Japan’s ‘Hydrogen Society’ Could Impact Environment

Japan has revised its national hydrogen strategy to focus on a “prudent hydrogen society” rather than a carbon-neutral “hydrogen society.” Japan, the first country to establish a national hydrogen strategy in 2017, has aimed to use hydrogen in environmentally friendly sectors, with over 40 countries following suit since then.

The government plans to spend 15 trillion yen (US$101.4 billion) over 15 years to increase hydrogen usage from 3 million tons by 2030 to 20 million tons by 2050. To achieve these targets, Japan relies on technological innovations with uncertain outlooks and feasibility. The scale of Japan’s overseas hydrogen-related engagements is breathtaking, spanning at least 17 jurisdictions, with virtually all projects having been brokered by the government.

Japan has agreements with various countries in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East, including the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. These partnerships primarily use natural gas or brown coal to produce hydrogen and capture carbon emissions, known as “blue” hydrogen. However, large-scale reliance on blue hydrogen could significantly impact the climate. The prospects of carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) remain grim, with only three commercial-scale hydrogen production facilities with CCUS in the world today having carbon capture rates below 80% of emitted carbon.

Even if CCUS is improved, it does not reduce blue hydrogen’s methane emissions, which are over 20% higher than simply burning gas or coal for heat and only marginally less than fossil-derived hydrogen without CCUS. Japan’s hydrogen strategy also ignores blue hydrogen’s downstream emissions, with a revised definition only applicable to the value chain up to the hydrogen production facility.

Japan’s hydrogen society could increase global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to energy-intensive processes in its global hydrogen supply chains. Instead, Japan should use low-emission hydrogen for climate and economic reasons. Renewable hydrogen is unlikely to be completely emissions-free due to long-distance transport and storage. To minimize emissions, Japan should reduce hydrogen use to sectors where low-carbon hydrogen is truly necessary, such as fertilizer and chemical production, marine and aviation fuels, heavy industry, and long-distance transport. These sectors account for nearly 30% of Japan’s overall emissions, so focusing on these sectors can ensure a clean and impactful hydrogen supply. Currently, Japan aims to use hydrogen in applications where electrification is more logical.

Japan needs to increase its definition of low-carbon hydrogen to cover the entire hydrogen lifecycle, addressing the climate crisis. The current definition is lax compared to the European Union Taxonomy, the second Renewable Energy Directive, and the United Kingdom Low Carbon Hydrogen Standard. Japan should tie this standard to all government subsidies and import requirements to ensure private-sector compliance. This will help Japan lead the world as a low-emission hydrogen economy.

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