The European Union (EU) has set an ambitious goal to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, and is relying on the European Green Deal (EGD) to achieve it, along with the Renewable Gases and Hydrogen Directive. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the EU’s strategy for energy resilience and replacing fossil energy carriers. Within the 2019 EGD vision and framework, renewable, low-carbon, and net-zero gases will have a prominent role to play in decarbonizing the EU economy. Hydrogen as a clean, reliable and potentially sustainable energy vector is a rising enabler for a multisectoral transition towards a low-carbon economy based on renewable energy sources.
Hydrogen is considered as a key element to help achieve the EGD and a clean energy transition in Europe, having the potential to store and distribute renewable energy and decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors in industry and transport. EU is determined to be a frontrunner in developing a green hydrogen economy towards climate neutrality and zero pollution long-term goals, using a full range of funding and regulatory instruments. In this vein, the EU Hydrogen Strategy was launched in 2020 in the framework of the EGD and the Europe’s contribution to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The so called “clean molecules” (hydrogen, biogas, biomethane and synthetic gases) can provide solutions in key areas of the economy in regions where direct electrification is neither possible nor practical, as well as facilitate the development of circular economies and the integration of energy sectors. Thus, they are attracting growing attention from governments, policymakers and industry for promoting SDGs of both industry and society, making the debate around clean molecules and their uptake in strategic areas an important EU policy and regulatory focus. In this process, the promotion of public information and public participation in decision-making is of key importance. In this overall context, a standardized comprehensive legal framework for hydrogen is crucial to form a single liquid and competitive market for green molecules across Europe, both at a regional and national level.
Green Hydrogen’s potential in the Mediterranean Region
The Russian invasion of Ukraine had a significant impact on energy policy in Europe and neighboring regions, with far-reaching implications for the Mediterranean region. The reduction in the flow of energy products from Russia to Europe has resulted in a sharp rise in prices, up to 15 times higher than pre-war levels. Key strategic infrastructure, including gas pipelines and storage facilities, has become the subject of geopolitical leverage. As a result, the EU has turned to the Mediterranean region for additional energy supplies. The EU has also committed to eliminating fossil fuel imports from Russia and reaching net-zero emissions. Clean molecules, such as hydrogen, will become essential for achieving these objectives, and the Mediterranean region is well-positioned to play a leading role in energy transition.
There are three main reasons why the Mediterranean countries should focus on producing renewable hydrogen:
- Mediterranean natural conditions are ideal for renewable hydrogen production, as there is exceptional solar exposure and consistent offshore wind speeds. This competitive advantage allows for cost-effective hydrogen production.
- The market demand for renewable hydrogen is increasing due to the high costs of fossil fuels and carbon prices in importing regions, as well as the new applications of hydrogen that are motivated by decarbonization goals.
- Renewable green hydrogen may support the development of new low emission industrial value chains, which is a more diverse and economically fruitful solution than pure energy commodity exports that can be affected by volatile international market prices. This could be particularly beneficial for countries facing economic and social issues (e.g. Lebanon), and for fossil fuel exporters (e.g. Algeria, Libya, or Tunisia) looking to future-proof their economies.
EU is planning to import large amounts of renewable hydrogen into the bloc over the next few years via pipeline and ships, as outlined in the External Engagement Strategy and REPpowerEU Plan, thus, creating opportunities and new challenges the Mediterranean region. In parallel with the renewable hydrogen production, the Mediterranean region may serve as a transit region for molecules coming from farther away. The Mediterranean region is home to most transmission “corridors” for renewable hydrogen to the EU, according to the REPowerEU Communication’s map. It has 9 out of the 21 currently operating LNG import terminals in the EU and its neighborhood, making it an attractive import destination for clean molecules from around the world. This could help generate revenue for the region through tariffs and speed up the phase-out of fossil fuels while laying the groundwork for sustainable economic sectors.
Moreover, there are 5 major challenges that policymakers should take into account when making green hydrogen a tradable commodity, showcasing its multiple benefits to accelerate the energy transition in the Mediterranean region:
- Allocation of public funds for low-risk investment. One of the main difficulties with renewable energy projects, especially for renewable hydrogen, is the high initial cost of capital expenditure. Since there is an additional step to transform the energy from electrons to molecules, the financial risk is increased. Furthermore, since the market for renewable hydrogen is still developing, it can be difficult to predict returns. Thus, governments can help mitigate this risk by acting as a guarantor, following the “H2 Global” model in Germany (1). This model involves agreeing to long-term contracts with producers and then auctioning short-term sales contracts. Any discrepancy in cost between the purchase price and the supply price is covered by grant funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. This model reduces risk and uncertainty for both the supply and demand sides, as well as encouraging investment in capital expenditure.
- Establish shared priorities for the region to push through midstream, infrastructural bottlenecks to utilize existing infrastructure on supporting climate change mitigation efforts by participating in the renewable hydrogen economy. Establishing a forum to agree on common objectives and strategies for the wider Mediterranean region could boost prosperity and competitive advantage. Additionally, the region is well-positioned to benefit from EU funding for clean energy infrastructure projects.
- Take advantage of new critical perspectives on the proper functioning and efficiency of the newly established concept European Hydrogen Bank and whether it should it be based on the traditional European foundation model or extra mechanisms should be added.
- Delivering on the underlying importance of informed, transparent and participatory governance of the clean energy transition in Europe through the interlinked implementation of the principles and procedural rights of the UNECE Aarhus Convention ingraining environmental democracy. (2)
- Raising an informed and participatory civil society and local governance about the long-term benefits of the hydrogen and clean molecules market, as the study will provide foresight to policymakers and future researchers about the necessity of managing the gap of social assessments and instilling democracy in of the governance of the hydrogen economy. The joint WB/CMI Mediterranean Platform for Knowledge Exchange on Green Hydrogen provides a neutral ground for countries and stakeholders to share information and lay the groundwork for the trade and investment decisions needed to develop green hydrogen in the region. (3)
Mediterranean Green Hydrogen Partnership (MGHP)
The EU and its North African partners have agreed on hydrogen strategies, and the MGHP offers a framework for deepening their cooperation in green hydrogen and laying the foundation for a future global governance for hydrogen. A supranational approach, following the model of the European Coal and Steel Community both for its decision-making and for the implementation and oversight of its policies, the MGHP will pioneer the joint elaboration of rules and regulations applicable to the clean hydrogen market between the EU and North Africa significantly. Ideally, this joint effort could be ideally launched before COP 28 in Dubai by the end of 2023, becoming as a forerunner in global supranational hydrogen governance. (4)
Low-carbon hydrogen has emerged as an important component of EU decarbonization plans. It also adds a new element to the EU’s external energy policy, given that a substantial share of Europe’s future hydrogen requirements will need to be met with imports. In this context, the Eastern Mediterranean region stands out as a potential supplier of low-carbon hydrogen for Europe owing to its proximity and its large renewable energy potential. Energy cooperation in this region has focused on natural gas development in recent years but synergies could be possible if this cooperation extended to hydrogen development – both for exports and domestic decarbonization. Although non-EU countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey have not been early movers, when it comes to hydrogen, however, they are aware of the potential opportunities it presents.
The EU, along with its North African and neighboring countries, has a chance to establish a green hydrogen system. Europe has renewable energy concepts and potential, while North Africa has abundant resources for generating clean electricity. The infrastructure enabling electricity trade across the Mediterranean is already largely in place. EU and North African states could work together to expand this relatively easily. Two direct grid lines run between Spain and Morocco, while a third line, as agreed in 2019, would be operational by 2026 (5). Therefore, trade in renewable electricity between Europe and North Africa constitutes a realistic near-term option (6). Europe can reuse its gas infrastructure with interconnections to transport and store hydrogen, already being a global leader in clean hydrogen production.
It is estimated that the African continent could produce up to 50 million tons of green hydrogen per year by 2035 to help secure the world’s energy supply, as well as to create jobs, decarbonize heavy industry and strengthen global competitiveness. becoming a global hub of green hydrogen development, which is concentrated in three major investment hubs: Egypt, Southern Africa and Morocco. According to the report “Africa’s Extraordinary Green Hydrogen Potential” (7), investing in green hydrogen could reduce carbon emissions in Africa by 40%, avoiding the release of 500 million tons of CO2 per year, while contributing to the continent’s development. It is noteworthy that the large-scale production of green hydrogen will enable Africa to supply 25 million tons of green hydrogen to the global energy markets, equivalent to 15% of the gas currently used in the EU. In addition, an important challenge for green hydrogen is to become a source of hope for accelerating the energy transition in Africa, introducing citizens to the scientific advances and opportunities of green hydrogen on the African and European continents, while offering concrete solutions towards decarbonizing economies, green mobility and energy independence.
To create a world-leading industry for renewable hydrogen production, the EU must act now and design unique and long-term cooperation mechanisms with North Africa on political, societal, and economic levels. Multi-gigawatt green hydrogen production plants may unlock vast renewable energy potential and contribute to economic growth and social welfare. Developing a green hydrogen economy will bring a sustainable, affordable, and fair energy system and make Europe and its neighbors world market leaders for green hydrogen production technologies. The expansion of the EGD to North African countries has the potential to create numerous opportunities in the economic, social, and environmental domains. By bolstering the EU’s partnerships across the Mediterranean, Europe’s energy security could benefit in the medium-to-long run. To overcome previous challenges faced by similar projects, such as financial inefficiencies, limited political appeal, and insufficient technical accessibility for the North African private sector, the EU would need to ensure transparent and accessible management, backed by high-level political support and the involvement of national governments.
The legal status of green hydrogen in the Mediterranean region needs rapid policy action to ensure and maximise its contribution to the energy transition and is considered as a top priority. Undoubtedly, the industrial sector is already a major consumer of hydrogen, however, there is a need for urgent policy support to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels-based to renewables-based hydrogen. Similarly, the EU sees green hydrogen as a key option for industry in a move away from imported natural gas, targeting 50% for green hydrogen consumption in industry by 2030. Such a target potentially leads to large demand centres that can kickstart economies of scale in green hydrogen.
However, the use of green hydrogen in industry is still hampered by cost, technical barriers, lack of regulatory clarity and sufficient ambitious policies on key development aspects creating risks for investors, lack of meaningful public engagement, lack of a market for green materials and products, and carbon leakage risks. Green hydrogen market is currently at an infant stage, thus, improving the regulatory framework is a complex yet critical precondition to facilitate investment and the development of the hydrogen sector, maximizing its impact in decarbonizing industrial and end-use sectors. To this end, it is pertinent, but also essential, that civil society, media and local communities will be increasingly and substantially engaged.
- Barretto, J. & Berkman V. (2020), “Energy and Environmental Regulators Look to Balance Health, Safety, and Participation”, Cassels, available at: Energy and Environmental Regulators Look to Balance Health, Safety, and Participation | Cassels.com
- CMI Mediterranean Forum on Electricity and Climate Change is to monitor the policy, legal and regulatory developments resulting from the adoption of the objective of carbon-neutrality by the EU and to analyze their implications for energy trade across and around the Mediterranean. Further information could be found here: https://www.cmimarseille.org/
- Chatzimarkakis J. (2022), Fuel of the Future: A Blueprint for a Mediterranean Market for Emission – Free Hydrogen, European Council on Foreign Relations (ELIAMEP), available at: https://www.eliamep.gr/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Policy-paper-116-Chatzimarkakis-final-EN.pdf
- El-Katiri L. (2023), Sunny side up: Maximising the European Green Deal’s potential for North Africa and Europe, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), available at: https://ecfr.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Sunny-side-up_Maximising-the-European-Green-Deals-potential-for-North-Africa-and-Europe.pdf
About the author
(LL.M. in International Law, U.C.L.), Energy Expert, Research Fellow of MEPIELAN Centre