The Argentine government announced an investment of 8.4 billion dollars by the Australian multinational Fortescue to produce “green hydrogen”. The World Rainforest Movement questions the industrial scale of the so-called “energy transition” and claims that mega-projects negatively impact local populations. The false solutions of green capitalism.

By Joanna Cabello*/Living Earth Agency

In a statement issued by the International Hydropower Association in 2020, the world’s largest hydropower companies call on governments to “fast-track planning approval” to ensure that construction of new large dams can begin as soon as possible1. The hydropower industry is also pushing to ensure that large dams are seen as essential for economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and for “the transition to net zero carbon economies”.2 In this way devastating projects are presented as “clean” and central to the “green energy transition”.

Industrial-scale renewable energy, such as hydro, wind and solar, is positioned as a solution to our growing energy consumption. Added to this is the production of so-called “green hydrogen”, which adds another layer of injustice related to these mega-infrastructures. However, changing the source of energy in no way addresses the real problem posed by excessive levels of energy consumption, driven by cumulative economic growth. Nor does it challenge the intrinsic violence to societies that such energy potentiates3.

Numerous corporate and state actors are pushing for increased capacity to produce and use hydrogen as part of plans for a ‘green’ recovery from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, which is becoming a central theme in ‘green transition’ debates.

The German government announced plans to spend 9 billion euros ($10.7 billion) to support its domestic hydrogen industry4. The European Commission has also begun to promote hydrogen as a way to reduce carbon emissions and achieve its European Green Pact climate targets. The EU plans to expand “renewable hydrogen” projects and invest 470 billion euros ($740 billion) by 20505. In addition, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said hydrogen “will help decarbonise the heavily polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors [in the US] (…) and achieve a net-zero [emissions] economy by 2050.

What is “green hydrogen”?

In general, “green hydrogen” or “renewable hydrogen” refers to the generation of hydrogen energy without the use of fossil fuels. The most common technique is to extract hydrogen from water, which is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen (H2O). A process called electrolysis splits the water molecule into its two constituent elements. Therefore, to produce “green hydrogen” you need water, an electrolyser and an abundant supply of electricity. If the electricity comes from renewable sources, such as wind, solar or hydro, then the hydrogen is classified as “green”. Hydrogen can basically be used in two ways: it can be burned to produce heat or it can be fed into a fuel cell to generate electricity.

Storing and transporting the gas, which is highly flammable, is not easy; it takes up a lot of space. Because of this, bulk transport of “green hydrogen” requires specific pipelines that pressurise the gas or cool it to a liquid. Moreover, it should be noted that the production of “green hydrogen” can require up to nine kilos of high purity water per kilo of hydrogen7. This implies that the resource (water) could come into conflict with other needs and uses of clean water, which is becoming increasingly scarce.

Major oil companies such as Shell and BP have already announced investments in “green hydrogen” production.8 And governments in Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Norway, Portugal, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and others are already planning or developing several major “green hydrogen” projects.

The production of “green hydrogen” has now become yet another justification for powerful commercial interests to accelerate the construction of large-scale renewable energy infrastructure. The destructive impacts on communities and living spaces destroyed by the construction of this infrastructure remain largely hidden.

This is the case of the Grand Inga project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the controversial “Inga 3” mega-dam, which currently threatens communities living along the Congo River.

On 15 June 2021, the DR Congo government announced that the Australian Fortescue Metals Group would implement the Grand Inga hydropower project. Fortescue is the world’s fourth largest iron ore mining company and has set a plan to become carbon neutral by 2030; 10 years ahead of its previous target. Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Fortescue, is driving projects that involve building large-scale renewable energy and ‘green hydrogen’ production capacity.

Andrew Forrest, chairman of Fortescue, said in a press release in April 2021: “Our aim is to provide the two ‘missing links’ in the climate change battle, creating both demand and supply for green hydrogen. Due to their high energy efficiency and environmental neutrality, green hydrogen and direct green electricity have the potential to eliminate fossil fuels from supply chains. Once realised, these advances will also substantially reduce Fortescue’s operating costs “9.

A chain of offal

The Grand Inga refers to a series of dams proposed for the lower Congo River. This is the second largest river in the world in terms of flow, after the Amazon, and the second longest river in Africa, after the Nile. The plan is to build Grand Inga in seven phases. Inga1 and Inga2 were completed in 1972 and 1982 respectively. They are followed by Inga3, a project fraught with controversy and criticism. The site for Inga3 is at the world’s largest waterfalls by volume, the Inga Falls, which consist of a series of waterfalls cascading through small rapids.

It is a fact that people living in DR Congo need energy: more than 90 percent of the population has no access to the electricity grid. The capital, Kinshasa, has more than ten million inhabitants and less than 30 percent of them have access to electricity. Despite this huge energy gap, a series of high-voltage transmission lines would carry power from the Inga3 mega-dam to distant industrial and urban centres. These transmission lines will not supply power to the Congolese people10.

Inga1 and Inga2 forcibly displaced entire communities without compensation and relocated them to camps, resulting in a deterioration of their standard of living and negatively affecting their livelihoods. Many people are still living in “Camp Kinshasa”, without basic services such as adequate water and sanitation. The construction of Inga3 will not only deepen “development”-induced poverty, generational debt and human rights violations, but the mega-dam will also lead to the deterioration of the DRC’s freshwater ecosystems. Inga3 would flood the Bundi valley, affecting agricultural land and various territories. The valley is also a cultural space that hosts cemeteries, sacred sites and places of practice of ancestral rites. The reduction in river flow would result in loss of biodiversity and a change in dominant species. The flooded area may also create an environment conducive to the breeding of water-borne vectors such as the malanquin mosquito. In addition, the dam could cause huge methane emissions, which would contribute to global warming11. The director of the Grand Inga Development and Promotion Agency, Bruno Kapandji, estimates that 37,000 people would be displaced by Inga 3.12

The Grand Inga project, which also includes the Inga3 dam, had been awarded to a Chinese consortium formed by China Three Gorges Corporation and a Spanish consortium comprising AEE Power. The deal was signed in 2018, but due to doubts about financial viability, construction has not yet started. DR Congo’s top advisor on infrastructure, Alexy Kayembe De Bampende, stated in June 2021 that the Grand Inga project will now be led by Fortescue and that “the Chinese [and Spanish] company can join Fortescue “13. 13 Fortescue’s chairman has stated that the company will use the energy to produce hydrogen and export it around the world.

“Green hydrogen’: a front for more pollution and dispossession

Should the incredibly huge Grand Inga project resurface – if built, it would be the world’s largest hydropower system – it would ignore the long-standing resistance of communities already affected by Inga1 and 2, as well as those to be affected by Inga3.15 It would constitute a direct violation of the Congo River and the communities that coexist with and depend on it.

The push and promotion of “green hydrogen” as the “fuel of the future” as well as the path towards a “hydrogen economy” is an alarm bell for communities around the world fighting against renewable energy mega-infrastructures. This offensive is also a clear sign of how the current unequal and unjust energy matrix will remain intact under the so-called “green economy”.

Fortescue’s “green hydrogen” will not supply energy to the 90 percent of Congolese who lack it. Moreover, the impacts and pollution caused by the construction of the mega-dam, as well as the liquefaction facilities and the transport of the fuel to consumers and industries in most of the global North, remain hidden.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not the only country Fortescue is targeting. The company plans to build a “green hydrogen” plant in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which would be powered by solar and wind energy projects. Similarly, in November 2020, the company announced that it was considering a 250 MW “green hydrogen” plant in Tasmania16. The company is also making inroads into Indonesia and Papua New Guinea in search of hydropower resources17. Fortescue even intends to label the steel industry as “green steel” by supplying the steel industry with “green hydrogen. “18

Other companies and governments are also coming forward with “green hydrogen” projects around the world. Morocco signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Germany in 2020 on the possible production of this fuel19. Enegix Energy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of the Brazilian state of Ceará to build the world’s largest “green hydrogen” factory, to be powered by large wind projects20. Similarly, in Chile, the HIF initiative, a consortium including the Dutch AME, the Italian Enel Green Power, the German Porsche, the German Siemens Energy and the collaboration of the Chilean company Empresa Nacional del Petróleo (Enap), announced the country’s first “green hydrogen” project, linked to the supply of energy from a wind farm21.

The need for energy sovereignty

The statement by the International Hydropower Association (mentioned at the beginning of this article) is a bitter pill to swallow for the millions of people whose lives and livelihoods have been directly damaged by the construction of mega dams around the world, such as Inga1 and Inga2.

Behind the industrial-scale renewable energy infrastructure and “green hydrogen” industries lie the devastating social effects of large-scale infrastructure. Their financial backers are also silent about the severe impacts on living spaces, biodiversity, freshwater sources, forests, fertile lands and much more.

Instead of fast-tracking destruction and pollution, governments should prioritise fair access to energy in a localised, off-grid way that respects river ecosystems, living spaces and their communities. The tactic of labelling “green hydrogen” as the “fuel of the future” is a desperate attempt to keep growing levels of energy production and consumption intact, which in turn triggers stark inequalities. Discrimination, racism and exploitation are reinforced by the imposition of this energy matrix and mega-infrastructures, which feed an unjust energy system that mainly favours large industries.

*Member of the Secretariat of the World Rainforest Movement (WRM)

1 IHA, 2020, Hydropower associations unite to set Covid-19 recovery pathway

2 IHA, 2021, New paper: Couple green hydrogen with hydropower to create a net zero future

3 Dunlap, Alexander, 2018, End the “Green” Delusions: Industrial-scale Renewable Energy is Fossil Fuel+

4 Bloomberg, 2020, Germany Just Unveiled the World’s Greenest Stimulus Plan

5 ABC News, what is green hydrogen, how is it made and will it be the fuel of the future?

6 The Economic Times, 2021, U.S. seeks less costly clean hydrogen in fight against climate change

7 JDSUPRA, 2020, Water Resource Considerations for the Hydrogen Economy

8 Green Tech Media, 2020, Shell’s Latest Offshore Wind Bid Would Power a Huge Green Hydrogen Cluster, and Green Tech Media, 2020, Lightsource BP Explores Green Hydrogen Site Powered by 1.5GW of Australian Renewables

9 Green Car Congress, 2021, Iron ore leader Fortescue pushing green hydrogen, ammonia and electricity projects

10 International Rivers, Inga Campaign

11 Idem (10)

12 Global Construction Review, 2018, Spanish, Chinese companies to fund $18bn Inga dam in DRC

13 NS Energy, 2021, Congo selects Fortescue to develop Grand Inga hydro project

14 Reuters,2021, Congo picks Australia’s Fortescue to develop giant hydro project

15 International Rivers, 2021, Fortescue Metals Group’s Plan to Develop Grand Inga Hydro Scheme Won’t Deliver Green Energy for DRC

16 Reuters, 2021, Australia’s Fortescue eyes Brazil plant amid green hydrogen push

17 Australian Mining, 2021, Fortescue to build second hydrogen plant

18 ABC News, 2021, Andrew Forrest on how green steel and hydrogen offer a chance to fix our climate and our economy

19 Bloomberg, 2020, Congo Hydrogen Plant Being Considered by European Turbine Makers

20 Power Technology, 2021, Green hydrogen, green energy: inside Brazil’s $5.4bn green hydrogen plant

21 Sustentable, 2021, Green hydrogen special: Latin America’s first green hydrogen plant approved