EU Hydrogen Strategy Opens Arms to Fossil Fuels

Energy efficiency must come first

The EU hydrogen strategy, published last week, risks delaying industrial decarbonisation by keeping the door wide open for fossil fuels such as gas. The strategy claims the priority is renewable hydrogen, yet immediately belies this claim by saying “low-carbon” hydrogen - that is, hydrogen produced by gas with carbon capture and storage - is an option until at least 2030. This will delight the gas industry and some Member States, but is a disaster for EU climate action.
What’s more, the strategy does not consider the overall environmental impact of hydrogen production on water and biodiversity. It is critical that this is taken into account, or the production of even “renewable” hydrogen may not be properly sustainable. Strategic environment assessments must be made when the national and regional strategies are being developed.
“The EU strategy gives a free pass to new gas - which would completely undermine the EU’s climate neutrality target. Member States must ensure that their national strategies only allow hydrogen from excess renewables to be used. They also need to ensure hydrogen production does no harm to the environment, or the medicine could be as harmful as the illness.” - Camille Maury, Industrial Decarbonisation Officer at WWF European Policy Office
The strategy also fails to give priority to energy efficiency and electrification, which are more efficient and low-cost ways of decarbonising. Nor does it clarify the rules and responsibilities surrounding a future hydrogen infrastructure. However, it does prioritise the use of hydrogen for certain sectors where electrification is difficult - such as energy intensive sectors, aviation or shipping - which in WWF’s view is crucial. A worst case scenario is for the EC to allow Member States to spend EU public money to build new gas infrastructures using the excuse that such developments would help them to synthesise natural gas to hydrogen and become climate neutral. This idea was already floated by 8 Central and Eastern European Member States at the beginning of June when they sent joint declaration to commissioner Timmermans.
Finally, WWF considers it shameful that the European Commission only invited two environmental civil society organisations - with 24 hours’ notice - to join the “Clean Hydrogen Alliance” launch. The Alliance was launched today to push forward the use of hydrogen, and define projects for funding. This should be rectified in future alliances, such as those for raw materials and low-carbon technologies announced in the EU Industrial Strategy in March 2020.
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Earlier in the week, in another blow against a truly Green European Recovery, MEPs voted for gas, against a real Just Transition to carbon-neutrality and a phase-out of fossil fuels, particularly coal.  When MEPs voted in committee to allow gas to receive Just Transition funding, they potentially locked European communities into fossil fuels for decades to come. This is despite gas being excluded in the European Commission’s original proposal, and both EU Member States and the EU Committee of the Regions opposing gas in the Just Transition Fund.

Not only will the position permit retrofits to existing gas infrastructure, but it could also permit the massive expansion of completely new fossil gas infrastructure.

”Gas is a dead-end on the road to a just and climate-neutral Europe. Throwing money at it risks worsening climate change, creating no lasting jobs, and wasting billions of Euros which could be invested in job-friendly, sustainable wind and solar power”, commented Katie Treadwell, Energy Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office.

“Parliament must correct today’s mistake in September in plenary, and align its position on the Just Transition Fund with its green rhetoric. They must vote for a Just Transition Fund which allows regions to leap forward: this means they must vote to exclude all fossil fuels, without exception,” added Treadwell.

Fossil gas has no role as a transitional fuel. Investments in renewable energy are often cheaper, especially when considered over the longer term, and pose no risk of stranded assets. New fossil gas infrastructure is inconsistent with carbon budgets that would limit global temperature rises to 1.5 C and it can even accelerate climate change versus coal, because methane emissions are 86 times more potent as warming gases than CO2. Renewable energy furthermore has higher job creation potential, generating over twice as many jobs as fossil investment.
Phasing out fossil fuel-based electricity generation such as gas, but especially coal, is a prerequisite for fulfilling the European Union’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and the leadership role the EU strives to have in global climate policy. Such a major change must be accompanied by a comprehensive Just Transition strategy aiming at minimising hardships for workers and their communities in the associated industries through active political and financial support, as well as shifting local economies towards sustainable economic activities.
“WWF Central and Eastern Europe is asking the EC not to allow Central and Eastern European Member States to waste public money investing in fossil fuel projects and gas grid infrastructure development. Instead, large sums should be invested in environmental and climate-friendly technologies. CEE Member States should not have to pay the price for decarbonisation twice. If so, they will never advance in their economic development and standard of living. Natural gas should not be allowed to become the next coal.” - Georgi Stefanov, Chief Climate & Energy Expert, WWF-Bulgaria

WWF is calling for:
- Territorial just transition plans to be underpinned by higher ambition and timelines for fossil fuel phase out;
- Transparency and the engagement of all stakeholders to be at the heart of the just transition mechanism, the EU Green Recovery plan, and EU national development plans and implementations;
- The just transition mechanism to exclude all fossil fuel investments from each of its three pillars (see below for more explanation of the pillars); and
- Since the just transition mechanism alone will not be enough to deliver a just transition, Member States must complement it with national policy and financial support.

More information:
The hydrogen strategy is part of the EU Smart System Integration Strategy.

Georgi Stefanov
Chief Climate & Energy Expert,
Tel: +359 2 950 50 40

Camille Maury
Policy Officer, Decarbonisation of Industry,
WWF European Policy Office
+32 495 42 00 49