As hydrogen continues to gain global attention as a key fuel in the energy transition, its rapid scaling up has led environmental justice groups to raise flags to take local and marginalised communities into account.

The US Department of Energy hosted a summit highlighting its Hydrogen Shot programme, intended to push the cost of clean hydrogen to $1 per kilogram in the next decade.

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US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said at the event that hydrogen could be a “multi trillion-dollar global market” in the coming decades as companies, including in the oil and gas sector, search for ways to decarbonise their products and find alternative energy sources away from fossil fuels.

However, hydrogen still causes a large portion of emissions. At present, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced by fossil fuels, often without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Adding CCS could help decarbonise the production but that would involve massive buildout of new pipelines, a concern for environmental groups.

Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, worries that more pipelines could cause health problems if there are leaks, and marginalised communities are more likely to be affected.

For Rogers-Wright and his colleagues, progressing the energy transition also means addressing how the current energy network has disadvantaged people in different ways and fixing it.

“Climate solutions must not increase environmental justice challenges,” he said.

Rogers-Wright is also concerned that focusing on producing hydrogen from fossil fuels will only encourage further investment in the sector, which many say need to descale to meet Paris targets.

Electrification concerns

Green hydrogen, made from renewable energy sources, is a cleaner way to produce hydrogen and removes fossil fuels from the process. However, there are questions if it is as efficient as direct electrification.

Rachel Fakhry, senior analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said electric appliances are typically more efficient than hydrogen appliances and using electricity to produce hydrogen uses energy that could have remained as electricity.

Sonal Jessel, director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, added that a focus on green hydrogen could take away from global electrification efforts, which are an important part of the energy transition and equity in energy access.

This is not to say that hydrogen does not have any applications, Fakhry said. While electricity may be more efficient in some cases, it is not always feasible in certain industrial processes especially aviation, maritime, shipping and steelmaking.

However, all agreed that hydrogen cannot be the only clean energy source that companies focus on.

There is far too little time to put all the effort into one energy source, but hydrogen has the potential to be scaled up responsibly while working with other fuels to propel the energy transition forward.

“It’s not so much that we’re approaching a cliff. We’ve gone over the cliff and are approaching terminal velocity,” Rogers-Wright said.