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The low-carbon society is within our reach

Albert Einstein, Greta Thunberg, Barack Obama, Ursula von der Leyen - all these people have spoken out to warn of the climate emergency and the urgent need to adopt more virtuous consumption patterns. In the energy sector, this means speeding up the development of renewable energy sources, but also implementing efficient solutions capable of neutralizing our carbon impact over the long term. As one of Sweden's most famous teenage girls pointed out, the solutions already exist. It's up to us to harness their potential and create a sustainable society. 

We need a post COVID-19 green Marshall plan

Sustainable Energy Week, which took place from June 22 to 26, 2020, is an initiative led by the European Commission to support the development of renewable energies. The theme of this 9th edition – "Beyond the crisis: clean energy for green recovery and growth" – resonates more than ever with recent events. The coronavirus crisis has had a tremendous health impact, as well as economic and social repercussions all around the world. This unprecedented situation has crystallized our society’s reflection on a "post-pandemic world", which has starkly called into question our consumption patterns and our relationship to the environment. All this has come against the backdrop of the climate emergency and the need to focus, more than ever, on a green recovery.

On May 27, the European Commission adopted a dedicated budget of €750 billion to enable Member States to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This historic announcement should serve to strengthen renewable energy markets and transition key sectors such as housing and transport, notably through the creation of one million recharging points for clean vehicles.

In this context, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, Secretary General of Hydrogen Europe and Member of the European Parliament, believes that hydrogen has a decisive role to play: “We need a post COVID-19 green Marshall plan! This is a historic opportunity to realize a systemic change towards clean technologies like hydrogen. Massive support for hydrogen and hydrogen technologies will put us firmly on track to achieving ambitious targets for 2030 and climate neutrality in 2050." In June 2020, Germany notably adopted a national hydrogen strategy to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, including coal. The aim of this ambitious plan is to develop green hydrogen technologies and production to accelerate the country's energy transition. €9 billion will be invested for this purpose.

Want to know more about the role of Hydrogen Europe and the European Green Deal? Read our interview with Jorgo Chatzimarkakis.

Building a momentum

In fact, this global push for green growth, driven by renewable energy, has a long history. More than a hundred years before Elon Musk's Tesla or Toyota's hydrogen-powered Mirai, the first electric cars were introduced to the world. And to say the least, they broke speed records, starting with the "Jamais Contente", an electric racing car shaped like a mortar shell that broke the 100 km/h threshold in 1899. So why didn't the electric motor become the norm during the 20th century? First of all, we must not lose sight of the context of the time, as the industrial revolution was largely based on the exploitation of fossil fuels. Whether it was coal in England or oil in the United States, industrialization and the emergence of new modes of production caused major upheavals that have had a lasting effect on our lifestyles and consumption patterns. In the case of the automobile, the combustion engine developed alongside the electric motor. Though it performed well, its high fuel consumption initially proved prohibitive to its wider adoption. However, technological advances combined with powerful oil lobbies would eventually clear the way for its rise. In addition, with the internal combustion engine, journeys initially conceived within a strictly urban context now stretched to cover much longer distances, paving the way for a romantic vision of travel that would capture imaginations and continue to develop over time.

Illustration of the Jamais Contente. 

Consider another - and perhaps even more telling - example of a missed opportunity with promising technology. During the Second World War, the US government sought to reduce domestic oil consumption to benefit the Front. For that reason, it funded research programs to develop solar homes. In 1948, Maria Telkes, a biophysicist at MIT, developed a house that was 75% self-sufficient thanks to photovoltaic energy. At the same time, small companies were developing solar water heaters that would equip up to 80 percent of Florida homes in the early 1950s. Yet it was coal-fired electricity that took over, relegating solar homes to a mere parenthesis in the history of post-war innovation. At a time when renewable energy seemed to have a bright future ahead of it, a number of coal producers, electricity suppliers and power companies, united by common economic interests, agreed to put a stop to solar power. As a result, the massive number of homes built after the war to meet the urgent demand for new housing were connected to the conventional electricity grid.

And that's not all. The middle of the 20th century also saw the advent of cheap oil, the spread of plastics and the beginning of mass consumption. This was a pivotal time that marked a tipping point for the climate.

Today, nearly 1,400 billion tons of CO2 generated by human activities are responsible for global warming. Reducing our emissions is a major challenge, perhaps humanity's biggest challenge. It may seem insurmountable. But it is not.

The man who planted trees

These times are also a tipping point. Today's decisions - or lack thereof - will shape tomorrow's world. The mastery of renewable energies such as solar, biomass or wind power is already established. As is their storage, whether with batteries or hydrogen. And the results are clear. In Scotland, the Orkney Islands, for example, are relying on wind, tidal and wave power to produce green electricity and reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. The Surf 'n' Turf consortium, which brings together local, national and European project leaders, is working to develop equipment to convert and store excess energy in the form of hydrogen. This versatile energy carrier is then used in this territory for a wide range of applications, starting with the ferries serving the islands of the archipelago, which are the first in the world to be propelled by hydrogen.

The Big Hit project, led by the Surf 'n' Turf consortium.

On a larger scale, Japan is also taking part in the hydrogen adventure. In this country where hydrogen mobility was born, the Japan H2 Mobility consortium was created in 2018 to accelerate the deployment of charging stations for fuel cell vehicles. The consortium is made up of 11 companies, some of which are members of the Hydrogen Council, an international forum for advancing the adoption of hydrogen in the key sectors of energy, transport and industry. In the United States, California has set an ambitious goal of reaching 1.5 million FCEVs in circulation by 2025. Since 2004, California has invested nearly $1.5 billion in fuel cell research. These efforts have reduced the cost of this technology by 50% in 10 years while doubling its range.

These hydrogen initiatives are far from isolated examples. Rather, they are springing up all over the world and reflect a global dynamic around the challenges of the energy transition, driven by the collective will to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

This is the very meaning of the concept of "sustainable development". Like Jean Giono's shepherd who, in his short story “The Man Who Planted Trees”, brings a whole region back to life by patiently recreating, year after year, a forest of several hectares, it is up to each of us to decide what kind of society we want to live in. Alternatives to fossil fuels exist. Some solutions have enormous potential to meet the challenges of the energy transition. This is the case with hydrogen, whose systemic dimension is a major asset for profoundly transforming our lifestyles, whether on the scale of an island, a city, a country or a continent. It is up to us to seize these solutions. It is up to us to bring together the will of citizens and politicians to build a sustainable and ecological future. It is up to us to choose what society we want to live in.