Each week we share the top sustainability news stories from around the world. Here’s this week’s round up:
This week we explore a warning around hydrogen energy and if it is actually beneficial, the need to cut methane emissions, and a study linking mental health and air pollution to kids.
Researchers Warn Hydrogen Fuel Will Increase Fossil Fuel Reliance
The use of hydrogen-based fuels has seen an uptick in recent years as a renewable substitute for fossil fuels. However, new analysis warns that using hydrogen fuels for cars and home heating actually risks locking in a dependency on fossil fuels. The report indicates that fuels produced from hydrogen can be used as straight replacements for oil and gas and can be low-carbon if renewable electricity is used to produce these “e-fuels”. This is usually not the case and analysis predicts that using electricity to directly power transport and heating would be far more efficient.
It is further estimated that hydrogen fuel production would be very expensive to scale up and that resources used could become scarce. This could lead to hydrogen boilers being reliant on fossil fuels to power up which won’t help with reducing carbon emissions. However, because certain industries are much harder to electrify, such as aviation, hydrogen-based fuels will still be examined and studied for use in the coming decades.
Using electricity to create hydrogen from water and then using carbon dioxide to manufacture other fuels can produce “drop-in” replacements for fossil fuels. But on the type of scale needed for countries to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, this is not feasible unless the technology receives unprecedented investment. “Hydrogen-based fuels can be a great clean energy carrier, yet their costs and associated risks are also great. If we cling to combustion technologies and hope to feed them with hydrogen-based fuels, and these turn out to be too costly and scarce, then we will end up burning further oil and gas” said Falko Ueckerdt at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany. He further stated that “we should therefore prioritise those precious hydrogen-based fuels for applications for which they are indispensable: long distance aviation, feedstocks in chemical production and steel production.”
Cutting Methane Emissions is Quickest Way to Slow Global Heating
A recent report from the UN indicates that methane emissions could almost be halved by 2030 using existing technology and at a reasonable cost. Currently, 42% of human-caused methane emissions come from the agriculture industry. A significant proportion of actions taken to reduce methane would actually make money, such as capturing methane gas leaks at fossil fuel sites and reducing air pollution affecting premature death and lost crops. Achieving this globally would directly cut almost half a degree of global heating.
Methane is similar yet different than carbon dioxide. While the are both pollutants, methane is 84 times more powerful in trapping heat than carbon dioxide, however it breaks down in a matter of years while carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere for centuries. Over the last 20 years, methane has caused about 30% of global heating. Many experts believe cutting methane emissions is a quick and short process while reducing carbon emissions is a slower and longer process.
The report found 60% of methane emissions could be cut by stopping the venting of unwanted gas and properly sealing equipment, reducing organic waste sent to landfills and through better sewage treatment. World leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin have called for cuts in methane emissions at the Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by the US in April.
Study Links Childhood Air Pollution to Poorer Mental Health
Children and young people who spend most of their time growing up in heavy traffic-related areas have higher rates of mental illness by the time they turn 18, according to new research. The findings come from a 25-year long joint British/American study of twins born in England and Wales during 1994 and 1995 whose mental health was assessed at 18. The authors concluded that the “results collectively suggest that youths persistently exposed to moderate levels of nitrogen oxide air pollution may experience greater overall liability to psychiatric illness by young adulthood.”
They further noted that the link is modest but real. The authors added that the association was also “a liability independent of other individual, family and neighbourhood influences on mental health” like poverty and family history of mental disorder. Dr. Helen Fisher, the study’s co-author said: “this study has demonstrated that children growing up in our biggest cities face a greater risk of mental illness due to higher levels of traffic. While we might like to think of our towns and cities as green and open spaces, it’s clear that there is a hidden danger that many will not have even considered”.
Tune in next week for another round of sustainability news from around the world.