written by Hannes Swoboda

As President of the Club of Rome Austrian Chapter I participated in a meeting in Tunis, organized by the Austrian Ministry of Climate Protection and UNIDO, about a possible hydrogen project between Austria and Tunisia. Representatives from science, economy, politics and administration discussed how hydrogen can be produced economically in Tunisia and transported to Austria and how the Tunisian population can benefit socially and economically.

Hydrogen and energy transition

The energy turnaround can only be implemented through a variety of measures. But one thing is certain: fossil fuels – especially oil and gas – must be largely replaced. This is necessary above all to come close to achieving the Paris climate targets within the specified time. Sustainable hydrogen (i.e. hydrogen produced by renewable energy) is particularly useful in a number of industries, such as the cement and steel industries.

In this sense, the generation of the necessary electricity with the help of the sun or wind is a particularly preferable form. It is understandable that Europe in particular is on the lookout for those regions that have both to a particular extent. And if these are located in the vicinity of Europe, then this is also economically justifiable. One such region is northern Africa and the Middle East. Therefore, the European Union and some of its member states are very active in discussions with these regions in order to facilitate joint projects for the production of hydrogen.

Why Tunisia?

There is only one country between Tunisia and Austria, Italy, and there are already pipelines between the two countries that can also be used to transport hydrogen. In addition, Tunisia has sunny desert areas in the south of the country with a lot of wind. These are the best conditions for the production of green electricity. However, water is also needed to produce hydrogen. Since Tunisia is located at the sea, the salt water could be desalinated to enable the production of hydrogen. By generating electricity through wind and sun, the Tunisian population can be sufficiently supplied and hydrogen can be produced at the same time. This can be exported or used domestically for the establishment of high value industries such as ammonia production for the production of fertilizers.

No new colonialism

Whereas in the past, for example in the Desertec project, people only thought about using solar energy to generate electricity for European consumers and then exporting it to Europe, today they are fortunately further ahead. It is about the coupling of European interests with advantages for those countries that are favored by the sun but are otherwise often disadvantaged. The supply in Europe must be linked with the better supply of energy but also with the general economic development of the producing countries.

In the discussion in Tunis, however, there were also voices that deliberately did not want to locate the production of hydrogen in uninhabited areas, but in settlement areas where the facilities and the corresponding jobs would also directly benefit the local population. Some conference participants thought that the desalination of sea water for drinking water supply should be used first, in order to convince the population of the benefits of the production and export of hydrogen. However, the ecological consequences, among others for the biodiversity in the sea, should also be considered, which can result from massive withdrawal of seawater near the coast and from the return of heavily oversalted water. In addition, intensive work should also be done on the purification of wastewater in order to obtain usable water in this way as well. In any case, there must be no “hydrogen colonialism,” as expressed by a Tunisian representative.

Regarding the still lacking qualified workforce in countries like Tunisia, northern countries could help to qualify the local workforce. Universities and technical colleges from the north can work together with those from the south to train different qualifications. This results in not only teaching but also scientific cooperation. It is therefore not only a matter of material links, but also of scientific and cultural links.

Political stability

Finally, the question of political stability should be addressed. There are few countries with stable political conditions. But regions in North Africa in particular are characterized by a higher degree of instability and less mature democratic rules of the game. Tunisia, whose revolution and subsequent development were associated with high hopes, is an example of how quickly things can change. Many of my interlocutors, from NGOs and international organizations in Tunis, assume that the economic sponsors and beneficiaries have outlived and survived the revolution (2010) and the fall of Ben Ali (2011). Some even talk about how democracy has also brought a “democratization of corruption.” That is, that the number of those benefiting from the intertwining of politics and business has increased.

In any case, President Kais Saied has taken on more and more authoritarian traits. And he has been able to do so without too much resistance, since much of the population was and still is disillusioned with the economic and social consequences of the revolution. Although the authoritarian measures and in part xenophobic statements of the Tunisian president will not change the poor economic and social situation, at present he can use them to stabilize his power. It would be a particular pity if the social advances, especially those for women, were to be rolled back step by step. There are already signs of this, considering that the percentage of women in the newly elected parliament has declined significantly.

Climate goals prevail

Some still hope for a slower implementation of reform measures and demand more pressure from the European Union, such as an end to financial support. Others, however, would like to see a stronger commitment – including financial support – to help the population in any case. This is also the dilemma facing energy cooperation between Europe and many African countries. And this also applies to the Tunisian-Austrian hydrogen project.

In the long term, it certainly makes sense to develop and implement a climate policy cooperation project that takes into account the economic and social aspects. The benefits of such a project far outweigh possible politically questionable consequences. It is to be hoped that economic development will ultimately also contribute to political stability and democratic development.

P.S. The Club of Rome has already had events on this topic and will organize more. The workshops in Tunis showed that there are still many technical problems to be solved with regard to generation and transport. There is already a lot of research in Austrian universities and non-university research institutions. But the best and most economically viable methods have not yet been found. This also applies to the desalination of seawater or wastewater and the ecological consequences. In addition, there are social issues, which mainly affect the population in the producing countries. The Club of Rome Austrian Chapter will deal with all these questions in its responsibility for a holistic view. I would like to thank especially the initiator of the Tunis talks, the special representative for green industrial policy of the Ministry for Climate Protection (BMK) and member of the board of our organization Michael Losch for his commitment.