May 16, 2022

Geopolitics of Europe’s Hydrogen Aspirations: Creating Sustainable Equilibrium or a Combustible Mix?

Mihkel Maripuu/Eesti Meedia/Scanpix
Mihkel Maripuu/Eesti Meedia/Scanpix
Energy Observer, the first hydrogen-powered vessel, in The Seaplane Harbour (Tallinn, Estonia)
Energy Observer, the first hydrogen-powered vessel, in The Seaplane Harbour (Tallinn, Estonia)

Discussions about hydrogen’s role in the transition to carbon-neutral economies and the EU’s Green Deal seldom include consideration of geopolitical aspects and/or national security imperatives. However, given the importance of energy as a factor in global and regional geopolitical trends and national security, hydrogen development will reshape not only energy relations between countries but will also alter the broader geopolitical picture.

While elevating new aspects of geopolitical interplays, such as the importance of technology and regional clusters, hydrogen development might also unwittingly transplant present-day challenges—such as excessive dependence on the energy supply from hostile powers—into the carbon-neutral future. Since Europe’s energy sovereignty and geopolitical role in its neighbourhood could be at stake, the nexus of geopolitics, energy security and hydrogen development should be given serious attention. At the same time, the transformative socioeconomic impact of energy transition will create winners and losers within and between nations, which in some cases will have national security implications; hydrogen development could offer ways to mitigate this. 

This report focuses on exploring the impact that the European Union’s ambitions and plans for hydrogen development—including an expansion of its infrastructure in the form of the European Hydrogen Backbone—on its geopolitical position up to 2040. It first looks into the greater detail of the EU Hydrogen Strategy and how it links with the Energy Union, as well as with European strategic autonomy and energy sovereignty issues. It finds that hydrogen development—alongside the growth of the renewable energy sector—offers a great opportunity to reduce the current exposure to hostile actors through the energy sector that often hampers Europe’s ability to act as a geopolitical force in its neighbourhood. However, it also warns that the lack of unity and coherence currently afflicting the Energy Union, and manifest in such recent controversies as the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, could potentially weaken such a positive geopolitical impact of hydrogen. 

Although hydrogen development requires Europe to draw upon external suppliers, the fact that this supply can come from many countries provides a significant opportunity for diversification and reducing the potency of energy supply as a geopolitical weapon. In this regard, two directions stand out in the EU’s neighbourhood—Ukraine in the east, and the Mediterranean along with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to the south. Both have huge potential for playing major roles in the European hydrogen supply chains, and their cultivation by the EU would provide many opportunities both to strengthen the EU’s influence in its neighbourhood and to build new partnerships. Certainly, neither of those directions comes without risks and downsides: political instability and armed conflicts, poor governance, unstable investment environment, water scarcity, and in some cases dependence on the hydrocarbons industry for income will be significant factors hampering the efforts to unlock their potential. Ukraine in particular will require sustained reconstruction efforts to tackle the massive devastation caused by Russia’s war. This will divert resources and attention, but transforming its energy sector and developing its hydrogen production base could still be important strands of these efforts. 

Europe’s own potential for domestic hydrogen production is another direction that this report looks into as a way to disentangle from the present-day geopolitically toxic dependencies and enhance its energy sovereignty. The Baltic states and Finland represent an interesting case study on how hydrogen could underpin a regional cooperation cluster with a high degree of integration—one of the new characteristics of the hydrogen era that will have geopolitical implications. The report, however, finds that different national perspectives on hydrogen, lack of coordination, and certain issues of trust arising from recent failures of solidarity and unity when tackling the regional nexus of energy security and geopolitics might hamper future regional cooperation in hydrogen. 

The hydrogen economy also offers some important benefits in managing national security challenges at the national level. In Estonia, the loss of the fossil fuel-based industry in the highly sensitive north-eastern region of Ida-Virumaa will be a socioeconomic blow to the local population. This report highlights how the vulnerability of the region, dominated by the Russian-speaking ethnic minorities who are already highly exposed to Russia’s malignant influence activities, could imperil Estonia’s energy transition and its national security. Creating a national hydrogen cluster in this region, drawing upon its industrial infrastructure and human capital, could mitigate the consequences of decarbonisation and energy transition. However, these considerations do not seem to receive sufficient attention from the government and energy businesses when drawing Estonia’s hydrogen map of the future. 

The report recommends that various stakeholders in the EU—including those behind the European Hydrogen Backbone—continuously monitor and assess the geopolitical risks, especially in terms of their impact on European energy sovereignty, when creating and managing new hydrogen-related interdependencies with the regions and countries outside the EU. The report urges the EU to support energy transition and necessary market and governance reforms in post-war Ukraine and the MENA countries to facilitate their emergence as crucial and reliable partners in hydrogen value chains. The report also recommends closer coordination and common planning between hydrogen stakeholders of the Baltic states and Finland when forming a regional cluster of hydrogen supply that would contribute to European energy sovereignty. Last but not least, it suggests that, for national security and resilience reasons, Estonia should focus more attention on the Ida-Virumaa region when developing its national hydrogen roadmap.

Download the report: Geopolitics of Europe’s Hydrogen Aspirations (PDF)