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Euroviews. Germany and the EU are falling for corporate lobbyists' hydrogen hoax

Policemen look on as demonstrators protest in Vienna on 27 March 2023
Policemen look on as demonstrators protest in Vienna on 27 March 2023 Copyright AFP/Euronews
Copyright AFP/Euronews
By Belén Balanyá, Researcher and campaigner, Corporate Europe Observatory
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

By selling Europe's decision-makers on largely inefficient hydrogen-based e-fuels, corporations are locking in fossil fuels and ramping up climate colonialism, Belén Balanyá writes.

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Flashback to May last year: captains of industry, including RWE and Shell, have been invited by German Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger to Australia to talk hydrogen with bankers, investors and politicians.

Gleeful about the potential future imports, the delegation sang a song — specially composed for the occasion — about this lucrative gas.

Corporations have reason to celebrate. Corporate Europe Observatory’s new report shows how business has successfully helped to shape Germany's stance on this hot topic through privileged access, revolving doors and big spending on PR consultancies.

Why Germany? There is a reason

Germany is hugely influential in setting the broader EU agenda. Take last week’s painful negotiations to finalise the phase-out of combustion engine cars by 2035.

Germany refused to sign until a workaround was put on the table: as a result, these vehicles can still be sold post-2035 if running on e-fuels.

The German e-fuels loophole catered to the demands of guzzling car makers — including Porsche and 170 other companies — grouped in the eFuel Alliance, who openly state that their goal is "for eFuels to gain political acceptance and regulatory approval as a significant contributor to sustainable climate protection.”

E-fuels, based on hydrogen and CO2, are vastly inefficient. With an estimated 16% energy efficiency in comparison with 72% in electric vehicles, they are not exactly part of the climate solution.
HIF GLOBAL / AFP
An aerial view of the Haru Oni Demonstration Plant, a synthetic fuel plant that started operations in Punta Arenas, Chile, December 2022HIF GLOBAL / AFP

In fact, e-fuels, based on hydrogen and CO2, are vastly inefficient. With an estimated 16% energy efficiency in comparison with 72% in electric vehicles, they are not exactly part of the climate solution.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the Haru Oni project — run by a consortium including Porsche, ExxonMobil and German Siemens– produces hydrogen-based e-fuel for Germany. 

In contrast with scientific warnings about the negative impacts of green hydrogen projects in the region, Porsche absurdly claims that “classic and modern sports cars can be part of the solution to lower emissions”.

A way out for big polluters

Over 100 German businesses — many of them linked to fossils and other polluting industries — have been identified as key players along the green hydrogen value chain. 

As decarbonisation poses an existential risk, they have jumped on the hydrogen bandwagon as a ‘clean’ way to lock in combustion engines, pipelines, power plants and airports. 

Hydrogen is their escape route for protecting polluting assets and delaying climate action.

Germany is set to become Europe’s biggest hydrogen importer, with an estimated share of up to 70% of future combined EU/UK imports.
AP Photo/Michael Probst
A hydrogen train has left the station of Wehrheim near Frankfurt, 17 March 2023AP Photo/Michael Probst

Hydrogen has become a silver bullet for EU and German decision-makers. Germany is set to become Europe’s biggest hydrogen importer, with an estimated share of up to 70% of future combined EU/UK imports.

And the bloc’s REPowerEU plan set the EU’s 2030 targets for green hydrogen at 20 million tonnes, half via domestic production and half imported. 

This is unrealistic: less than 0.04 million tonnes of green hydrogen were produced globally in 2021.

But what's the dirty truth about hydrogen?

The hydrogen hype glosses over reality. First, 99% of today’s globally produced hydrogen is the so-called "grey" hydrogen made from fossil fuels, with annual CO2 emissions exceeding those of Germany in its entirety.

"Blue" hydrogen, promoted as a "low-carbon" alternative, also has a mega-climate footprint

It is the product of fossil gas with emissions collected through carbon capture and storage, which is a flawed, risky, expensive and thus far failed technofix. 

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Fossil industry PR spins blue hydrogen as a step in the transition to a green hydrogen future, despite evidence that it was primarily concocted as a lifeline for dirty gas companies.

Germany’s embrace of blue hydrogen is a major win for the hydrogen lobby.
Ida Marie Odgaard/AP
Germany's Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck attends a press conference on Danish-German cooperation on hydrogen infrastructure in Copenhagen, 23 March 2023Ida Marie Odgaard/AP

Germany’s embrace of blue hydrogen is a major win for the hydrogen lobby. The recently leaked version of the country’s revised hydrogen strategy explicitly foresees the use and public funding of blue hydrogen.

 And corporations are grateful.

“It is a blessing that we have this Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs,” said the chair of energy lobby group BDEW last year in reference to the ministry led by Robert Habeck from the Greens. 

In his first seven months after taking office, Habeck and top government officials met with gas lobbyists once a day on average. BDEW’s member companies are responsible for 90% of Germany’s fossil gas sales.

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Hydrogen projects allow for climate colonialism, too

Even a green hydrogen economy is a chimaera. Produced from renewable energy, green hydrogen is energy inefficient, it's a potent indirect greenhouse gasand large-scale production requires vast amounts of land, water and renewable energy.

Germany has established hydrogen alliances and partnerships with at least 26 potential export countries, many of them in the Global South. 

Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity Neom ... is a shocking case of human rights violations: ancient tribes have been forcibly evicted from their land, and several protestors have been sentenced to death.
NEOM/AFP
The design plan for the 500-metre tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, in the heart of the Red Sea megacity NEOMNEOM/AFP

Such hydrogen colonialism is a recipe for human rights abuses: a mapping of 27 mostly African countries did not identify a single hydrogen project that included prior consultation with the community.

Saudi Arabia’s planned megacity Neom, where ThyssenKrupp will install a huge electrolyser to produce hydrogen for export, is a shocking case of human rights violations: ancient tribes have been forcibly evicted from their land, and several protestors have been sentenced to death.

You can't dupe people with the hoax

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued a dire global warning for a "last chance for climate action". 

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But the EU — often pushed by Germany — is blocking any progress. 

The loophole in the ban on combustion engines, the gas and hydrogen package, the revised Renewable Energy Directive, the Hydrogen Bank, the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation, the Net-Zero Industry Act and the Critical Raw Materials Act will all boost the hydrogen bubble and corporate profits at the expense of global justice, energy democracy and effective climate action.

Climate and social justice movements have not been duped by the hydrogen hoax. 

Decision-makers must stop listening to the very industry that has caused creating the climate and energy crisis.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP
Policemen carry away a demonstrator during a protest in Vienna as the Austrian capital hosts the European Gas Conference, 27 March 2023JOE KLAMAR/AFP

At last week’s European Gas Conference in Vienna, thousands of protestors, with African activists at the forefront, stood up against the EU and Germany’s looming hydrogen colonialism and the danger it poses to the planet. 

Decision-makers must stop listening to the very industry that has caused creating the climate and energy crisis. More than 100,000 people have demanded the European Parliament kick fossil-fuel lobbyists out of politics — but their voices are not being heard.

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_Belén Balanyá is a researcher and campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory, which she co-founded in 1997. She's focused on exposing the power of the oil and gas industry in the European Union.
_

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