Green Hydrogen and a Just Transition – The Need for a Broader Perspective.

Kim Du Toit
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Amidst the urgency to address climate change, there is a growing focus on the potential of, and need for, green hydrogen (GH2) projects.

Significant technical potential to produce large volumes of GH2 at lower costs in the Global South creates an opportunity for these countries to benefit from the future GH2 market. For the Global North, GH2 import from the Global South is necessary to meet the demand for cleaner energy. How GH2 trade and engagements between countries takes shape, will be influenced by the priorities cemented in these engagements.

The ‘just transition’ narrative is increasingly evident in discourse and documentation on GH2. Most often, this ties into discussions surrounding job creation, skilling and training to facilitate the transition of workers within the market, and economic benefits for the Global South.‍

However, what is just and fair for the diverse stakeholders involved in the transition of an energy system, demands a deeper and more nuanced consideration that extends beyond a purely socio-economic and labour-oriented focus.‍

The following are some high-level considerations in this regard:

Transparency regarding what is meant by a just transition.

Wherever the term is used, all considerations accounted for as part of a just transition should be outlined. At minimum the term should be linked to a definition which indicates the scale and scope of considerations.

Participation and stakeholder engagement that extends to communities on the ground.

A common thread in energy projects, and one already evident in GH2 projects, is narrow stakeholder engagement. Communities in the vicinity of GH2 projects and beyond, as well as organisations which have close ties to local communities, should be engaged early and often throughout projectplanning and development. There is a need for transparency surrounding how their needs and views are integrated into shaping the project. Furthermore, projects should aim to maximise local benefit in a way that prioritises needs in the local community beyond job creation alone.

Beyond jobs and economic benefit.

Job creation is highly relevant to reducing unemployment in the Global South, together with re-skilling and up-skilling workers for jobs inGH2. However, the emphasis on jobs is often not indicative of how many jobs will be temporary or permanent, nor how regional this job creation may be. In many Global South countries, a lack of access to basic services, including energy access, is evident. GH2 projects should therefore aim to contribute to needs in the local context. This may include improving renewable energy access for communities through GH2 projects, projects that bridge the food-water-energy nexus, local needs assessments, and local governance of and benefit-distribution from GH2 projects. Furthermore, a wider range of social, environmental, and participatory indicators should be included in evaluating whether GH2projects lead to just outcomes, both in a specific local context, and in terms of global trade.‍

In addition to these considerations, the following further outlines specific advice regarding engagement with the ‘just transition’ narrative:

Specific advice for government-to-government and international engagements around GH2:

- GH2 trade should ensure equal volumes of GH2 provision for local use and decarbonisation as that allocated for import-export

- There is a need to create a suitable enabling environment surrounding GH2, including the development of GH2 policies and standards which account for contextual differences between the Global North and Global South. Participatory approaches are especially relevant in this regard.

- There is a need to highlight and engage on the just transition, and geopolitical risks surrounding the global scale of GH2 developments and trade.

Specific advice for companies engaging with GH2projects in the Global South:

- Engage academia and local communities/ community organisations to develop just transition indicators and monitoring systems for projects.

- There is a need to bridge profit and local ownership. Projects should aim for co-ownership with local companies, or allow for various forms of community shareholding. The distribution of costs and benefits through projects in the Global South should be balanced.

- Engagement with GH2 should extend beyond export-oriented projects. It is well understood that the drive to decarbonise in the Global North underscores much of Global North engagement with the Global South. However, wherever possible, projects should aim to support activities which maximise local beneficiation.

(Insights are drawn from my Master’s thesis: Green hydrogen - Just another energy transition? Exploring energy justice and power relations in the Global North - Global South context)