There is growing scientific evidence suggesting that accelerated global warming, along with deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and forms of mass agriculture that increase the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans, may give rise to more frequent pandemics in the future.

If we are to counter this, stabilisation of the earth's climate and retention of natural capital must be central to our growth strategies going forward. Clearly, the shift away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels in favour of greener, renewable energy forms is crucial in this regard.

Economies the world over have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In South Africa, the government is focusing on extraordinary measures of economic recovery and reconstruction to achieve inclusive growth following this devastation. As part of this, in common with many governments implementing recovery strategies, a more sustainable and greener energy approach is being adopted.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, has called for renewable energy to be made accessible to all, and not only to the rich. Addressing a webinar on renewable hydrogen and green powerfuel opportunities for South Africa on Tuesday, Dr Nzimande said public entities such as Eskom should be leading in this space.

The webinar was co-hosted by EE Business Intelligence and the European Union Delegation to South Africa in association with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the European Commission, Nedbank and Air Liquide.

Green powerfuels are synthetic gaseous or liquid fuels based on renewable hydrogen, which is hydrogen obtained by the electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. These fuels can be used in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, or to power directly by means of renewable-based electricity, such as road and rail transportation, shipping, and production of steel, cement and fertiliser.

Dr Nzimande said South Africa had a comparative advantage in renewable hydrogen and green powerfuels, and exceptional wind and solar resources, in addition to 50 years' experience in the commercial production of synthetic fuels.

"Good shipping access to the rapidly growing international markets of the European Union and the Far East, including China and Japan, should position us as a key role player in renewable hydrogen and green powerfuels, both locally and internationally."

The Minister said South Africa would establish strategic partnerships with countries looking to participate in the global hydrogen value chain. "We will also ensure that our universities and private sector are given an opportunity to play a pivotal part in the green hydrogen economy."

For this reason, he said, research, development and innovation would be critical to reduce the cost of electrolysed water technology, and to scale up green hydrogen and powerfuels production in order to put the price of the commodity on a par with grey hydrogen.

A study on green powerfuels opportunities for South Africa, commissioned by the European Union-SA Partners for Growth Programme, was also presented at the webinar. According to the study, by Thomas Roos and Dr Jarrad Wright of the CSIR Energy Centre in Pretoria, the carbon required for the production of green hydrocarbon powerfuels must be obtained from captured CO2.

While the EU Hydrogen Strategy does not currently place conditions on the form of CO2 used, Minister Nzimande said the feedstock and process would be relevant when future greenhouse gas emission thresholds were set.

He noted that the DSI had set aside R1,2 billion of funding in this financial year for international calls aimed at attracting foreign direct investment in areas relevant to enabling academia and the private sector to participate in the global hydrogen economy.

South Africa was one of the pioneers in terms of developing a hydrogen strategy, launching its national hydrogen strategy in 2007. Between January 2019 and December 2020, 18 more countries released national strategies linking the growth of a hydrogen economy with supporting a green and circular economy to speed up economic recovery post COVID-19.

Building on the strategy, a South African Hydrogen Society Roadmap was developed that set out a vision for an inclusive hydrogen society, so that an enabling compact between industry, labour, communities and the government could be developed.

The Roadmap will enable the government and industrial stakeholders to develop a policy framework to promote the exploitation of the benefits of hydrogen through its integration in various sectors of the economy.

The aim is to position this policy framework to leverage on existing policy documents, while identifying regulatory gaps that need to be addressed, to enable the widespread use of hydrogen as an energy source in the economy and society.