Governments must beware of “vested interests” of fossil fuel firms seeking to use hydrogen as a lifeline for their existing operations in national energy transitions, warned a UN-backed report that labels renewable H2 “the only option strictly aligned” with global climate goals.

The UN’s ‘high-level climate action champions’ also cautioned against allowing hydrogen to “crowd-out” potentially better alternatives in sectors such as mobility and heating, as they issued a list of seven guidelines on its role in decarbonisation ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

Although they do not use the colour codes in their ‘Guiding Principles’, the UN ‘champions’ – Gonzalo Muñoz of Chile and Nigel Topping from the UK – weighed into the fundamental debate raging over the respective roles of green hydrogen produced using renewable-powered electrolysis and the blue variety from abated fossil gas linked to carbon capture, the latter enthusiastically supported by major hydrocarbons players.

Noting that some hydrogen production pathways “may emit significant climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions” the guidelines state: “Importantly, hydrogen offers a lifeline to fossil fuel incumbents who may see in hydrogen an opportunity and excuse to maintain and expand their gas and fuel-oriented infrastructure in a decarbonised future economy.

“Policymakers should aim to understand the unique advantages and limitations of hydrogen and be acutely sensitive to agendas of vested interests.”

Muñoz and Topping – environmentally-focused business leaders from Chile and the UK respectively – claim that while “fossil fuel-based hydrogen intrinsically faces a higher burden of proof” over emissions, renewable hydrogen “is the only option strictly aligned with a reliably 1.5-degree energy sector pathway” in line with targets to limit global heating.

“This burden of proof suggests that policies that further incentivise major energy and industrial companies to focus attention on renewable hydrogen production and use is not only appropriate but necessary to deliver reliable decarbonisation pathways.”

The climate champions also offer guidelines on one of the other big issues facing the emerging hydrogen economy – the depth of penetration of the fuel into various sectors where other options, notably direct electrification, could serve better.

Targeted application

Urging that hydrogen deployment “should be targeted in applications where other solutions do not currently exists”, the UN-backed guidance said: “Electrification offers significant efficiency gains in most sectors and geographies, in particular building heating and passenger mobility.

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“Hydrogen infrastructure deployment to serve demand in these sectors may in time become stranded or crowd-out more reliably zero-carbon alternatives that would advantage communities on those bases.”

By contrast the guidance – compiled after what is described as a months-long collaboration under the UN’s Marrakech Partnership on climate action – noted promising potential in areas such as “aviation, maritime shipping, steelmaking and possibly long-distance freight trucking”.