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Andrew Forrest on renewable energy sources, clean hydrogen, climate

To tackle runaway global warming, politicians have to look beyond catchphrases like “clean hydrogen” and understand the research behind renewable energy sources before making decisions, Fortescue chairman Andrew Forrest told CNBC.

“I’m asking them to do the academic analysis and research. Just don’t fall, like we are in Australia and internationally, for the quick sound bites like ‘clean hydrogen,'” Forrest said Thursday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

“That’s like clean coal or cancer-free tobacco,” he said, adding that decision-makers need to ask questions around emissions from unintended or accidental leaks, the impact of methane in the atmosphere and carbon over the next two decades.

What is clean hydrogen?

Hydrogen is a “versatile energy carrier” which can help meet different energy challenges, according to the International Energy Agency. It has a wide range of applications and can be deployed to help reduce carbon emissions in sectors like long-haul transport, chemicals, iron and steel.

Hydrogen can be produced in a number of ways and from almost all energy resources — one way is to use electrolysis, with an electric current splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen. If the electricity comes from a renewable source like wind or solar, then some describe it as “green” or “clean” hydrogen.

Solar panels in the Indian state of Karnataka.

Jonas Gratzer | LightRocket | Getty Images

While demand for hydrogen has grown more than three-fold since 1975 and continues to rise, the IEA says almost all of it is supplied from burning fossil fuels. As such, the production of hydrogen is responsible for emissions of around 830 million tons of carbon dioxide a year — equivalent to the emissions of the U.K. and Indonesia combined, according to the IEA.

“If you really want to stop global warming in the period of time when it’s going to be most dangerous, the next 20 years, then we need to be encouraging green hydrogen straightaway,” Forrest said.

There is also a push by the fossil fuel sector for carbon sequestration — the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide as a way to tackle global warming, according to Forrest. But most of those attempts tend to fail, he said.

We need to remember the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, we need to remember that [renewable energy] is a better source of fuel.

Andrew Forrest

Fortescue Chairman

This year, the world’s leading climate scientists delivered their starkest warning yet about the deepening climate crisis. The much-anticipated report by the U.N.’s climate panel said that limiting global warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C above pre-industrial levels “will be beyond reach” in the next two decades without immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The 1.5°C threshold is crucial because beyond this level, there could be an irreversible change in the climate system, locking in further global heating.

Power crunch

Read more about clean energy from CNBC Pro

“While there are power shortages, don’t be fooled into thinking that is from renewable energy,” he said. “Without that renewable energy feeding into the grid, and feeding into all the sources of consumption, yeah we’d be in real trouble.”

The world needs leadership in its push to deploy capital and resources into developing renewable electricity and shift away from fossil fuel, said Forrest.

“We need to remember the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, we need to remember that this is a better source of fuel. This is completely carbon free. It’s infinite. Let’s get after it,” he added.

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