suggests the government is sticking to its guns on battery electric vehicles for decarbonising transport.
  • Saudi Arabia is building a $5 billion green hydrogen plant on the Red Sea as part of the proposed eco-city of Neom – an estate of solar panels and turbines covering a patch of desert the size of Belgium. Oman is attempting to go one better with the world’s largest green hydrogen plant on its Arabian Sea coast.

The EU, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea and Norway are among the 30 countries to have laid out hydrogen road maps, according to a report by the Hydrogen Council. Some will have placed the wrong bet. Hydrogen holds the seductive promise of replacing smog with water vapour, and can seem like the answer to every energy question. But the reality is that, until global competition brings down the price, it will remain an auxiliary to renewables; a handy way for countries to plug gaps in broader plans to decarbonise.


Taliban lithium
As international aid dries up, Afghanistan’s new rulers will be looking for a revenue stream that isn’t opium. The concern on Capitol Hill is they’ll start signing contracts with China to dig up the country’s rare earth minerals. A Pentagon survey in 2010 found that Afghanistan could hold up to $1 trillion worth of deposits, including the world’s second-largest reserves of lithium – which as the name suggests is essential for lithium-ion batteries. But security and corruption concerns have stymied investment in Afghan mining operations since long before the Taliban swept back to power. Any attempt by China to consolidate its mineral monopoly at this point would be bold – but neither security nor corruption worries have held it back in its pursuit of raw materials in Africa.

Science and Tech

Uncharted territory
Rain is now falling in places where it’s so unexpected that scientists have no way to measure its quantity. Last week on the 10,000-foot summit of Greenland’s ice sheet, US scientists observed several hours of rain and estimated 7 billion tons of rain fell on the ice sheet as a whole, but at least they had some data to go on. Further south, data gaps are causing trouble for climate scientists. Dr. Friederike Otto, lead author on the IPCC’s most recent report, told Tortoise that, in some places, local data for her research on extreme weather events often doesn’t exist. “The lines of evidence for recording these changes are so much stronger in the Global North,” she said, “which is very frustrating because we know that vulnerability to those changes is much higher in the Global South.”


Hope for the Amazon?
Brazil’s got a new environment minister – and experts and activists are hoping he’ll help protect the Amazon. Joaquim Pereira Leite worked as a coffee producer and an agricultural adviser before joining the environment ministry a few years ago. He’s replacing Ricardo Salles, a vocal climate sceptic. Environment officials interviewed by the FT said Leite is “less noisy” than his predecessor when it comes to politics. They’re hoping he’ll keep his head down and get on with the job, although his past experience may not predispose him to rainforest-friendly policies: Brazil’s agricultural sector has generally favoured deforestation over protecting and planting trees. And then there’s Bolsonaro, presiding over a surge in deforestation and forest fires. Leite will report to him, and if he shares Bolsonaro’s complacency about the Amazon the effects could be disastrous. Earlier this year the Amazon started emitting more CO2 than it absorbs as trees are burned to clear the way for farms. Leite has said he’ll fight illegal logging but the truth is the world can’t afford any logging in the Amazon at all.

Engagement and activism

A two-week protest by Extinction Rebellion has begun in Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden in London. Last time XR set out its stall in the capital it brought Oxford Street to a standstill for several days with a stationary pink boat. This time it’s focusing on the City of London and the role of global financial markets in supporting high-carbon industries. XR’s cue is the latest IPCC report, which warned that to limit warming to 1.5C “with no or limited overshoot” will require “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in energy, agricultural, urban, infrastructure and industrial systems. ​​Priti Patel, the home secretary, is more worried about public order and has called XR’s protests “a shameful attack on… the livelihoods of the hardworking majority”. Will there be mass arrests? A joined-up government about to host Cop 26 might favour dialogue.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

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