Global Hydrogen Justice: How can green hydrogen contribute to a just energy transition for all?
Oct 12, 2022
Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research
Since hydrogen energy, in particular green hydrogen, is increasingly regarded as an important energy carrier in the EU's transition strategies towards a carbon-neutral future, questions concerning both the shape and size of a hydrogen economy need to be asked now. Green hydrogen, it is assumed, can play a significant role in the de-carbonization of high-energy-intensive industries and (some means of) transport as it can both deliver and store a tremendous amount of energy. For hydrogen energy to be sustainable - in other words, for it to be "green" - it must be produced from renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar. However, since at least in some EU countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, the potential of renewable energy production is limited in the sense that it won't be able to meet projected green hydrogen demands, policymakers are increasingly looking to establish international partnerships to produce green hydrogen outside the EU and import it for national use - with a particular focus on countries in the Global South.
Resource extraction from the Global South for use by populations and industries in the Global North is nothing new and has often been accompanied by maladies such as environmental pollution, poverty, economic decline, elite conflicts, and even civil strife in countries of the Global South (This is often and slightly misleadingly referred to as the "resource curse" as it is not the existence of natural resources per se that results in unstable political regimes and economies but the power relations and political strategies around them). Extracting and using energy from renewable resources, such as solar and wind, to produce and subsequently export green hydrogen might differ from extracting natural gas, oil, minerals and wood and could offer an opportunity to leave carbon-locked pathways and relationships. However, nothing suggests that the current mode of international interactions and the logic of partnership between the Global South and the Global North will change automatically when it comes to hydrogen production and export. Change will require conscious decision-making and actions on behalf of European (import) countries.
The goal of a "just" energy transition is more or less explicitly part of the climate and energy transition goals of the EU as well as the UN's SDGs but definitions of what it means to ensure a just hydrogen transition are still subject to perception and negotiation. At its minimum, however, a just hydrogen transition needs to include the principle that the advance of the energy transition in one part of the world (or for a specific group) cannot be to the detriment of another - now and in the future. Specifically, a just hydrogen transition needs to ensure that international hydrogen partnerships will not prioritize hydrogen production and export at the cost of failing to achieve the national climate and energy transition goals of the export countries.
The success of a just hydrogen transition can be implemented and assessed along different justice dimensions put forward by scholars of environmental and energy justice over the past two decades. A vast body of literature on distributional, procedural, and recognition justice highlights that justice is not just a matter of institutionalized access points and equal distribution even though these dimensions of justice are not to be neglected (see for example Sovacool 2016 and Sovacool et al. 2017). Particularly scholars of political ecology have brought questions of power and recognition to the debate of just transition: Who has the resources to access the conversation, who has a seat at the table to have their concerns heard, and who has the power to implement decisions? Furthermore, scholarship has pointed to the role of multi-levels and scales when conceptualizing justice in the energy transition (see for example Jenkins et al. 2018). A wind park built on land claimed by customary land rights might have immediate negative effects on the local population while having positive effects on national and regional greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, both the past and the future bring additional dimensions of justice to the table. Europe's history as colonizers puts the responsibility on contemporary European policymakers to not repeat Europe's past mistakes and to - at the same time - avoid replacing current energy transition costs onto future generations.
Dimensions of justice are complex and have immediate and visible implications for the everyday lives and bodies of (parts of the) populations in the Global South. The current mode of international interactions and the logic of North-South partnership do nothing to correct longstanding injustices and inequalities. Hydrogen strategies, that take justice seriously, need to address these issues rather immediately.
Mathias Behn Bjørnhof