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Global Warming: How Some Automakers Plan to Help Limit It

The industry's vision for hydrogen goes way beyond cars.

The use of hydrogen could account for one-fifth of the carbon emissions cuts needed to keep climate change in check by 2050, according to the Hydrogen Council, a group of automakers and other stakeholders in the hydrogen fuel-cell business, which is doubling down on its promises for the impact of hydrogen fuel cells.

Its estimate is based on not only using hydrogen to power cars, but also for energy generation and industrial uses, the Hydrogen Council announced at the COP 23 conference in Bonn, Germany. The use of hydrogen to power buildings and factories has been discussed before, notably by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to rebuild Japan’s energy infrastructure around fuel cells. But implementing that idea could be difficult.

The Hydrogen Council predicts that 400 million cars, 15 million to 20 million trucks, and around 5 million buses will be powered by hydrogen by 2050, along with as some trains, aircraft, and ships. Hydrogen will also meet 18 percent of global energy demands by 2050, the group estimates.

All of that will lower carbon emissions by 6 million metric tons compared to current levels, which will be 20 percent of what is required to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The general consensus is that 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold for preventing irreversible climate change.

Achieving those emissions cuts will require investments of $280 billion by 2030, according to the Hydrogen Council’s full report on the topic. That includes $110 billion for hydrogen production, $80 billion for hydrogen storage, transportation, and distribution infrastructure, and $70 billion to develop products.

While the plan leaves plenty of time to achieve those goals, the adoption of hydrogen has gotten off to a slow start. Production of hydrogen fuel-cell cars remains low, and fueling infrastructure is sparse. In the electricity industry, battery-based energy storage systems are gaining traction faster than fuel cells. Hydrogen may have the potential to lower carbon emissions, but industries actually have to use it in order for that to happen.