Making a success of sustainable hydrogen imports

12.11.2020
Sustainability criteria for hydrogen

In Germany, industry and government want hydrogen to become a key pillar of the energy transition. Due to the high costs and limited availability of land, however, Germany cannot rely on domestic production to satisfy future hydrogen demand. For hydrogen production to be genuinely sustainable and climate-neutral, ambitious criteria will be required for a global hydrogen market. The Oeko-Institut’s new donation-funded project examines what these sustainability criteria might look like.

How is the hydrogen produced? How are the electricity inputs generated? Which water sources are used? And how will the hydrogen be transported? This non-client, donation-funded project aims to identify the human, environmental and climate impacts of a range of hydrogen production systems in various countries. Based on detailed country analyses, the researchers will define sustainability criteria as a basis for ensuring that imported hydrogen contributes to climate change mitigation without adversely affecting other dimensions of sustainability.

“With hydrogen, there must be no repetition of the mistakes made with biomass,” says Christoph Heinemann, who heads the donation-funded project at the Oeko-Institut. “We must ensure that the hydrogen we use in Germany is not produced at the expense of the environment and society in the exporting countries.”

Hydrogen: the new climate champion?

Hydrogen has the potential to play a key role in climate change mitigation as a low-carbon substitute for fossil fuels. To make a success of this, however, hydrogen production must be based largely on additional renewable energies; alternatively – if natural gas is used – carbon capture and storage must be built in. Otherwise, hydrogen production will release greenhouse gases, substantially reducing the mitigation effect of hydrogen use or even adding emissions.

Hydrogen production is also reliant on resource inputs: water, metallic raw materials and land for the construction of electrolysis plants – in some cases, with severe adverse impacts on the environment. And if production takes place abroad, it is by no means certain that regulations will be in place to avoid the risk of harm to the environment, climate and society. 

With its new project, the Oeko-Institut aims to formulate clear and transparent criteria to ensure that hydrogen production is sustainable and climate-neutral. These criteria should in future be built into policy-making on the expansion of the global hydrogen supply.

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Further information: Donation-funded project – “Hydrogen? Yes, but it must be sustainable!”