Can hydrogen fuel cell vehicles contribute to achieving global climate objectives by limiting long-term greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5°C?
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Prospects for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to decarbonise road transport

Can hydrogen fuel cell vehicles contribute to achieving global climate objectives by limiting long-term greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5°C?

The 2015 Paris Agreement established ambitious objectives to control climate change. A key aim is to cap the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 °C. Achieving this requires substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. All sectors must contribute to this effort, aiming for net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by the early 2050s. This target necessitates a significant shift towards lower emissions and sustainable practices globally. 

As the world stands at the dawn of a climate crisis, the pursuit of sustainable energy solutions has become more urgent than ever. A recent study carefully examines the role of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs), suggesting their potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in transportation. The analysis provides valuable insights into decarbonising road transport while reminding the complexities and challenges inherent in the path.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can contribute to achieving global climate objectives by capping long-term greenhouse gas emissions at 1.5 °C

Dogan Ucok

The dual potential of HFCVs, BEVs, and the electric vehicle grid context

The transportation sector, integral to global mobility and commerce, confronts a significant challenge. Motorised road transport is almost entirely dependent on oil, which represented more than 90% of fuel use in 2020. Its substantial dependence on oil necessitates an urgent and strategic shift towards more sustainable energy solutions, aligning with the imperative of achieving the 2050 Net Zero emissions target.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCVs) and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) are central to this transformative process. Renowned for their zero-tailpipe emissions, both play a critical role in the transition away from fossil fuels. Yet, it’s important to note that their contribution to environmental sustainability is closely linked to the carbon intensity of the electricity grid they utilise. Without a decarbonised power grid, these vehicles may not reduce transportation emissions.

Examining the relationship between the carbon footprint of electricity sources and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) is the focus of Üçok’s research. It specifically examines the emissions generated when HFCVs are refueled using hydrogen produced by electricity from the grid, comparing this to the emissions from BEVs charged using the same grid. The findings reveal that while BEVs do contribute to emissions, HFCVs result in significantly higher emissions when refueled in this manner, especially if the grid is predominantly powered by high-carbon sources. 

Credit. Midjourney

The transformative role of renewable energy

The world experienced a substantial surge in renewable energy, increasing capacity by 50% in 2023 compared to 2022, and is poised for unprecedented growth in the next five years. Electricity generated from wind and solar PV sources is projected to double by 2027, contributing up to 20% of the global electricity supply, and renewable energy is on course to surpass coal and become the predominant source of electricity generation by the year 2025.

Harnessing electricity from renewable resources such as solar and wind power leads to a remarkable downturn in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from both HFCVs and BEVs, bringing these emissions close to zero. This drastic decline is not merely a reduction but a monumental leap towards achieving nearly carbon-neutral transportation, signifying a pivotal shift in the quest for ecological sustainability.    

The considerable decrease in emissions is emblematic of the vast potential renewable energy holds in redefining the ecological footprint of these vehicles. Far from being a simple mitigation of emissions, this transition heralds a comprehensive shift towards an era of nearly carbon-neutral mobility. By tapping into the potential of renewable resources, the environmental ramifications of both HFCVs and BEVs can be reduced to ‘almost zero’, thereby aligning with global initiatives aimed at confronting climate change and embracing a more sustainable future. 

These findings underscore the indispensable role of renewable energy, not just in fueling vehicles but in actualising their full green potential. This marks a significant stride in the collective journey towards sustainable mobility, highlighting the critical importance of renewable energy in shaping a greener, more sustainable transportation landscape.

Navigating the future: Hydrogen production pathways, costs, and government policies and incentives

As the horizon extends toward the year 2050, a forward-looking discussion unfolds, delving into the intricacies of hydrogen production pathways and the financial dynamics that accompany them. This exploration gains relevance in the context of the rapid expansion of solar PV and wind energy on a global scale. At the heart of this discourse lies the dynamic interaction between renewable energy sources, hydrogen production techniques, and the overarching narrative of energy transition.

Hence, the nuanced challenges introduced by the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources are acknowledged. This brings to light the pressing need for robust and innovative energy storage solutions capable of bridging the gaps and ensuring a consistent and reliable energy supply.     

Amidst this technological and strategic exploration, the indispensable influence of governmental policies and incentives in shaping the future of transportation comes to the forefront. This discourse extends to underscore the importance of fostering a synergistic relationship between government entities, the automotive industry, and academia.

Challenges and opportunities for hydrogen production

The road to widespread adoption of HFCVs comes with its own challenges. These challenges are discerned through the identification of three primary barriers: the higher vehicle cost compared to ICEs and BEVs, the significant costs associated with hydrogen production and transportation, and the critical need for a comprehensive refueling infrastructure. However, a positive outlook is shed on the future significance of renewable energy in generating green hydrogen.

In conclusion, the study offers a holistic view of the potential roles of HFCVs and BEVs in the broader context of global climate goals. It underscores the critical need for adopting clean energy sources and the importance of strategic policy and infrastructure development. As the world continues its journey towards a sustainable future, the insights from this study provide valuable guidance and highlight the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

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Journal reference

Üçok, M. D. (2023). Prospects for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to decarbonize road transport. Discover Sustainability, 4(1), 42. https://doi.org/10.1007/s43621-023-00159-1

Dr. Mehmet Dogan Ucok has served as the Coordinator of the Sabancı University Istanbul International Center for Energy and Climate (IICEC) since 2012. He earned his PhD in National and International Security Strategies from the Strategic Research Institute of the Turkish General Staff War Colleges Command in 2012. Dr. Ucok's academic credentials include an MA in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, USA (2004), and a BSc in Economics and Management from the London School of Economics (External Programme) in collaboration with Istanbul Bilgi University (2002). His areas of expertise encompass energy security, policy-making, and the evolving field of hydrogen energy.