UN Guiding Principles: Redressing the Hydrogen Train Tracks

The United Nations High-Level Champions for Climate Action and UN Marrakesh Partnership have published a set of global hydrogen principles (to which NRDC had the pleasure of contributing) aimed at redressing the technology’s train tracks toward pathways consistent with 1.5˚C. Hydrogen has the potential to play a pivotal role in supporting global climate goals; but with an overeager rush to deployment, it could become a climate problem. The principles formulate critical guardrails to avoid this.
Credit: iStock/audioundwerbung

The United Nations High-Level Champions for Climate Action and UN Marrakesh Partnership have published a set of global hydrogen principles (to which NRDC had the pleasure of contributing) aimed at redressing the technology’s train tracks toward pathways consistent with 1.5˚C. Hydrogen has the potential to play a pivotal role in supporting global climate goals; but with an overeager rush to deployment, it could become a climate problem. The principles formulate critical guardrails to avoid this.

Hydrogen has emerged as a hot topic in mainstream energy discussions across the globe and garnered an unprecedented amount of attention over the past two years. It’s expected to receive outsized attention at the upcoming global climate change conference in Glasgow.  Hydrogen technology can be an important climate solution for the sectors of our economy that are most challenging to clean, but it also carries serious risks.

Many in the oil and gas industry see a potential lifeline in hydrogen to remain relevant in a decarbonized future and are pushing agendas that may undermine climate progress. This concerning trend has prompted the international community to map out a global set of principles that articulate critical guardrails that policymakers must consider as they tackle hydrogen. The principles, reflecting contributions by environmental organizations, civil society groups, and independent research organizations, offer a counterweight to the industry’s misleading claims by taking a step back and examining paths forward based on facts and science. They chart a narrow—yet pivotal—path for hydrogen that leverages the technology’s unique potential and avoids unintended climate, public health, and economic consequences. They offer a valuable playbook for policymakers everywhere looking to deploy hydrogen in a climate-aligned manner.

We summarize the main ideas outlined in five of seven principles—with re-adapted titles- and interlace those with additional context:

Principle 0: hydrogen agendas must be evaluated based on their alignment with broader climate and public health goals

Hydrogen is first and foremost a potential climate solution and all hydrogen agendas must be scrutinized based on their alignment with expedient pathways to the 1.5C warming target. The basis for this principle is the reality that some in the oil and gas industry, with vested interests in an expanded hydrogen economy, are pushing agendas that serve their interests. Policymakers are advised to be aware of this disconnect, cut the noise, and ground hydrogen-related decision-making in independent assessments and scientific facts.

Principle 1: Policymakers should prioritize existing solutions and target hydrogen into hard-to-abate sectors

Hydrogen agendas must begin by contemplating end-uses. Where does it fit best in the economy relative to other, existing climate solutions? As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, hydrogen has potential in challenging sectors such as aviation, maritime shipping, and steelmaking. But it’s inefficient and expensive, meaning in other applications with ready efficiency and electrification alternatives like buildings, hydrogen risks complicating decarbonization tasks and jeopardizing climate progress. Policymakers must first chart a holistic, efficient, and cost-effective course towards achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) economy-wide as a pre-requisite to hydrogen agendas. Those broad frameworks will likely demonstrate the need to prioritize the large-scale rollout of readily available solutions like electrification, efficiency, and renewables across the energy sector and target hydrogen into applications where it’s best suited for the decarbonization task.

Principle 2: Rigorous accounting of lifecycle GHG emissions of hydrogen production pathways, coupled with ambitious thresholds on those emissions, are paramount

Hydrogen production must be held to the highest levels of climate and public health integrity. Accurately calculating and reporting the lifecycle GHG emissions of the range of production pathways is a foundational step. Each resource in the hydrogen color wheel bears a degree of complexity related to emissions accounting: 1) in the case of blue hydrogen, upstream methane emissions linked to gas extraction and delivery must be measured and accounted for with high precision—a notoriously difficult task; 2) in the case of green hydrogen, the renewable sourcing of the electricity feeding the electrolyzer must be rigorously tracked and ascertained; and 3) in the case of biomass-based hydrogen, the sustainability of biomass sources must be examined—also a notoriously challenging task.

It is critical for policymakers to first transparently develop rigorous methodologies and guidance for calculating the lifecycle GHG emissions of the range of hydrogen pathways. They should then define “clean” hydrogen based on high emissions thresholds to incentivize the cleanest sources. For example, the European Commission has proposed defining “clean hydrogen” as reducing GHG emissions by at least 73.4 percent relative to the incumbent gas-based hydrogen. More ambitious, the U.S. DOE has articulated a target threshold of at least 80 percent emissions reductions below gas-based hydrogen. This is a robust target that must be widely adopted. In contrast, “clean” hydrogen thresholds proposed in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and House budget are paltry—the latter setting the bar as low as 40 percent – and would funnel through highly polluting forms of hydrogen. Weak thresholds would critically undermine the intended purpose of expanding hydrogen use, which is to help us clean up our economy.
NRDC will take a deeper dive into this foundational piece in future blog posts.

Principle 3: Green hydrogen is the only option robustly in line with pathways to 1.5C

This tackles the question in bright neon lights: Blue or green hydrogen? The principle draws on data and evidence to posit the primacy of green hydrogen over blue from a climate, public health, and economic standpoint. Green hydrogen is projected to outcompete blue hydrogen on a cost basis by as early as 2030, in most places. This is owing to large cost reductions projected for both electrolyzers, the equipment where the green hydrogen production process occurs,  and the renewable electricity driving the process. In contrast, the technology underpinning blue hydrogen is largely mature, with fewer opportunities for cost reductions.

Second, policymakers must grapple with the ironclad reality that blue hydrogen carries climate and public health risks. This is largely due to both upstream methane leaks from the handling of natural gas and residual carbon emissions (as the carbon capture process is not 100% effective). This weaker compatibility with net-zero pathways elevates the risk that blue hydrogen projects either become stranded or compromise our ability to achieve climate goals. To mitigate the risk, the principles map out a set of necessary safeguards and regulations- such as rigorous methane leakage regulations and systems of accountability—that must be implemented if policymakers consider this path. 

The bottom line is: policymakers must act like prudent investors and decide whether prioritizing investments in a riskier technology, that requires a complex system of regulations and accountability and that may soon be undercut by cheaper alternatives, is a good investment. The answer is rarely yes.

Principle 4: Policymakers must exercise caution when it comes to hydrogen pipelines

Hydrogen transport infrastructure needs further reflection. Pipelines—either new dedicated hydrogen pipelines or converted gas pipelines—are long-lived assets that need to stay in operation for 20, 30, 40 years to recoup investments. Launching into large-scale pipeline infrastructure requires a clear long-term business case for hydrogen and an understanding of the geography of future hydrogen supply and demand centers, which is still lacking.

Headlong Investments in pipeline projects today carry significant asset stranding risks should a hydrogen future not pan out and/or lock-in risks into ill-considered hydrogen-heavy pathways. Those risks have prompted European expert groups to urge their policymakers to exercise prudence with pipeline projects—prompted by concerning plans for hulking near-term investments by gas utilities. They instead advocate for proceeding in a no-regret manner by focusing in the near-term on hydrogen clusters that require minimal pipeline buildout. The principles adopt this argument.

Principle 6: Public health and labor equity considerations must permeate all hydrogen agendas

This is a bedrock principle. Hydrogen agendas must consider equity from the outset. It’s a nascent space that offers an opportunity to design projects predicated on consultation and collaboration with—and the delivery of clear benefits to—impacted communities and target new hydrogen-related jobs in communities most economically affected by the move away from a fossil economy.

There is no greater disservice to hydrogen technology than agendas that divert it away from its highest value uses. The principles chart that narrow- yet potentially mighty- course for the technology to leverage its unique value. The dire warming in the latest IPCC Climate Report reminds us that we can no longer afford misguided actions that push us off course. It is imperative that we get hydrogen right from the start and these principles are an excellent starting point.