Clean Hydrogen at COP26: Moving from Footnote to Centre Stage
Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda
In the many assessments of what happened at COP26 the story of the meteoric rise of clean hydrogen needs reporting. EU President Ursula von der Leyen even called clean hydrogen’ among the hottest topics’ at COP26 in her opening speech at this week’s European Hydrogen Week . It’s hard to capture everything that happened on this front, so my assessment is by necessity an incomplete and personal impression focusing on what struck me as most significant. From my perspective, the headline surely is that clean hydrogen is one of the four topics of the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda agreed by World Leaders at the COP26 Summit, next to power, road transport and steel. This agenda calls for affordable renewable and low-carbon hydrogen to be available by 2030. With the leaders of 33 countries signing up to the hydrogen breakthrough in Glasgow, this was reportedly the most popular of the four breakthroughs. The main G20 countries are on board already ensuring a great global coverage, but hopefully even more countries will sign up later. The IEA has the lead in reporting to subsequent COPs on the global progress towards the clean hydrogen breakthrough, including on cost, volume, investment and GHG abatement. All the relevant international initiatives and organisations, including the IPHE, are asked to help achieve this breakthrough.
Clean hydrogen trade
On behalf of IPHE, I had the privilege to participate in two meetings. The first meeting was a high-level event organised by the government of global hydrogen leader Japan and the IEA. The energy Ministers of Canada, Jonathan Wilkinson, and Chile, Juan Carlos Jobet, emphasized the huge potential of clean hydrogen for decarbonisation, while also flagging that both countries will be developing into net exporters. A high-level representative of the Japanese government explained how much clean hydrogen Japan would need to import to contribute to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol stressed the importance of defining ‘the rules of the game’ in order to rapidly scale-up the global hydrogen market in the next decade.
The second meeting I participated in was the UK Presidency Science & Innovation Day highlighting the importance as well as huge potential of the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda. In the hydrogen session, the rapidly increasing momentum in developing countries was illustrated eloquently by James Mnyupe, a close advisor to the President of Namibia, one of the African countries eyeballing the build-up of a green hydrogen export-industry. I myself highlighted the recent proposal of IPHE to establish a global standard for the methodology on how to calculate the carbon footprint of different pathways to produce clean hydrogen . Furthermore, IPHE has started to take a close look at potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to clean hydrogen trade. A report will soon be published on this.
Mobilising demand for clean hydrogen
In the session on steel during the Science & Innovation Day, the Austrian Minister Gewessler launched a powerful new Industrial Deep Decarbonisation Initiative (IDDI) together with the governments of the UK, Germany, the UAE and Canada. This initiative, under the umbrella of the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), is coordinated by UNIDO and aims to create a thriving market for low-carbon industrial steel, cement and concrete . The five countries announced their intention to buy low-carbon steel and cement with specific targets to be revealed at the next CEM Ministerial by mid-2022. The public procurement of steel and cement in the five countries represents 25-40% of the domestic market for such materials. Steel and cement are among the most carbon-intensive industrial materials, responsible for around 15% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, with the world expected to build the equivalent of another New York City every month for the next decades. In my view this initiative is a very welcome example of creating strong demand signals in the clean hydrogen market, as discussed in my last blog. Hopefully, many more countries will join this great initiative. Public procurement is still an underrated instrument in the policy toolbox for accelerating the transition to net zero emissions.
Another important global initiative announced at COP26 is H2Zero spearheaded by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the Sustainable Market Initiative ((SMI) where 28 companies, including oil majors like BP, Shell, Equinor and TotalEnergies, pledged to accelerate the replacement of unabated fossil-fuel produced hydrogen by renewable and low-carbon hydrogen. According to WBCSD these announced pledges could equate to nearly 200 million tonnes per annum of CO2 avoided in 2030.
Various other initiatives to accelerate clean hydrogen
In the area of renewable hydrogen, IRENA and WEF launched jointly-developed ‘Enabling Measures Roadmaps for Green Hydrogen’ for Europe and Japan at COP26. These roadmaps are based on input from industry and intend to enhance public-private dialogue on how to accelerate the implementation of green hydrogen for decarbonising the hard to abate sectors in the economy.
Under the umbrella of the Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative (CEM-H2I) the H2 Twin Cities was launched that aims to foster collaboration among communities at the forefront of clean hydrogen deployment. This highlights how much clean hydrogen has also risen to the top of the decarbonisation agenda at the local and regional level across the world.
Furthermore, the Hydrogen Council presented two new reports at COP26: Hydrogen for Net Zero  and a Policy Toolbox for Low Carbon & Renewable Hydrogen . The message was that clean hydrogen can contribute over 20% of global carbon abatement by 2050 provided the appropriate policies and public-private collaboration are put in place. Already by 2030 clean hydrogen can abate 730 Mt of CO2, mainly by phasing-out 1/3 of unabated fossil-fuel-produced hydrogen and new applications in steel and heavy-duty transport (trucks, maritime and aviation). The strong momentum and private investment appetite are alive and kicking according to the Hydrogen Council.
It is impossible to even list all the clean hydrogen initiatives and pledges of (groups of) individual countries, companies, ports and other institutions. Furthermore, clean hydrogen was also a key component of many important broader public-private decarbonisation initiatives, like the First Movers Coalition of the US and the WEF, and the EU’s new partnership with Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Catalyst and the EIB. This fact in itself demonstrates clearly that clean hydrogen has moved ‘from footnote to centre stage’ at COP26, as one participant aptly expressed it. Given the fact that renewable and low-carbon hydrogen is now cemented into the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda and that its progress will be reported upon to subsequent COPs by IEA, clean hydrogen looks likely to remain positioned at the centre stage of future COPs.
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About the author
Noé van Hulst is a globally renowned hydrogen expert. He currently serves as Special Advisor Hydrogen to the IEA, Hydrogen Advisor to infrastructure company Gasunie and Senior Fellow at Clingendael International Energy Programme. He has also been vice-Chair of the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, Dutch Ambassador to the OECD, Chairman of the IEA Governing Board, and Director-General for Energy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the Netherlands.