Hydrogen gives the blues

Prof Kevin Anderson, University of Manchester, and researcher Simon Oldridge argue that the UK government’s hydrogen energy plan isn’t green at all: it’s an oil industry swindle designed to continue pollution-as-usual.

Article from Responsible Science Journal No. 6. Online publication: 24 April 2024.


With the impacts of the climate crisis so apparent for all to see, it is becoming ever harder for governments to fob off voters with promises of action tomorrow. At COP28 there was increasingly overt action by fossil fuel companies and petrostates to preserve their traditional power. But it is just as important to scrutinise emerging so-called green or low-emission solutions, which sound plausible, but are often simply big oil’s business-as-usual in a new guise.

The UK’s much touted low carbon hydrogen standard (LCHS) is an example of this. While hydrogen can be a low-emission fuel, the UK’s plan is quite clearly a fig leaf for “blue” hydrogen – which is made from fossil fuels – and according to one study, is even more at odds with our commitment to limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C than burning coal.

Today, the vast majority of the UK’s hydrogen production is made from natural gas (the marketing term for methane) in a very carbon-intensive process. Blue hydrogen would also be produced from methane, but with promises that the resulting CO2 emissions would be captured and buried underground. But even if most of the CO2 can be safely captured (a very big “if”), blue hydrogen’s full life-cycle emissions are likely still to be high.

That is in part as a consequence of methane leaks across the vast North Sea supply chain. Methane is a very powerful warming gas, so even with relatively low leakage rates, blue hydrogen will be bad news for the climate. Currently, 84% of the UK’s misleadingly named “low carbon” hydrogen capacity under development is of this blue variety.

Companies will be awarded substantial taxpayer funding for blue hydrogen plants that are certified compliant with the new LCHS – and here, the hallmarks of lobbying are only too apparent. The LCHS method for calculating life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions appears rigged to greenwash blue hydrogen.

First, the UK government continues to use an unjustifiably low assumption for leaks of methane (called “fugitive emissions”). A new independent study estimates fugitive emissions from the North Sea to be at least 0.72% of production, five times higher than is assumed by the government. The true picture is even worse, with almost 30% of the UK’s methane consumption met by “liquified natural gas”, transported by ship and prone to even higher leakage rates according to previous studies.

In response to an email request, the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero dismissed the study as being “of limited use”, stating that its estimates were regularly subject to external review.

Second, the LCHS makes matters worse by treating methane as if its global warming impact is spread evenly over 100 years. But methane largely breaks down in the atmosphere within several decades, trapping 83 times more heat than CO2 over a 20-year period – three times more than assumed in the LCHS. It is this shorter timeframe, and greater level of impact, that is most appropriate when considering our Paris 1.5°C and even 2°C commitments.

We believe that the out-of-date leakage rate and failure to consider the near-term warming of methane put the likely true impact of natural gas leaks at about 15 times higher than assumed in the government’s LCHS. It is extraordinarily reckless to downplay the impact of fugitive methane, particularly over the next few decades when we risk crossing dangerous tipping points.

Third, leaks of hydrogen in production and during distribution to homes and businesses present a serious problem. Indirectly, hydrogen is a potent greenhouse gas. Over the key 20-year timeframe, each tonne of hydrogen will cause 33 times more warming than a tonne of CO2. And hydrogen is even more liable to leakage than methane, both due to its particularly small molecular size, and because it will have to be piped at a higher pressure to compensate for its lower energy density. Yet extraordinarily, leaks of hydrogen are to be entirely excluded from LCHS life-cycle calculations.

Fourth, despite the fact that the life-cycle emissions of any project should include its entire impact from cradle to grave, the LCHS chooses to omit the emissions caused in construction and decommissioning of these blue hydrogen plants and associated North Sea methane supply infrastructure. Such political convenience will not alter the physical reality that these emissions will cause yet further warming.

Fifth, producers are told to assume there will be absolutely no leakage of captured CO2 as it is piped to long-term geological storage sites, or after it is stored. CO2 transport and storage will be handled by a separate organisation, but it is nevertheless deeply misleading to exclude CO2 losses from blue hydrogen’s life-cycle calculations.

And, incredibly, there is no mention of the scrutiny needed to ensure producers deliver on their commitments. The ongoing debacle with our privatised water companies should ring alarm bells here, with governments having failed repeatedly to prevent the dumping of highly visible raw sewage into our waters. Relying on the fossil fuel industry – with its highly chequered record – to responsibly capture an invisible gas is far from satisfactory.

Despite these glaring shortcomings, producers certified by the LCHS can call their product “low carbon”. Moreover, they can access substantial taxpayer support with grants of up to £10m from a £240m pot. And the costly carbon-capture and storage industry, now under development to serve blue hydrogen, is supported by a further £1bn of public money. Worse still, the government has announced plans to support the operational costs of blue hydrogen producers for 15 years. This proposal could see the taxpayer funding anything up to the entire cost of converting methane into blue hydrogen.

This is not the result of reasoned, evidence-based policy for rapidly decarbonising our entire energy system. It’s an agenda aligned with the fossil fuel industry. Chris Jackson, the chair of a leading hydrogen industry lobby group, even resigned in protest in 2021, stating that the blue hydrogen projects on offer in the UK were “not sustainable” and “make no sense at all”.

The next government may well be concerned about honouring contracts. But these agreements were struck without honour. The drive for blue hydrogen is a subversion of the decarbonisation agenda. It will lead to yet another immense transfer of wealth from ordinary people to the fossil fuel industry, for a false solution likely to make the climate crisis even worse. We urge the next government to abide by the UK’s Paris commitments, stand up to the fossil fuel lobbyists and stop this great hydrogen swindle before it’s too late.


Kevin Anderson is professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester. 

Simon Oldridge is an independent researcher.

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian.

Image by Rafael Classen via Pexels.