If the high point of the world recognising the perils of climate change was the Paris Agreement adopted by 196 nations on Dec 12, 2015, the low point was hit months later when Donald Trump took office as the US president. The rise of other climate deniers like the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who allowed the Amazonian rainforest to be exploited, only worsened the fight. Although the defeat of Mr Trump in 2020 and of Mr Bolsonaro last year turned the tide, other factors intervened. The Covid epidemic distracted global attention from the climate issue.
In 2022, climate concerns are back in focus after a devastating hurricane hit Florida and one third of Pakistan was inundated by floods. Recently California has had extremely heavy downpours causing landslides. The Ukraine war awakened Europe to wean itself off Russian energy. But there was no easy transition except by turning to coal, in the short run. This has revived the debate about decarbonisation through use of Green Hydrogen, which involves the recovery of hydrogen from water using renewable energy.
India joined the quest in January by announcing its National Green Hydrogen Mission, promising a $2 billion incentive plan. Aim is to quickly invite bids for Green Hydrogen manufacturing of fertilisers and steel. Two fertiliser plants are planned, using Green Hydrogen. The Government hopes to replace imported ammonia-based fertilisers completely by this method by 2034-35.
If anything, India has been slow off the blocks. The Green Hydrogen Global Assembly was held on May 17-18, 2022 at Barcelona. It was attended by governments, industry, and national green hydrogen associations. Most importantly a decision was taken on a Green Hydrogen Standard, establishing the norms for certification with a clear zero-emission threshold. Also declared was a ‘100 by 2030’ slogan, involving the production of 100 million tons of Green Hydrogen by 2030. An African Green Hydrogen Alliance, consisting of six nations i.e., Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania was announced too. Europe already has its RePowerEU initiative.
Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop had envisioned an Africa “Powered by Hydrogen” as far back as 1985. Namibia has now taken the lead by its Hyphen project to pipe desalinated seawater to electrolysers for extracting hydrogen. Germany has set aside $30 million for a hydrogen dual-fuel locomotive pilot plant. By 2050, a quarter of the global energy demand could be met by Green Hydrogen. RePowerEU plans to produce half of it locally, importing the rest.
Even the private sector is chipping in. Adani is involved with some of these initiatives. British Petroleum (BP) has announced a $30 billion Asian Renewable Energy Project.
Clearly the world has geared up to transition to hydrogen-based clean energy. Consultancy firm McKinsey calculates that the price of Hydrogen will be cost competitive by 2030. But automotive companies have so far ignored this transition underway. For instance, Shell has built a network of Hydrogen fuelling stations in Germany. But the nation so far has only 1200 odd fuel cell vehicles. Thus, space remains between intention and action, as indeed public acceptability of the transition. There is also a huge investment gap, especially for the nations of the Global South. Irony is manifest, too, when the oil minister of UAE is also named as their representative to the COP 28 climate talks.
India has a big advantage in terms of its geography. While North India has a huge riverine and canal system, the Southern part has long coastlines. In fact, the further south you move the narrower the land mass becomes, allowing shorter pipelines. Thus, water is easily available for electrolysis. India also gets almost round-the-year sunlight to enable use of renewable energy for running electrolysers. John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change said recently that what is needed is to “blend the finance, de-risk investment, capacity for bankable deals”.
Governments globally will have to play a key role in shepherding the transition to the hydrogen energy revolution. India, as the chair of G-20, gets a special role to create the new global order for sharing of benefits of green energy. The fossil fuel-based order is not only polluting but heavily tipped in favour of either the developed nations or authoritarian petro-states. Ironically, the Gulf states with huge sovereign funds, ample land, sunshine, and sea water can remain important players even as the world decarbonises. The story may be different for Russia as use of gas for electrolysis produces blue hydrogen as well as methane, which is worse for climate.
In India it remains to be seen whether the already financially endowed groups will simply muscle competition out of their way. Ideally, anti-trust and competition rules should be strictly applied to ensure that the transition is state-led not state-sponsored. To enable the Prime Minister to seize the leadership of Global South, he needs to have his government develop first an equitable model of Green Public Private Sector Partnership (GPPP).
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs