Hydrogen and COP26 – The last chance saloon

19th Apr 2021

By Tim Yeo, Executive Chairman, PowerHouse Energy Group

Over ten years ago at COP16 in Mexico I argued that it was unlikely countries would sign up to binding limits on carbon dioxide emissions unless growth could be decoupled from the use of fossil fuels.

Five years later in Paris hopes were high after the commitments made in advance by Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping.  The Paris Accord was the landmark agreement in which nations made common cause to toughen up efforts to combat climate change. In a significant step forward it adopted the ambitious goal of limiting the rise in average global surface temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Since then clear progress has been made. Most countries and nearly all industries now accept the need to cut fossil fuel use. The economic opportunities offered by a global low carbon economic model are becoming widely understood. Net zero targets are common even though very few indeed are yet backed by remotely credible action plans. 

Even China has set a net zero emissions target for 2060. Achieving this target would, according to the International Energy Agency, be as significant in China’s modern history as Mao Zedong’s creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Given the remarkable transformation of China’s economy in the last 40 years don’t bet against it being reached.  

In 2020 the Covid driven economic slump triggered an unforeseen fall in global carbon emissions. Last December, however, the upward trend resumed, a reminder of the huge scale and urgency of the task ahead. The pandemic delayed COP26 in Glasgow in November really is the last chance saloon in which humanity has to stop talking and start acting.   

The key question is will countries who have battled painful economic downturns over the past year unreservedly support aggressive climate change policies?  Some are giving mixed messages in terms of their commitment to phasing out fossil fuels.  The UK, for example, recently provoked outrage by approving plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria and was soon forced to review its decision.  

COP26 in Glasgow has to do much more than simply announce a new set of tougher emissions reduction targets. Specific measures to prevent climate change from becoming irreversible, and thus an existential threat to the human species, must be spelt out and subjected to scrutiny. One of those measures needs to include embracing the ‘fuel of the future’, as hydrogen is often called, and recognising it as a fuel not only for the future but also for the here and now.  

Both hydrogen and electric vehicles are essential to accelerate the replacement of petrol and diesel and eliminate carbon emissions entirely from the surface transport industry. Batteries may be the best solution for cars and light vans but are less practical than hydrogen for buses, heavy trucks and trains. In addition it takes much longer time to recharge a battery than refuel a hydrogen vehicle. 

For hydrogen to succeed as a transport fuel two conditions must be satisfied. Firstly a big increase in the number of hydrogen refuelling stations. At the end of 2019 470 were in operation worldwide, albeit a fourfold increase since 2015, and only 14 of these were in the UK. 

Secondly global hydrogen production capacity needs to grow very quickly. The International Energy Agency recently said that a 90 fold increase in production is required by 2030 if hydrogen’s potential contribution to the more sustainable and secure energy future which will keep the world on target for a 1.5C maximum temperature increase is to be realised.  

Hydrogen can also be a substitute for natural gas as a heating fuel. This is particularly important in countries like the UK where natural gas fuelled domestic heating systems are a large source of CO2 emissions.

Governments and businesses are recognising hydrogen’s potential with new policies and projects emerging at a significant pace.  But to achieve rapid growth in production capacity the world cannot rely on exclusively “green” hydrogen which for the foreseeable future will depend on significant subsidies to be financially viable.

There’s much debate over the colour of hydrogen and some of it is confusing with a rainbow of colours identifying the carbon intensity of different hydrogen technologies.  Time is not on our side. The world cannot and must not wait for every ‘I’ to be dotted and ‘t’ crossed.  It’s essential that hydrogen production is ramped up now, including blue hydrogen, so the global hydrogen economy starts to grow immediately.  

PowerHouse Energy’s technology produces hydrogen from non-recyclable plastic and is ready to be rolled out now. Construction of its first commercial scale plant will commence this year and already this technology is attracting international attention. 

By embracing and encouraging the development of technologies that can accelerate the clean energy transition today the world can meet the more ambitious targets likely to be set out at COP26 and set humanity firmly on the path to net zero.