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On climate change, don’t believe Europe’s hydrogen hype

Our research reveals worrying links between corporate lobbyists and the EU’s enthusiasm for hydrogen as a ‘clean’ energy source.

Belén Balanyá Hans van Scharen
9 December 2020, 1.26pm
Image: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

When we talk about climate change, we do it with the future of our children and grandchildren in mind. Is this why we tend to believe in fairy tales when it comes to solutions?

Looking at how enthusiastically European policymakers have embraced hydrogen as a new, clean energy source, one has to wonder. In fact – don’t tell the kids – the trend for hydrogen is the result of a highly successful campaign by the gas industry, as a new report by our campaign group, Corporate Europe Observatory, together with Food and Water Action Europe and Re:Common, reveals.

The publication in July of the EU’s new Hydrogen Strategy was hailed as “a new dawn for gas in Europe” by James Watson, secretary-general of Eurogas, the gas industry’s main lobbying organisation. “This is going to be a step change for the gas sector and one which we are embracing and leading,” he said.

Indeed, thanks to a coordinated campaign worth almost 60 million euros, the industry seems to have secured a bright future. “Hydrogen rocks,” declared Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president in charge of overseeing the EU’s climate change policies, “and I am committed to making it a success!”

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Beyond its intense lobbying efforts, the industry also seems to have won control of key parts of the new strategy. Hydrogen Europe and its members are making sure they have a key role in the running of the Commission’s European Clean Hydrogen Alliance. This is the body that will propose which hydrogen projects are suitable for public investment.

Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a lobbyist and former liberal MEP, noted in July that one third of the 430 billion euros required to introduce hydrogen would need to come from public money. That amounts to almost the annual budget of the whole EU. “Many people are asking why is it industry-led and why do you have CEOs foreseen for that? Because we need fast decisions,” he said.

The big sell

What ‘fast decisions’ are needed and why? The energy industry wants to be able to make its own decisions about how to use billions of euros in taxpayers' money, without excessive public scrutiny. It needs these decisions to be taken quickly, because EU leaders are feeling the heat and are soon to agree on a climate law to limit emissions.

Our analysis of more than 200 documents obtained through freedom of information requests shows that hydrogen is being sold to policymakers as a clean, climate-friendly energy source – which it is not.

Currently, less than 0.1% of hydrogen produced in Europe is green, produced via the electrolysis of water, with the electricity used in the process coming from renewable sources like wind and solar. More than 90% is grey hydrogen, made using fossil fuels like oil and coal, which emit CO2. This means that at a moment of climate emergency, public investment in hydrogen will essentially keep funding the same old pollutants.

The industry’s hydrogen hype machine is in full swing. Between December 2019 and September 2020, Industry representatives met a total of 163 times with Timmermans and two other EU commissioners, or their staff.

The revolving door between industry and public service, an old classic, continues to be an issue. Klaus-Dieter Borchardt, one of the most influential Commission officials on gas and hydrogen policy, left his post to join the law firm Baker McKenzie, which appears to be building a profile on gas and hydrogen. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessor at the Commission, Christopher Jones, who is now a lead member of Baker McKenzie’s hydrogen team. This week, Borchardt, in his role for Baker McKenzie, moderated a gas lobby event where his panelists included his former European Commission colleagues and gas industry lobbyists.

Key to organising the hydrogen lobby in Europe is the public relations firm FTI Consulting. In the US, a New York Times report claims that the company has created fake pro-fossil-fuel grassroots organisations, though FTI strongly denies any wrongdoing. FTI ran Hydrogen Europe in its first years, and the company also created and still manages another powerful lobby group, the Hydrogen Council.

Debate denied

FTI also helped the hydrogen and gas industry gain access to over 1 billion euros in public funds between 2014 and 2020. This was thanks to a public-private research partnership between the Commission and Hydrogen Europe, a collaboration that played a key role in creating the hydrogen hype.

Such arrangements prevent a real and urgently-needed debate on energy and climate from taking place. That debate should be about how we can transform our energy systems via electrification, and how to produce electricity in a decentralised and sustainable way that would benefit local municipalities rather than energy giants.

Corporate lobbying distracts policymakers from the public interest. And as the scientific community has been telling us for decades, climate change is not a fairy tale, but an unfolding horror story.

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