Germany’s global hydrogen plans could accelerate climate change

Whether hydrogen, which is supposed to decarbonise industrial processes as well as shipping and aviation, will deliver what it promises, is now in doubt.EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck plans to import hydrogen from all over the world to satisfy Germany’s hunger for energy despite a new study questioning the climate-friendliness of hydrogen transport. EURACTIV Germany reports.

One thing is clear to all politicians and experts: Germany is an energy importing country.

To move towards climate neutrality, the German government wants to rely primarily on importing hydrogen molecules from all over the world – efforts which have been further accelerated due to the war in Ukraine and Germany’s dependence on Russian energy imports.

The idea is to split water with the help of renewable electricity, then ship the hydrogen to Germany and use it as a raw material and energy source for German industry. For this, Habeck most recently announced a hydrogen partnership with the United Arab Emirates.

The establishment of global “hydrogen supply chains” would serve the “achievement of our climate goals and at the same time our energy security”, Habeck said on 21 March.

The “Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue” at the Foreign Office at the start of April also focused on the global hydrogen economy. Representatives of governments from around the world agreed to initial contracts with each other as well as with German representatives to supply hydrogen.

The global hydrogen trade is supported by the German government foundation H2Global, which will underpin the trade in the gas with €900 million from the national treasury.

Doubts about decarbonisation

Whether hydrogen, which is supposed to decarbonise industrial processes as well as shipping and aviation, will deliver what it promises, however, is now in doubt.

This is because hydrogen could be a lot more harmful to the climate than initially believed, especially if it were to escape and enter the atmosphere before being used.

“We estimate the hydrogen GWP(100) to be 11 ± 5; a value more than 100% higher than previously published calculations,” the UK government study, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, writes.

The GWP, or global warming potential, measures the relative contribution that various chemical compounds make to the greenhouse gas effect. Based on CO2, the GWP shows how much worse gases like methane or the now banned chlorofluorocarbons are for the climate.

This would mean that hydrogen is at best six times worse for the climate than CO2 over a period of 100 years. In the worst-case scenario, hydrogen could even prove 16 times more harmful than the widespread greenhouse gas.

Accelerating climate change

According to the study, hydrogen would also contribute significantly to climate change, even within a 20-year time frame.

“For a 20-year time horizon, the GWP(20) for H2 is 33 [33 times worse for the climate than CO2], with an uncertainty range of 20 to 44,” the authors said.

Hydrogen is not itself a “true” greenhouse gas and shows its effect mainly by stabilising other gases in a new way.

“Hydrogen escaping into the atmosphere is such a potent greenhouse gas because it extends the lifetime of methane in the atmosphere, so it stays there and continues to contribute to the greenhouse effect,” Steven Hamburg, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a US NGO, and lead author on the UN’s climate report.

“Hydrogen reacts in the troposphere and forms ozone, which also contributes to the greenhouse effect. And hydrogen decays in the stratosphere to water vapour, which also contributes to the greenhouse effect,” he added.

Hydrogen’s negative impact was already reported last year, which means the findings of the British scientists only further cement the fact that hydrogen is not a “green” climate-neutral energy source, at least for now.

Exactly how much hydrogen could leak out is not yet known, however. Although a flourishing hydrogen trade is expected from at least 2025, hydrogen production has been limited so far. Virtually no hydrogen has been shipped so far.

Hydrogen “is, so to speak, a technology that is being developed, that has now passed the test status and is in the process of ramping up,” Habeck explained on Monday (11 April).

What remains certain is that hydrogen molecules are much smaller than methane molecules, and about 0.5-3% of methane already escapes during transport, according to Falko Ueckerdt, a climate researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research.

Most hydrogen is expected to leak during transport via ships, for example from the UAE. When hydrogen is transported in liquid form by tankers, more than 13% of the cargo could be lost along the way, writes Recharge News, referring to another study by the British ministry.

Optimism remains

However, according to analysts, there is also reason for optimism.

Hydrogen expert Gniewomir Flis said he is “not too worried about hydrogen leakage” because hydrogen is “relatively much more expensive” than fossil gas, which creates incentives to curb leakage.

Flis also expects a lot of hydrogen to be consumed where it is produced, which will minimise the risk of leakage.

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