By Amanda Leland, Executive Director

My job is to fight climate change, so it might seem strange that I’ve agreed to attend a major oil industry conference in the Middle East. But I strongly believe the world can’t meet the climate crisis without engaging with everyone in a position to cut climate pollution. And since dramatically reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector is critical, that industry is ground zero for climate action — if  these companies are serious about being part of the solution.

This ADIPEC conference is held in the United Arab Emirates and is mostly a gathering of national oil companies from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. They produce half of the world’s oil and gas and have two-thirds of global reserves, so their choices will have a huge impact on our climate future. The investor-owned companies like Chevron and Shell will be there, too.

My message to all of them is simple: It’s one thing to talk about climate action, but they need to show tangible results.

For a long time, the oil industry complained of being shut out of climate negotiations. But this year’s annual United Nations climate talks — the conference known as COP28 — will also be held in the UAE and it will be chaired by the CEO of their state energy company. That means the industry has two big moments in the climate spotlight this year — two big chances to take action.

Can hydrogen be a climate solution?

Tall hydrogen storage tanks against a blue sky

A major focus of the ADIPEC conference will be hydrogen — a fuel that could play a major role in reducing carbon pollution in heavy transportation and industry. It will also be a major topic at COP28. Hydrogen has been touted as part of the solution to the climate crisis and billions in public and private funds are being invested to develop the industry. But if policymakers and companies aren’t careful about how it’s produced and used, it could actually add to our climate problems.

When hydrogen is emitted from pipelines, production facilities or other sources it increases concentrations of other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The latest research indicates that pound for pound, hydrogen has 37 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it’s released. It will be even greater with the continuous emissions that would come from widespread use.

That’s a big risk because hydrogen is the smallest molecule, making it especially prone to being leaked or emitted in other ways. Half a million hydrogen atoms can sit side by side in the width of a human hair. Right now, nobody knows how much hydrogen is likely to be emitted, and we’re just now developing sensors that can measure it at the concentrations we’d need to figure it out.

The industry also needs to pay attention to impacts on local communities. Water consumption and air pollution from production and use of hydrogen must factor into deployment decisions. If hydrogen is burned in a power plant, it can produce air pollutants called nitrogen oxides that have been linked to asthma. People living nearby must be engaged from the start, and new projects must adapt to local concerns.

Produce hydrogen right

Finally, hydrogen needs to be produced the right way. Right now 99% of it is made using fossil fuels. That’s hardly helpful for the climate since the resulting carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere. Some believe it’s possible to simply capture the climate emissions produced in that process, but that’s neither easy nor cheap.

Hydrogen can be produced using renewable electricity, which avoids the carbon dioxide pollution and the methane emissions that come with natural gas. The rub is that doing so diverts clean electricity from other needs. It’s often far more efficient to just use clean sources like wind and solar to power things, rather than using them to make hydrogen. For uses like heating and cooking, or powering cars and light- and medium-duty trucks, we’d get far greater climate benefit at much less cost to consumers using that green electricity directly.

The world has seen what happens when these fuels aren’t developed and used carefully. For the last decade, climate advocates have been working to reduce methane pollution from fossil fuel production and use — natural gas is mostly methane. Natural gas was hyped as a lower-carbon fuel than coal, but much of the world missed the huge climate impact of methane emissions. Methane pollution now causes at least a quarter of current global warming and we’re spending billions to find and fix leaks. Let’s not make that mistake again.

It’s a lesson the industry should heed now. In the next three months they’ll have two major opportunities — ADIPEC and COP28 — to convince the world they are serious about climate action. They should seize them.

solar panels

Sign up for the Climate Tech Brief newsletter

Learn about the innovative ideas, technologies and perspectives we and our partners are finding around the world.