9th Dec 2023


The greenwashing scam behind EU's 'grey' hydrogen

  • Hydrogen presents an escape hatch for the most climate-damaging industries to continue to drill for fossil fuels (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Among the key corporate players behind the lavish campaign for EU hydrogen expansion are fossil fuel majors Shell, ExxonMobil and TotalEnergies, as well as agrochemical giant Yara — the biggest buyer of fossil gas in Europe.

These companies have spent the last years using their undue influence in EU institutions to tout hydrogen as the silver-bullet climate solution.

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The reality, however, is a well-funded, highly orchestrated greenwashing scam. Some 99 percent of hydrogen produced globally is in fact 'grey hydrogen', made using fossil fuels.

In 2022 alone, the industry was responsible for over 900m tonnes of CO2 emissions; more than the entire global aviation industry.

But hydrogen's advocates have a comeback to these alarming figures: 'clean' hydrogen and gas. There's a catch though. "Clean", according to EU sustainability metrics, refers to 'green' hydrogen made using renewables and 'blue' hydrogen, which like its 'grey' counterpart is made using fossil gas, with the addition of bogus, energy-intensive carbon capture technologies.

Despite its EU sustainability status, blue hydrogen, like grey hydrogen, has a bigger climate footprint than burning fossil fuels directly; the technology only captures a fragment of CO2 emitted, whilst increasing the amount of fuel burned in the overall production process.

So, when we look closer at how most of our hydrogen is made, it's easy to see why its fossil-fuel funded lobby is so hell-bent on getting hydrogen on the priority lists of decision-makers.

Hydrogen presents an escape hatch for the most climate-damaging industries to continue to drill for fossil fuels, whilst securing future business opportunities beyond the continent, in the form of green hydrogen.

And it's certainly not all bells and whistles when it comes to green hydrogen either; largely because it is so land, resource and water intensive to produce.

Neo-colonialism in Oman

In Oman, for instance, the government has already earmarked an eye-watering 50,000km of land to green hydrogen production — nearly one sixth of the entire country. With this example in mind, the EU's goal to import 10m tonnes of green hydrogen by 2030, largely from energy-scarce and climate vulnerable regions, appear astoundingly neocolonial: energy-scarce communities in the Global South will be subject to land grabs, while European energy giants win big.

Clearly, the hydrogen plans completely disregard the impacts of green hydrogen on areas already facing the horrors of climate change head on. Our research has revealed that a third of the biggest green hydrogen projects will be carried out in areas under high water stress, including parts of Morocco, India, Namibia, Chile and South Africa.

Expanding water-intensive green hydrogen production in these areas is an irresponsible use of economic leverage by the EU and the lasting influence of its member states in the countries they colonised. Producing green hydrogen in these countries will fuel water shortages, exhaust agricultural land, jeopardise human health and spark conflict.

And this isn't all.

Some 20 percent of giga-scale green hydrogen projects worldwide are being planned in repressive regimes, with appalling track-records of human rights abuses.

In the case of Saudi Arabia's Neom project, where mammoth electrolyser projects are being built to produce hydrogen for export, members of the ancient Howeitat tribe have been forcibly evicted from their lands whilst several protesters have been murdered by security forces.

Turning a blind eye, leading EU commissioners visited Saudi Arabia this year to discuss collaboration on hydrogen. Germany, the Netherlands and France have all agreed to joint projects with the regime.

The dirty work of removing local communities from their lands to make way for extractive projects, and violently repressing those who resist, is carried out by corrupt regimes, whilst European investors and politicians continue to profit, with impunity.

The EU's global hydrogen crusade is neocolonialism painted green. Fossil fuel companies headquartered in Europe will preserve their violent, corrupt business model and inordinate market influence. And the producing countries? Ordinary people will experience none of the benefits but all of the harm of extractivist, violent hydrogen projects destined to be used by wealthier countries, miles away. The racialised inequities of our current energy system remain absolutely preserved.

Let's not forget. EU member states are among the biggest historical colonisers and polluters.

Rather than stalling on climate action with violent hydrogen expansion, they have a responsibility: to use this critical moment to equitably transform the colonial energy model that catalysed the climate and global inequality crises. Decarbonisation and decolonisation must go hand in hand.

Let's build a global energy system built on fairness, rather than race and class-based exploitation; where everyone, wherever they live in the world, has access to a genuinely green, just energy transition.

Author bio

Inga Davis is an activist with the anti-fossil fuel collective WeSmellGas.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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