Hydrogen standards should only lend credibility to truly emissions-busting projects

For hydrogen to fulfil its promise to address climate change and decarbonise key sectors of our economy like steel and shipping, it must be produced in ways that are aligned with our climate goals. Unfortunately, standards being adopted around the world risk validating hydrogen produced with unacceptably high emissions.

We have an emerging global consensus on how to calculate emissions from hydrogen production based on a methodology published by the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE). This work on measuring emissions appears to be going global with the International Standards Organisation (ISO) set to have technical standards ready by December 2023 for production, “conditioning” and transport of hydrogen. This is welcome.

There are other aspects of hydrogen standards which are important too. Health and safety, particularly as hydrogen touches on more people’s lives, is essential. Sustainability standards that address issues such as water and respect for human rights are vitally important.

But, crucially, we lack global consensus on a threshold for emissions from hydrogen production aligned with a 1.5 degree pathway which is acceptable for our planet. This is a problem since hydrogen production today accounts for 2% of global emissions and hydrogen demand is expected to increase six-fold by mid-century.

The 2022 Breakthrough Agenda report authored by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions recommended that “production routes will need to achieve verifiable low-carbon intensities that trend towards near zero by 2030”. The Climate Bonds Initiative Hydrogen Production Standard which also covers emissions associated with transportation to the point of use requires hydrogen to be produced with no more than 1.5 kg of CO2e per kg by 2030; 0.6 kgCO2e/kgH2 by 2040 and then zero by 2050.

The Green Hydrogen Organisation’s own standard, the Green Hydrogen Standard, requires that hydrogen made with renewables emits no more than 1 kg of CO2e per kg hydrogen up to the point of production. This is a 91% reduction compared to grey hydrogen made from fossil fuels and we have committed to lower this threshold further. The Hydrogen Science Coalition’s Clean Hydrogen Definition also states that blue hydrogen made from fossil gas should emit a maximum of 1 kg of CO2e per kg hydrogen.

Norway’s Equinor claims it can produce blue hydrogen made from fossil gas with just 0.6kg CO2e per kg hydrogen under certain conditions, and energy giant BP has at least taken the decision to define a range of emissions associated with blue hydrogen in its Energy Outlook 2023 (CO2 capture rates of 93-98% and methane leakage of 1.4-0.7%).

Elsewhere in the patchwork of international standards the picture is not so rosy. While the US Inflation Reduction Act will give the best tax credits to hydrogen produced with the lowest emissions, its proposed Clean Hydrogen Production Standard lends credibility to hydrogen produced with only a 64% decrease (4kg CO2e/kg H2) compared to grey hydrogen made from fossil gas. It is the same story for Canada’s recently published Clean Hydrogen Investment Tax Credit (CHITC) where government subsidies will be available for hydrogen produced with 4 kg CO2e per kg hydrogen. The EU rules for renewable green hydrogen and blue hydrogen require a 70% reduction (3.4kg CO2e/kg H2) including transport of the hydrogen up to the point of use, and the UK’s Low Carbon Hydrogen Standard requires a 78% reduction (2.4kg CO2e/kg H2) up to the point of production.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development in its Guide to 1.5°C-aligned hydrogen investments stated that hydrogen with up to 3 kg of CO2e per kg hydrogen should be considered “low carbon”. It is not. Claiming that several kilogrammes of carbon emissions per kg of hydrogen is low carbon risks accusations of greenwashing.

No standard, ladder or label using the terms “low carbon” or “clean hydrogen” should be accepted for hydrogen produced with several kilogrammes of emissions.

We need to ensure that all hydrogen, including blue hydrogen made from fossil gas, is produced with at least a 90% reduction on today’s levels. This means no more than 1 kg CO2e per kg hydrogen.

I recently met with India’s G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant. He totally gets it. He is clear that the priority for the Presidency of the G20 has to be green hydrogen. The G7 and G20 must take the lead and present clear language ahead of COP28 at the end of this year. That is how we build trust in global institutions and create confidence in the energy transition.

To echo the message in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent synthesis report: let’s act now, or it will be too late.