Europe has long been a frontrunner in sustainable energy and today it leads the way with ambitious net-zero announcements aimed at “greening” national economies.
High energy dependence on imported fossil fuels and the expensive bill that goes with it, together with growing awareness of the need to curb emissions, saw the continent move early to utilize its own natural renewable resources.
Not only were some European governments – both within the EU and its energy-savvy neighbors like the UK and Norway – among the first nations to issue commitments to reach net-zero emissions, some have also enshrined these targets into law.
But a sustainable future rests on more than merely adding additional renewable energy capacity. Attention is turning to electrifying public and private transport, and to developing hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) projects to support renewable energy.
Moving forward, how will this raft of clean energy ambitions translate into action? And what challenges lie ahead for Europe?
As early as 2017, Sweden declared its intention to reach net-zero emissions by 2045, making it the first country to commit to a legally binding climate target. Two years later, the UK became the first G7 nation to put legislation in place committing to net zero by 2050, closely followed by France and Denmark.
Since then, a wave of climate declarations from different parts of the world have followed, including new US president Joe Biden targeting net zero by 2050, and an announcement that China aims to get there by 2060.
But announcements are one thing. Putting them into action is another entirely. European leaders recently agreed an ambitious and legally binding EU-wide goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% within a decade, compared to 1990 levels.
For this to happen, new technologies must be scaled up alongside future growth of renewables.
Hydrogen features heavily in Europe’s future energy plans. As well as enabling greater reliance on renewables, it could potentially replace fossil fuels to power hard-to-electrify sectors like heating, transport and heavy industry, while emitting only water when combusted.
Today, hydrogen accounts for less than 2% of Europe’s energy mix, but the European Commission’s hydrogen strategy predicts this could reach 13-14% by mid-century.
Several hydrogen projects are currently being developed across the continent, not least in the Zero Carbon Humber industrial cluster in North East England, where multiple heavy industries – from steelmaking to chemicals production – are centered.
The project is designed to enable industrial processes to fuel-switch to low-carbon “blue” hydrogen – created from natural gas, with CO2 emissions captured by CCUS – and to capture their CO2 emissions directly and permanently store them beneath the North Sea.
“The Humber is uniquely suited to hydrogen because of its size, local industries, geology and geography,” says Dan Sadler, UK Low Carbon Strategy Director at Equinor.
“But all industrial clusters hold options for hydrogen deployment. It's just the scale and the end user markets that may vary. What we're doing in the Humber should be able to be almost cut and pasted to other industrial clusters around the world.”
Hydrogen production has a way to go before it’s cost competitive with fuels like natural gas. But there is more than one type of cost. To achieve the UK’s legally enforced climate target, hydrogen is needed to provide clean energy to parts of the economy that can’t be electrified.
“Looking at the challenge of the Climate Change Act, you need all the tools in the box and realistically, it's not just about electrifying everything,” adds Sadler.
“So it’s essential to develop hydrogen economies. Hydrogen adoption could add billions to the UK economy and generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”
The benefits of investing in hydrogen infrastructure in the Humber region serve as a springboard to other parts of the economy. The H21 project, for example, is focused on adopting hydrogen as a fuel to decarbonize heating systems, which account for over a third of Britain’s emissions.
“The biggest challenge isn't the technology,” says Sadler.
“It's the political will of governments, coupled with establishing relevant business models, to help make these projects commercially viable.”
Political will in Europe for sustainable energy has in the past been comparatively strong when set against the ambitions of other continents.
As the home of the world’s first electricity-generating wind turbine, Europe has pioneered wind and solar projects through innovative tariff support schemes that have seen renewables boom and the prices of clean energy tumble.
Maria Joao Duarte, Representative to the EU Institutions at Mitsubishi Power Europe, says these achievements were thanks to EU leaders adopting “clear and legally binding targets for renewable energy and greenhouse gas emission reductions, coupled with support schemes for positive production and consumption of those sources”.
Moving forward, decarbonizing sectors like baseload power generation, energy-intensive heavy industry and heavy transport requires coherent, supportive policy and regulatory frameworks to create system efficiencies.
“Policy frameworks need to align with each other so we are not regulating and developing policies in silos for different sectors,” says Duarte.
“It's always a question of balancing production and demand to incentivize both sides.”
The European Commission has highlighted the need to establish international harmonized standards and to look holistically at integrating the EU’s energy systems.
“A growing number of alliances and collaborative initiatives bring together all the different actors that need to be together,” says Duarte.
“And it's not only policymakers and industry, it's policymakers, industry, civil society, and very importantly, investors.”
Europe’s pioneering clean energy initiatives could provide a blueprint to help other regions realize their net-zero commitments, but public awareness of the need to act more sustainably is critical.
“A whole societal change needs to occur and policy has a role in building awareness about our patterns of consumption,” explains Duarte.
The world is waiting to see whether Europe can pull off this societal change and adopt technologies such as hydrogen and CCUS in the same way that it so successfully embraced wind and solar power.
Johnny Wood has been a journalist for over 15 years working in different parts of the world – Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. As well as an accomplished features writer he has edited several prestigious lifestyle magazines and corporate publications.