What would it mean to fulfil the promises of hydrogen replacing fossil fuels in Europe? Beyond the inflated expectations, there are important geopolitical implications that are not being seriously considered within democratic debate. The complicity of current hydrogen policies with the corporate powers of the energy sectors and the expansion of the frontiers of extraction both within and outside Europe risk making hydrogen a further step into colonial and expansionist capitalism rather than a tool to overcome it.

Anyone following climate and energy news will have noticed the hydrogen boom. Optimistic outlooks and projections – usually referring to tropes like “the most abundant element in the universe” or “the energy of the future” – circulate in online events, political debates, and technical reports trying to find an emergency exit to the twilight of fossil fuels. But neither hydrogen itself (a synthetic fuel) nor the promise of a “green hydrogen” produced with renewable energy are recent technological breakthroughs. Hydrogen has a long history of being the “next big thing”. The first wave of interest followed the oil price shocks of the 1970s; another came in the wake of incipient concerns for climate change in the 1990s.

Hydrogen and its surrounding technological ecosystem come with a series of serious concerns that cast doubt on its possible global role as a bread-and-butter fuel. First, the renewable energy infrastructure needed to produce green hydrogen has enormous material requirements. It will require intensified mining for rare earth minerals and other metals such as copper; such processes have already destroyed entire ecosystems. The Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts has reported on the dangers of opening up new frontiers of extraction. Second, the promotion of hydrogen is closely associated with industries with doubtful sustainability credentials, such as natural gas and carbon capture.

This time, though, something seems different. Hydrogen is a clear winner in the rush of post-pandemic proposals. “Kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe” is at the heart of the European Union’s Next Generation plan for its recovery in the wake of Covid-19, announced in 2020. The implications of the EU setting this objective have already triggered rapid geopolitical movements at a transcontinental level.

In Chile, the idea of becoming a green hydrogen world leader was seized upon aggressively throughout 2020. The proposal for Chile’s green hydrogen strategy released in June 2020 posits Chile as the world-leading, export-oriented producer by 2030. The country’s main advantage, ministers and business people argue, is its huge potential for renewable energy generation. The oft-repeated suggestion that Chile could become the “Saudi Arabia of renewables” promises economic success to whoever gets on board.

Who will buy these tons of “made in Chile” hydrogen? Europe provides the technical, political, and economic backdrop to this drive, a “safe” engine committed to climate action under the banner of hydrogen and offering a rush of foreign investment.

The winner and losers of hydrogen-powered Europe

On 8 July 2020, the European Commission presented its hydrogen strategy, a vision and road map for the role of hydrogen in the EU economy. In a document highly influenced by industry and fossil fuel lobbyists – represented by the organisation Hydrogen Europe – hydrogen is framed as a “key priority” to decarbonise hard-to-abate industries such as steel or chemical sectors while keeping them competitive in the global landscape.

Currently, the vast majority of hydrogen is produced by fossil fuels, with no CO2 abatement (i.e. removing the emissions from the atmosphere, generally through carbon capture and storage). So-called “blue hydrogen” is created by treating natural gas in a process known as “steam methane reforming”. The European Commission’s hydrogen strategy embraces the combination of this process with carbon capture and storage as a key element of the “transitional phase” towards decarbonising the economy, before green hydrogen – produced using renewable electricity – can take over.

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Research assessing the full-cycle emissions of blue hydrogen production has studied the material consequences of this transitional phase, pointing out how the use of natural gas in the carbon capture process will create large amounts of fugitive methane emissions. The authors conclude that blue hydrogen is “best viewed as a distraction”, a safe line for industry and fossil fuel companies looking to lock in carbon-intensive processes and entrench gas infrastructure for years to come.

Irrespective of whether the intention of using gas as a purely transitional fuel is genuine, the approach has a fundamental flaw. As the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has found, countries across the world lack the ambition, pace, and scope to meet climate targets. In other words, there will just not be enough renewable energy to meet this extra demand.

The EU hydrogen strategy envisions scaling up hydrogen production by outsourcing it to countries outside the EU. It endorses Hydrogen Europe’s “2x40GW Green Hydrogen Initiative” that calls for ramping up electrolyser capacity to 40 gigawatts in Europe and 40 gigawatts in Europe’s neighbourhood. By way of “re-designing Europe’s energy partnerships”, green hydrogen imports will grow, mainly from North Africa and Ukraine as well as countries such as Chile and Australia. Europe’s technological innovation advantage on electrolysers technology will thus be used to obtain green hydrogen via bilateral agreements with regions with high renewable energy potential. As a result, renewable energy projects in countries aiming to become world-class hydrogen exporters are proliferating, in turn, triggering processes of land and resource appropriation.

In early 2021, the Chilean Ministry of Energy and the Port of Rotterdam signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the country’s future green hydrogen exports to Europe. The European Investment Bank signed an advisory agreement in July 2020 with Hydrogen Europe to provide advisory and technical support and financing, cementing the corporate dream of public guarantees for their investment in breakthrough technologies. In Africa, the European Commission is looking for partners to produce green hydrogen for European industry under the Africa-EU Green Energy Initiative. Germany and Namibia recently closed a green hydrogen partnership. According to Germany’s then-federal research minister Anja Karliczek, Namibia has “large, so far unused areas”, an indication of the persistent extractivist and productivist approaches to resource use driven by aggressive profit-seeking.

The sense of political urgency that this flurry of partnerships betrays can only be understood in geopolitical terms. From the European Commission side, there is a geopolitically motivated race to position the EU as a “maker” rather than a “taker” of technological breakthroughs such as electrolysers. Securing the euro’s place as a benchmark currency for transactions in hydrogen would consolidate its international role. From the perspective of industry, the nature of investment cycles in the energy sector – lasting over 25 years – makes for an urgent case for investing now to maintain a long-term strategic advantage. Corporate and geopolitical interests are thus aligned. Only the prevailing approach based on attracting and de-risking private investment can determine what is politically possible.

With the climate crisis rapidly unfolding, unless these underlying logics can be challenged and subordinated to the needs of people and planet, the European Commission will be making stubborn efforts to remain competitive in an uninhabitable world.

The real price of hydrogen

What is at stake in Chile’s ambitious hydrogen plans? As it all comes down to generating cheap renewable energy, the technology to make this possible and the foreign investment to make this feasible must be attracted to the country. Chile’s right-wing government, led by the conservative Sebastián Piñera, has insisted that the proper role of the state in this race is to provide the right investment conditions – or, as it is formulated in Chile, certeza jurídica (legal certainty) – so that capitalism can deliver its promises of painless technological cheapening. The focus on certainty for investors is not casual: it is a not-so-subtle reference to Chile’s ongoing constituent process and social upheaval that, since October 2019, has aimed to dismantle the structures and institutions still in place decades after Augusto Pinochet’s neoliberal dictatorship. For, in a process endorsed by a 2020 referendum, the Chilean people are redrafting the country’s constitution.

The demands of grassroots movements and Indigenous communities to defend their territories from invasive energy projects are essential elements of the process. Emblematic demands such as taking water out of private ownership and the rights of nature also make capital owners fear new legal tools that may offer a means of resistance against their projects. The Chilean Commission for Human Rights,

Truth, Justice, and Reparations has detailed the intimate relation between mining, ecocide, and the violation of Indigenous rights. A significant proportion of the convention’s representatives are from grassroots environmental movements. While coal-based and hydroelectric projects have faced most resistance, voices are warning of similar practices in projects such as wind farms in southern Chile, where protests have surged against threats to delicate ecosystems and first nation’s rights. For those betting on hydrogen, no political revolution can get in the way of the industry’s rise. The first experimental plant in Magallanes will open in 2022, deaf to the changes that the new constitution could soon introduce.

The uncomfortable truth of the expansion of the frontiers of extraction is that “cheapening” any resource is never a simple and smooth matter of technological improvement. Things must be actively cheapened. The fantastic expansion of energy generation – there are plans to build the hydrogen equivalent of Chile’s entire existing central electric capacity within nine years – depends on expanding energy generation and transmission, often in territories in the process of reclamation by Indigenous peoples and already strongly affected by previous extractive waves.

The European people and their needs are strikingly missing from discussions about sovereignty

Corporate or popular sovereignty?

The term “strategic sovereignty” has been put forward by the European institutions as the capacity to act autonomously, relying on one’s own resources in key strategic areas and to cooperate with partners whenever needed. The development of Europe’s hydrogen strategy shows that the devil is in the details when zooming into the specifics behind this idea of sovereignty. Who has the capacity to act autonomously? Relying on one’s own resources for what purposes? To cooperate under which conditions?

The energy transition makes mineral supply chains a key strategic area of the economy. In the case of mining, infrastructure and labour costs, along with environmental legislation and the dramatic reduction in shipping costs, have resulted in Europe relying on raw materials mined elsewhere. Under the banner of strategic sovereignty, the EU is changing the regulatory framework for mineral extraction to spur the opening of new mines and prospecting projects within Europe. As part of the same political project, hydrogen will only exacerbate these dynamics of newer “internal” frontiers of extraction.

The European Commission’s New Industrial Strategy for Europe concentrates on energy-intensive industries at the heart of the European economy. Specifically, steel production is a centrepiece of Europe’s search for autonomy and sovereignty, lying “at the heart of the twin green and digital transition”. The end of coal as a key ingredient for steel production implies its substitution by electricity and hydrogen. The long-lasting capital assets of the steel industry pit the European strategy against the clock in the race for “green” steel production, while hydrogen is put at the centre as a resource capable of aligning industry, energy companies, and governments to maintain the growth-oriented status quo and, therefore, Europe’s competitiveness in the global landscape.

One could fairly ask whose competitiveness is being taken care of here while 50 million people in the EU cannot afford to heat their homes. The problem with European strategic sovereignty is defining who is sovereign in a sovereign Europe. The European people and their direct needs are strikingly missing from high-level discussions about sovereignty. They are not the only ones. The transnational processes triggered by Europe’s search for autonomy call for broader inclusion of all those affected by the transition. Of course, steel will be necessary for the transition: it is essential for wind turbines, for one thing. But questions such as “How much steel do we need?” and “For what?” are essential to ground the discussions around European sovereignty.

The democratic deficit engrained in European policy-making runs parallel to the private-profit-inclined nature of its funding schemes. Since the hydrogen strategy is embedded in the funding mechanisms of the European Green Deal, public money will be used to de-risk private investment. The danger is that public money will put hydrogen innovations and their economic benefits in the hands of private investors, instead of public institutions or communities. Under these regulations, the development of decarbonisation technologies will not spill over to benefit the European people, but will entrench inequalities and power imbalances within Europe as well as between Europe and other countries and regions.

Hydrogen’s appeal rests on broader political ground. While some policy objectives point at absolute limits on energy consumption (such as the EU energy efficiency targets), it is not clear how this reduction will materialise without significant changes to our sociotechnical infrastructure. The lifestyles that many people in Europe take for granted were cemented in “high energy modernity”, that short period during which the fossil fuels that provide us cheap energy were flowing freely. What is not under discussion are alternative visions of how society – or Europe – could be re-organised and which values should be prioritised. According to these assumptions, there is no way to de-escalate our high-energy civilisation in a democratically – self-limited, autonomous – way. Expansion is the only (often left implicit) desirable horizon, a necessity, and an inevitability. Through this lens, planetary boundaries become a challenge to circumvent through technological improvement. In the words of the UK government’s plans for a green industrial revolution, there will be “no change in experience for domestic consumers”. The discussion is reduced to how to ensure autonomy while remaining economically competitive. This is the imaginary we believe must be challenged.

Fairtrade regulations offer possibilities known to capitalism. Any attempt to create a just market for hydrogen has a clear starting point: the challenges that exist when building renewable energy infrastructure. Hydrogen will inevitably put more pressure on them. Regulations should have zero tolerance for “green grabbing” (incursions on Indigenous peoples’ autonomy and rights) and the overlooking of the so-called externalities that are usually left out of environmental impact assessment processes.

New circuits of certification and standards might ameliorate (significantly, if we are optimistic) the most harmful consequences of expanding the frontiers of energy extraction. But more importantly, we need to assess fair trade mechanisms critically as only one element of a wider ecosystem of measures on the road to energy democracy. Fairtrade has been criticised for focusing too much on what happens at the point of exchange, eluding the questions of what is produced, for whom, and for sustaining what kinds of life. No trade regulation can remove the need to face these deeper political questions.

Such political possibility falls within the terrain opened up by the post-growth and degrowth communities; degrowth in energy consumption not as a choice for individual consumers but as a rearrangement of our shared social infrastructure. It will be possible to tame hydrogen under this political and ethical horizon of justice only if we transform our energy systems to allow all lives to flourish. Then, hydrogen might have more to offer to Europe and the world than its current pharaonic dreams. Energy cooperatives and networks of associations, groups, and citizens like the Network for Energy Sovereignty in Catalonia are tangible alternatives to build public-community energy governance and democratise energy production, distribution, and consumption.

Harnessing hydrogen as a transformative tool will demand more conversations on sufficiency, absolute limits beyond efficiency improvements, and the democratisation and redistribution of the corporate-captured political power to subordinate energy to projects of shared prosperity.

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