Achieving a green hydrogen transition built on equity and consensus
Building in Komoka, Canada. (Image: Scott Webb via Unsplash)

Achieving a green hydrogen transition built on equity and consensus

Strategies and challenges for a just green hydrogen transition.

By Smeeta Fokeer, Jan Sievernich and Petra Schwager

The emerging green hydrogen (GH2) economy promises to generate prosperity and accelerate decarbonization, but at what cost for producing countries’ populations and the environment? The GH2 transition carries several implications for energy, water and food supply security, and its potential impacts on land use, ecosystems and biodiversity cannot be ignored, either.

The challenge of energy justice in the GH2 transition is thus to minimize the negative externalities while ensuring that its resultant benefits are shared by all. Going forward, a sound and participative approach to the development of GH2 strategies can act as a catalyst for energy justice. GH2 has been identified as a potential energy vector to decarbonize the transport and manufacturing sectors and to achieve the global greenhouse gas reduction targets set out in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement of 2015.

Aside from its economic and climate benefits, the proliferation of GH2 also entails numerous social and environmental challenges.

Energy access and security

The countries best suited for GH2 production are those with high renewable energy endowments. They are mostly located in the Global South, which will have an impact on the geography of energy trade and the geopolitical landscape1. Diversification of energy supply, facilitated by a shift away from fossil fuel extraction, will contribute to energy security. A considerable share of the population in many potential GH2 producers, particularly in Africa, still lack access to the electricity (see figure below) and/or rely on fossil fuel for energy (e.g. wood burners). The GH2 transition represents an opportunity to boost local energy access and security and to accelerate decarbonization by expanding renewable energy supply. Voluntary energy compacts and corporate social responsibility (CSR) could play a key role in achieving clean and affordable energy for all (SDG 7). 

Access to electricity (% of population)

Source: World Bank Global Electrification Database from "Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report" led jointly by the custodian agencies: the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Water security

GH2 is produced through the electrolysis of water, i.e. the process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen using electricity powered by renewable energy. Between 9–15 litres (l) of water are required to produce 1 kg of GH22 compared with the 24 l needed for 1 kg of H2 in steam reforming or 38 l for 1 kg of H2 in coal gasification3. Newborough and Cooley (2021) contend that the large-scale use of electrolysis would have a relatively neutral impact on global water resources from a lifecycle perspective. Accordingly, new demand would be counterbalanced by water savings achieved through conventional fuel and energy production. IRENA projects that 409 million tonnes of GH2 are needed by 2050 to reach the 1.5°C pathway, which is equivalent to around 7-9 billion cubic metres (m3) of water as a direct input. Even if the estimated hydrogen demand were met with GH2 by 2050 (current estimates lie at 2/3), the production lifecycle’s water consumption footprint would only be a fraction of what other sectors are using today.  

Most areas with high solar potential are struggling with water scarcity, a problem that climate change will further intensify in future. The treatment of wastewater or desalination of seawater could provide an additional freshwater source—particularly in Africa—but the latter requires substantial energy inputs. Since GH2’s original water input is released back into the environment through oxidation when it is turned into energy, there is a strong case to use it locally to produce green goods for export rather than exporting GH2 itself. Producing countries would thereby keep their domestic water resources. Any remaining water deficits could be met by renewable freshwater trade, e.g. from west, central and east Africa to north Africa or through GH2 partnerships, to adequately distribute renewable water and energy resources between countries4. The water challenge thus lies in balancing competing water needs for GH2 production and the communities already facing disproportionate climate change burdens.

World electricity production by source

Note: 'Other renewables' includes biomass and waste, geothermal, wave and tidal.

Source: Our World in Data based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy (2022); Our World in Data based on Ember's Global Electricity Review (2022); Our World in Data based on Ember's European Electricity Review (2022).

 

Land use and food security

Building new infrastructure for the GH2 transition implies competition for agricultural land which may impact local food supply and security. Additional land conflicts such as displacement, property devaluation or environmental degradation are likely to arise as well. As the spatial footprint of hydrogen production plants is relatively small compared with the production of required renewable energy sources, such as solar plants, wholistic strategies that consider all of the transition’s dimensions will need to be developed. On the one hand, the displacement of water and land use from agriculture to GH2 production may negatively affect food security. On the other, the establishment of a GH2 sector can contribute to food security by providing a low-carbon input for fertilizer production56.

Material use and technology

While GH2 is the least harmful of all hydrogen production pathways in terms of total externalities, it has non-negligible ramifications for ecosystem quality. This is mainly linked to upstream electricity sources: the manufacturing of crystalline silicon panels required for solar power, for example, is associated with harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions7. Hence, reducing solar panels’ resource requirements or finding alternative materials to produce them would improve their environmental performance (ibid). Likewise, a reduction of metal inputs (e.g. nickel, platinum and iridium) in electrolysis technologies could mitigate their impact on the environment8, as would the improvement of the currently very low process efficiency of solar PV electrolysis9. A sustainable hydrogen strategy must therefore prioritize research, innovation and material efficiency. Another area of concern is hydrogen leakage along the supply chain: when emitted into the atmosphere prior to combustion, hydrogen contributes to climate change by prolonging the lifetime of greenhouse gases (e.g. methane, ozone and water vapor), undermining the GH2 transition’s purpose10. The development and use of national GH2 risk assessments can help to minimise and control leakages.

A consultative GH2 strategy can deliver energy justice for people & planet

Governments must consider the resilience and livelihoods of local communities when planning GH2 production rollouts. Any potential benefits in terms of employment and export revenues should not come at the expense of energy, water or food security. The key is inclusiveness: the involvement of local communities in the formulation of strategies to ensure that all stakeholders’ voices are heard and their concerns considered11. The management of just industrial transitions involves navigating trade-offs between different dimensions of justice, equity and participation rather than achieving a predetermined “win” across all dimensions.

Due to the considerable costs, safety and leakage concerns as well as the impact of GH2 transport for the purpose of exports on the water lifecycle, producer countries should focus not only on GH2 exports but also use their produced GH2 to locally manufacture “green” goods for export. Governments should furthermore ensure that foreign enterprises investing in the setting up of GH2 facilities are bound by local content requirements, including the use of locally available labour, to ensure beneficial spillover effects and the sustainable building of domestic expertise and technical skills capacities.

Additional measures to improve community resilience and safeguard ecosystems include integrated socio-environmental impact assessments, which shed light on the true costs and feasibility of GH2-related infrastructure projects before construction commences. Pricing or regulatory interventions to internalize environmental externalities on a broad scale could mitigate harmful impacts and enhance GH2 competitiveness as the price gap to other hydrogen production methods would shrink. CSR could become another major component in a just and sustainable GH2 transition. Ultimately, it will take collaboration among all stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, investors and local communities, to create an inclusive GH2 economy that benefits people and the planet.

  • Smeeta Fokeer is Industrial Development Officer at the Climate and Technology Partnership Division (CTP) of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  • Jan Sievernich is Project Associate with the Climate and Technology Partnerships Division of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
  • Petra Schwager is Chief of the Energy Technologies and Industrial Applications Division at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNIDO (read more).

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