Hydrogen and Pollution

Having just (over-)indulged in the Tokyo Olympics, I was intrigued to read that The Guardian has taken a negative view of the hydrogen-powered Olympic flame. The article warns that the “Olympic flame is a warning sign for [a] hydrogen future”, and brands it with the keyword ‘Pollutionwatch’. Hydrogen and pollution? Notwithstanding my immediate reaction that this should be dismissed as yet another part of its unrelenting campaign against the Olympic movement, I nevertheless felt a need to know if there is anything behind it.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics hydrogen flame

The article cites a Royal Society of Chemistry paper (fortunately Open Access) that makes the case for “hydrogen-specific standards for NOx emissions”. But the article only proposes this if we are to obtain “air quality co-benefits”. In other words, the authors are trying to solve two problems at once. So are we really being put in the position of having to trade off CO2 pollution against air pollution? Of course not, the only danger is that the air pollution might stay the same. Big deal. To be fair to the article, the text makes this clear by saying “it is unlikely that the nitrogen dioxide from hydrogen boilers will be worse than the fossil gas and oil used today”. But it then states it would be a missed opportunity to install “district heating, heat pumps and home insulation”. So what this article is really about is an attempt to influence energy policy away from individual household boilers.

This is a dangerous game to play. Associating the words ‘hydrogen’ and ‘pollution’ in the public consciousness is a strategy that is designed to attack hydrogen use in general. If that is not the intention then bad luck, epic fail. It is also only an issue that, by and large, affects people who live in vastly over-populated urban quagmires, such as (dare I say it) London. This is such a London-specific article (a Guardian speciality) that it makes my teeth itch. Do the people who live there not realise that London doesn’t even remotely resemble the rest of the UK, let alone the rest of the world? What applies there does not make good policy, or to put it another way: don’t constrain us with your problems.

There is a cognitive bias at work here: people trapped in an all-encompassing environment tend to exaggerate its significance. This explains why estimates of the percentage of the UK that is covered in ‘continuous urban fabric’ are often vastly inflated, when the actual figure is 0.1%. Personally, I think the same thing happens with motorists who end up believing the roads are full of traffic, even though there are times when (as a cyclist) it occurs to me that they are all travelling around in pulses, with massive gaps in between.

Most grievously, the article gives the impression that hydrogen is okay when used in a fuel-cell. What irony, given that the chief use of fuel-cells is to power vehicles. True, the fuel-cell might not be emitting air pollution directly, but the brake pads and tyres do so even by their own yardstick, it’s not ‘okay’. Further, it is expensive and inefficient to turn hydrogen back into electricity – a luxury form of use that is almost as luxurious as the living-room-on-wheels the modern car has become. Neither hydrogen nor batteries are a free pass to (supposedly) non-destructive car use.

Now, I’m not opposed to district heating. If someone offers it then we’ll be happy to sign up, but the chances of it arriving where we live are remote. Heat pumps are fine, but in the dead of winter they still need electricity, and even in the most optimistic prediction the energy mix at that time of year is far from 100% green. Likewise insulation. I have no idea how to insulate our 100-year-old stone block of a house, short of rebuilding it, so best of luck to anyone else.

Therefore, the fact remains that if we are even to stand the remotest chance of causing CO2 emissions to peak in the next four years then we need to do everything, and all at once. Picking and choosing what to do because other forms of pollution might stay the same in over-populated areas is completely unconstructive.

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