Hydrogen crucial part of “narrow but viable” global net zero pathway


Hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels have been identified among the key solutions to realising the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s global pathway to net zero.

On 18 May, the IEA published Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, warning that climate pledges by governments to date fall short of what is needed to achieve the target. In its pathway, which sets out more than 400 milestones to guide the global journey to net zero, it calls for immediate, massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies alongside a global push to accelerate innovation. Specific milestones include no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects from today and the global electricity sector reaching net zero emissions by 2040.

As for hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels, they are set to fill gaps where electricity is either unable to easily or economically replace fossil fuels, as well as in areas where limited sustainable bioenergy supplies cannot cope with demand.

Initially, hydrogen use will be focused on converting existing uses of fossil fuel energy to low carbon hydrogen in ways that do not immediately need new transmission or distribution infrastructure. Global hydrogen use will grow from less than 90Mt in 2020 to over 200Mt by 2030, with the proportion of low carbon hydrogen rising from 10% to 70% in the same timeframe. Hydrogen will also be blended with natural gas in the gas networks, with the global average blend 15% hydrogen in volumetric terms, cutting CO2 emissions by 6%.

This will lead to a rapid scaling up of electrolyser manufacturing capacity as new hydrogen transport infrastructure develops in parallel, sparking cost reductions for electrolysers and hydrogen storage. Stored hydrogen will balance seasonal fluctuations in electricity demand and imbalances that arise between hydrogen demand and its supply for off-grid renewable systems. The 2020s will also see large increases in the installation of end-use equipment for hydrogen, leading to over 15mn hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2030.

From 2030, low carbon hydrogen use will expand rapidly in all sectors. In the electricity sector, hydrogen and hydrogen-based fuels will offer an important low carbon source of flexibility, primarily through retrofitting existing gas-fired capacity to co-fire with hydrogen and some retrofitting of coal-fired power plants to co-fire with ammonia. While only accounting for around 2% of overall electricity generation in 2050, it will result in very large volumes of hydrogen and ensure the electricity sector is an important driver of hydrogen demand. In transport, hydrogen provides around one-third of fuel use in trucks and over 60% of total fuel consumption in shipping.

Of the 530Mt of hydrogen produced in 2050, a quarter (25%) will be produced in industrial facilities. Almost 30% of low carbon hydrogen used in 2050 will take the form of hydrogen-based fuels, with electrolysers providing an increasing share of hydrogen production (60%). Global hydrogen trade will develop across the pathway with large volumes exported from gas and renewables-rich areas in the Middle East, Central and South America and Australia to demand centres in Asia and Europe.