Hydrogen and carbon capture have finally hit a tipping point, and they provide the world with a fighting chance to limit global warming.
It is tempting to think our existing tools are sufficient. Yet, are we so sure that we are willing to bet the planet? We shouldn't be.
Rather, we need to use every tool at our disposal. Otherwise, we almost certainly won't keep below a 1.5C or even a 2C global warming target, and the world will endure catastrophic environmental consequences.
Fifteen years ago, many scientists and environmentalists believed the world would solve its greenhouse gas problem using a multi-pronged strategy that included energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and hydrogen.
Each of these came with their own promise, and each came with their own limitations. Energy efficiency was low-hanging fruit: if you consume less, you emit less — but there is a trade-off between dropping consumption and expanding economies, particularly in the developing world.
Renewables provide emissions-free energy and are vitally important. However, they are intermittent electricity producers with daily, seasonal and regional limitations that create availability gaps. Batteries begin to fill that gap, but today they are simply not viable for medium to long duration backup, they are expensive, and their manufacture has its own growing environmental cost.
Fossil fuel power plants are a solution for the intermittency of renewables but without carbon capture they worsen the CO2 problem.
Then there is carbon capture and hydrogen. Carbon capture would allow us to use available, abundant, affordable and reliable carbon-based resources while avoiding harmful CO2 emissions, by either storing the carbon in solid form or returning it safely back underground where the fuels came from.
And hydrogen produced with carbon capture can decarbonise the transportation, industrial and electricity sectors. Plus, it can also reduce agricultural emissions and support renewables.
As we evaluate our options, consideration must be given to the fact that more expensive energy imposes a penalty on human health, food security and standards of living. There are significant social justice implications as well, as the penalty of more expensive energy will be borne most by people who are least able to bear it, in both the developed and developing worlds.
In a world of trade-offs with looming and vital targets, our responsibilities of environmental stewardship and humanitarian considerations require us to pursue effective and affordable pathways to decarbonisation because our decisions will have real impacts on both the planet and people.
The UK Government's Committee on Climate Change has recently said, "The Government should not plan to meet the 2050 target without carbon capture and storage. A 'no CCS' pathway to even the existing 2050 target is highly challenging and likely to be much more costly to achieve. Furthermore, deeper reductions requiring the deployment of CCS will be needed to meet the aims of the Paris Agreement, whether by 2050 or subsequently."
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and other leading institutions agree that the only pathways likely to limit warming to below 1.5C require the enormous expansion of carbon capture and storage. And as much as carbon capture helps us meet these goals, hydrogen helps even more.
When it is burned it produces only harmless water vapour. And as the UK Committee on Climate Change states: "Production of low-carbon hydrogen at scale will rely on deployment of CCS."
New and inexpensive carbon-capture technologies allow hydrogen to be affordably produced while capturing 100 per cent of the CO2. The hydrogen can then be used in power plants, for transportation, in industrial processes and to make fertilisers, thereby increasing the world's food security. Addressing all these issues is critical for achieving deep decarbonisation.
Deploying carbon capture and hydrogen is not about extending the past. It is about building the future we need — and that our most trusted institutions insist is necessary — to meet our climate and energy targets.
New Zealand has an opportunity to lead the energy transition. By doing so, it will show the world that global climate goals, which today appear out-of-reach, can be attained, while also realising a generational opportunity for enormous economic upside and job creation.
The climate challenge demands that every solution should be pursued today: batteries, renewables and hydrogen with carbon capture. That's how the world might stop climate change.
• Cam Hosie, an expat Kiwi, is a principal at 8 Rivers Capital and a director of its related company, Pouakai NZ GP Ltd, which is proposing a multi-billion-dollar clean hydrogen project in Taranaki.