Expanding the Legacy

UAE Gathering Scores Few Successes 



Beneath our feet, the earth manufactures and hides a treasure trove of clean energy. In Lorraine, a former coal mining region hugging the French-German border, a reservoir containing up to 260 million metric tonnes of natural hydrogen has recently been discovered. The volume equals almost four times that of the hydrogen produced commercially worldwide each year.

The find of ‘white’ (natural) hydrogen in France gives a boost to small independent energy companies scouring the world for similar reserves. According to Geoffrey Ellis, a geochemist at the US Geological Survey, white hydrogen may well be much more prevalent than previously thought. Drilling for natural gas and oil will often tap into natural hydrogen reserves though in the past such discoveries were mostly ignored. It is estimated that the earth produces around 23 million tonnes of hydrogen annually with huge reserves accumulating in underground traps.

“Whilst everybody was focussed on drilling for oil and gas, white hydrogen finds were routinely dismissed. That dynamic is now changing,” says Julian Moulin, president of Française De l’Énergie a clean energy company capturing methane gas from coal seams in Lorraine. Mr Moulin is intensifying the company’s efforts to explore and extract white hydrogen. “However,” he cautions, “it will take several years to develop the tools and technology necessary for the commercial exploitation of the hydrogen reserves.”

Grey, Green, and White

Hydrogen, a potential substitute for fossil fuels, is classified according to its provenance and manufacture. Commercial hydrogen, made by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, requires energy. When the process is powered by renewable energy, the resulting hydrogen is ‘green’ but when fossil fuels are used, it is classified ‘grey’.

In nature, hydrogen is continuously generated when hot water interacts with iron-rich rocks at elevated pressure. The US Geological Survey suspects that just a few Lorraine-sized finds could provide enough energy to power the world for centuries or even millennia.

The nascent understanding that the earth is its own hydrogen factory has sparked a gold rush of sorts with even Bill Gates getting in on the action. Mr Gates provided $91 million in funding from his Breakthrough Energy Ventures to Colorado start-up Koloma which developed a proprietary process to break down iron- and magnesium-based minerals deep in the earth’s crust to release hydrogen-rich fluids.

Scientists long believed that natural hydrogen did not accumulate in large underground reserves and instead percolated through the crust in small quantities. That theory was disproved in Bourakébougou, a village some seventy kilometres north of Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Smoking Causes Serious Harm

Here, in 1987, an unproductive 108-metre-deep water well caught fire after a driller lit a cigarette while peering into the hole. Mamadou Konaré was badly burned but survived. However, the fire, smokeless and blue-coloured, took the drilling crew weeks to snuff out. The well was capped and all but forgotten until Aliou Diallo, chairperson of local oil and gas company Petroma, in 2007 acquired the right to prospect the region for oil and gas. Almost immediately, the capped well sparked the interest of Petroma engineers.

The company brought in Canadian engineering firm Chapman Petroleum to find out what was coming out of the Bourakébougou borehole. The Canadians soon concluded that the well spouted a gas comprised of 98 percent hydrogen. The discovery has since been hailed no less significant than the one made 164 years ago in Titusville, Pennsylvania, site of the world’s first commercially viable oilfield. Today, Bourakébougou is powered almost entirely by the hydrogen that burned Mr Konaré.

Researchers at investment bank Goldman Sachs predict that the global hydrogen market will breach the $1-trillion-barrier by 2050 as the carbon- and emission-free fuel becomes an increasingly important piece of the net zero target.

Subsidies also start pouring in with the 2021 US Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that includes $8 billion for the development of regional hubs for clean hydrogen production. The more recent Inflation Reduction Act provides a tax credit of $3 per kilo of zero-carbon fuel. However, current subsidies exclude the drilling for white hydrogen.

Funding Loss and Damage

The optimism amongst engineers is not shared by the more than 70,000 scientists, politicians, business leaders, and others gathered in Dubai for the 28th Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Maligned and the source of much scepticism, COP28 did get off to an unexpected rousing start: on the first day of deliberations, delegates unanimously agreed to set up a ‘loss and damage fund’ and pledged up to $385 million toward helping poor nations hit hardest by climate change.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), COP28 hosts, agreed to provide $100 million in funding as did the European Union and Germany ($245 million jointly). Disappointingly the United States only earmarked $17.5 million for the fund whilst Japan committed a paltry $10 million. Still, the mere existence of the fund is a victory of note and comes after years of wrangling over the question who should pay for the impact of climate change.

In another decision, hailed as ‘“pivotal” by the World Health Organisation (WHO), delegates from 124 countries endorsed the Declaration of Climate and Health, the first-ever political statement on the health impact of climate change. COP28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber also announced an “initial tranche” of $1 billion in “aggregated financing commitments” to back up the declaration.

Former Bank of England governor and current UN special envoy on climate action and finance, Mark Carney, sounded a slightly dissonant note when he reminded the UAE that its ability to confront the fossil fuel industry will ultimately determine the achievements of the conference. Mr Carney agreed that the Emirates have been a leading producer of renewable energy but also noted that the UAE sits atop some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

Sultan Al Jaber has invited criticism with unfortunate slips of the tongue which detract from his accomplishments in building consensus. Mr Carney asked the COP28 president to openly challenge the fossil fuel industry. Sultan Al-Jaber answered the call by garnering the support of 118 countries for a pledge to triple renewable energy capacity to 11,000 gigawatts by 2030.

In September, the International Energy Agency (IEA) had argued in a report for the tripling of renewable energy to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement which seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The report also stressed the need to phase out fossil fuels that are not offset by carbon sequestering.

AI Debut

In Dubai researchers and business leaders have sung the praises of, and dazzled attendees with, artificial intelligence as a crucial tool for mapping and fighting climate change. AI can analyse vast volumes of data much better than humans and computers, leading to more accurate models and predictions. On the opening day of COP28, the United Nations revealed that it had struck a partnership with Microsoft for the development of an AI-powered tool to track compliance with pledges to reduce carbon emissions made by countries. Delegates from Google said that AI may help reduce as much as one-tenth of harmful emissions by 2030 through improved efficiencies in farming and industrial production.

Microsoft president Brad Smith admitted that the increased use of AI is causing a spike in the demand for energy but said that his company was working on the development of new sources of renewable energy and improved sustainability of its data centres.

Smouldering Embers

At COP28, the call for climate action is unanimous – and loud. Promises, pledges, declarations, and commitments are made by the dozen. Meanwhile, creative minds are in overdrive to fit a square peg into a round hole. Political minds are also busy calculating the economic impact of promises made, and how to skirt compliance without being seen to break to agreements. Others are playing the guilty of those more fortunate and how to best monetise the sentiment.

For all its unanimity, the world remains ambiguous, if not divided, over climate change.

Since 1990, about the time when concerns about climate change started rising along with global temperatures, the world has more than doubled its emissions from coal-fired power plants. The burning of coal remains the single largest source of carbon emissions: each year, ten billion tonnes of carbon dioxide are pumped into the atmosphere via the smokestacks of some 6,500 coal-fired power plants around the world.

Since 2014, the 38 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have reduced their emissions from coal by an average of six percent annually. However, that reduction has been overwhelmed by emissions growth in emerging economies. These now account for close to eighty percent of global carbon emissions from coal.

And, for all the urgency on display in Dubai, over one thousand new coal-fired power plants are being built or in the planning stage. Even Japan, turning its back on nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, is building 22 new coal-burning plants that, once operational, will emit almost as much carbon dioxide annually as all new passenger cars sold in the US each year.

Politics versus Engineering

Thus, coal – the dirtiest of energy sources – is far from dead or even dying. Perhaps, then, it’s time to name and shame the Dirty Dozen from Australia and India to China and South Africa and the many coal miners and users in between. Otherwise, what’s the point of bringing together some 70,000 participants concerned about the climate if behind the scenes it’s business as usual?

Look to Lorraine for a possibly surprising answer but don’t expect deliverance from assorted politicians. It’s not their fault, but the world’s diversity in interests. Human induced climate change was caused by advances in technology and will be addresses by technology. Engineers and scientists working at the cutting edge in the real world hold the key.

© 2023 Photo by The President’s Office, Maldives

© 2024 CFI Press. All rights reserved.