Why EU climate goals rely on strong hydrogen policies

Blue hydrogen molecule in the liquid. 3d illustration.

By Anna Lóránt 

The EU is striving to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. As one of the fastest warming continents in the world, with climate risks threatening its energy and food security, ecosystems, infrastructure, water resources, financial stability and people’s health (EEA, 2024), ambitious climate action is a necessity.  

It’s clear that the only way to meet this climate goal is to clean up our energy systems and heavy-emitting industries. For this reason, hydrogen, as an energy carrier and industrial feedstock, is widely seen as a central piece in the EU’s clean transition. But hydrogen has some very real climate challenges that need to be addressed if it is to yield the benefits being sought. This makes it crucial to put the most robust and up-to-date science at the heart of EU policymaking for hydrogen.   

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Since the EU Hydrogen Strategy was published in 2020, policymakers have adopted ambitious goals and sectorial targets for hydrogen production and uptake, and work has started on developing a comprehensive policy and incentives framework to accelerate hydrogen deployment on the ground.  

With the finalisation of the Hydrogen and Decarbonised Gas Market package, one of the last pieces of the EU hydrogen rulebook has been put in place. These rules will not only shape the path towards meeting uptake and deployment targets but will ultimately define the extent to which hydrogen will help the EU reach its climate goals, or potentially take us in the opposite direction. 

Understanding the science of hydrogen and climate  

Hydrogen has genuine potential to reduce climate warming emissions, but it is not inherently climate beneficial. This fact has been largely missing from hydrogen conversations until recently.  

Regardless of the production pathway, hydrogen impacts the climate when it is emitted into the atmosphere. As an indirect greenhouse gas, it interacts with and increases the intensity of other greenhouse gases such as methane, tropospheric ozone and stratospheric water vapor, and can be nearly 40 times more potent than CO2 in the first 20 years. 

Depending on how much hydrogen is going into the atmosphere, anticipated climate benefits can be severely undercut in the near-term. The challenge is that although the science is clear on hydrogen’s warming potency, no one really knows how much hydrogen is being emitted, because we haven’t been able to measure it.  

Environmental Defense Fund is working to change that: this year we will be launching a first-ever field research initiative in Europe and the U.S. to establish the baseline of where and how much hydrogen is released, in order to lay the foundations for best practices and mitigation strategies. This will be done with a team of academic researchers, hydrogen industry partners and a new instrument capable of measuring hydrogen at a level of sensitivity and speed necessary to quantify climate-relevant emissions. 

In the meantime, there is almost no empirical data — only a wide range of highly uncertain estimates. Studies over the last 20 years suggest emission rates from less than 1% up to 20% for different components of the value chain. 

If we consider hydrogen emissions at the lower end (around 1%), hydrogen produced with renewable energy (or green hydrogen) could reduce fossil fuel climate impacts by more than 95% in both the near- and long-term. But if hydrogen emissions are higher (around 10%) then the climate benefits from green hydrogen systems in the near-term (20 years after switching technologies) may be cut in half.  

If we look at hydrogen produced with natural gas coupled with carbon capture and storage (often called blue hydrogen) upstream methane emissions have a further climate-warming impact, which could lead us far from our EU decarbonization targets with hydrogen. And that’s before we consider additional factors such as carbon capture rate and effectiveness of permanent storage for blue hydrogen production that can contribute to the variability of hydrogen deployment’s climate impact overall. 

Furthermore, most climate impact assessments only look at the 100-year timeframe. While this is important, we overlook the equally significant nearer term (for example, a 20-year timeframe). This matters because reducing short-lived climate forcers, including hydrogen, is the most important action we can take to slow the rate of warming that we are experiencing today and over the next couple of decades. And this happens to align with the EU’s 2050 net-zero goal.  

 What this means for EU hydrogen policy  

The Hydrogen and Decarbonised Gas Market package lays down some of the fundamental rules to facilitate the integration of renewable and low-carbon gases into the existing gas network. From a climate perspective, it mandates the EC to evaluate the climate implications of hydrogen emissions and propose new legislation if necessary. As we move into the new EU mandate after the 2024 elections, it will be critical for policy makers to take steps to ensure this evaluation takes place in a timely manner. 

This is the first time the risk of hydrogen emissions and their climate implications are explicitly recognised in EU legislation, which provides a crucial opportunity to ensure that the resources invested in scaling up the nascent hydrogen market will yield the climate benefits being sought. 

Concurrently, the package sets out principles for certifying low-carbon fuels, including hydrogen, with further technical details to be included in an upcoming delegated act that will define the methodology for assessing emission savings from low-carbon hydrogen, which must be at least 70% compared to fossil fuels. Mirroring the approach set out for renewable hydrogen, it will follow a life-cycle approach, which is very much aligned with recommendations from the science community.   

A solid scientific grounding for the certification of low-carbon hydrogen is the only way to avoid unintended emissions and costly future retrofits.  

For the forthcoming delegated act to route EU hydrogen deployment in the direction of 2050 climate goals, it needs to: 

  • define the main pathways for hydrogen production, assessing full lifecycle emissions for these pathways based on real-world data; 
  • account for all climate warming emissions; 
  • assess emission intensity over both near- and long-term timescales; 
  • define maximum acceptable emission rates for both hydrogen and methane in hydrogen deployment; and 
  • ensure consistently high (95% or better) carbon capture rates and examine real-world effectiveness of carbon storage solutions. 

History has taught us that the road to decarbonisation is littered with well-intentioned missteps. Today we have a unique opportunity to get the hydrogen piece of the puzzle right, from the start.  

By putting robust science at the heart of the EU’s hydrogen policy framework, we make important steps towards maximising the climate benefits of hydrogen systems, which in turn will help the EU to meet its ambition to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

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