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Explained: Why the E.U. wants to declare nuclear and gas green

Published : Feb 02, 2022 17:15 IST T+T-
Nuclear energy is criticized by environmentalists, among other reasons due to very large water use.

Nuclear energy is criticized by environmentalists, among other reasons due to very large water use.

A European Commission proposal seeks to label nuclear and gas as sustainable. Critics are calling this "greenwashing."

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen cannot repeat often enough how close stepping up climate action is to her heart. She described the European Green Deal as "Europe's man on the moon moment." She has called climate neutrality "our European destiny." And she solemnly proclaimed that no effort will be spared for Europe to become the world's first continent with net-zero emissions.

But as often, the devil is in the detail. The big question is how exactly the European Union intends to achieve its goals. One measure being put into place is a so-called taxonomy, "a classification system, establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities," according to the European Commission. This taxonomy could be described as the E.U.'s green investment rulebook, intended to serve the goal of allowing the continent to become climate neutral by 2050.

Can gas and nuclear be green?

Critics say the objective of climate neutrality could be under threat, as the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, aims to give nuclear energy and natural gas, a fossil fuel, a green label under this taxonomy. A first draft of the taxonomy, published on New Year's Eve, stated that certain strings remain attached. For example, gas plants could only be considered green if the gas comes from renewable sources, such as biomass or hydrogen produced with renewable energy. Nuclear power plants would be deemed green if the sites can manage to safely dispose of radioactive waste. But so far, worldwide, no permanent disposal site has gone into operation.

In an interview with news organization Politico , Mairead McGuinness, the E.U. commissioner responsible for financial services, said no major changes should be expected as her institution publishes the taxonomy act this week. Gas and nuclear are much better, McGuiness said, than continuing the use of dirty coal. Environmental organizations most certainly see this critically. The Climate Action Network Europe wrote that the E.U. Commission "sacrifices the scientific integrity of the taxonomy on the altar of fossil gas and nuclear lobbies" and fails to "reorient financial flows towards genuinely climate-positive investments." Environmental activists say this could jeopardize the E.U.'s aim to reach climate neutrality by 2050.

And it's not just them: Also a group of experts advising the E.U. on the matter announced how they are worried about "the environmental impacts that may result," for example the consequences of a nuclear accident. Building new nuclear plants would also take too long to contribute to the 2050 neutrality goals, they believe. The proposal was proceeded by a heated debate among E.U. countries. While some consider nuclear a good bridging technology, others are strongly opposed, and prefer gas instead.

Germany pro-gas, France pro-nuclear

France, which derives about 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants, is — unsurprisingly — heading up the pro-nuclear fraction. It is supported by a group of E.U. states including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Finland.

Especially France wants to invest in new nuclear power plants, particularly in new generation, so-called small modular reactors. Energy expert Nicolas Mazzucchi, who works for the Foundation of Strategic Research think tank in Paris, supports the French government's plans. "These reactors can be produced on an industrial level at factories, as automated as possible, to make it cheaper and guarantee quality," Mazzucchi told DW .

Germany, however, has argued against nuclear power — also unsurprisingly, as it decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants by the end of 2022 following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Denmark, Austria and Luxembourg share this view, highlighting the controversial point of where to safely store highly radioactive nuclear waste.

Germany's current governing coalition has clearly said in a letter to the European Commission that gas is needed as an interim energy source until enough renewables are available. To avoid a clash with its E.U. neighbor France, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz downplayed the importance of the taxonomy at an E.U. leaders' meeting last year, saying the debate was "completely overrated."

Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, has been following the E.U.'s energy and climate policy for years. He said that, in the end, he was relatively sure no decision would be taken in Brussels to prevent France, for example, from investing in and building new nuclear reactors.

The Commission is keen to have the taxonomy viewed as the "gold standard" for guiding private investment toward measures that help fight climate change. But in Zachmann's view, no investor would be interested in nuclear or gas if the E.U. "invested political capital" in getting member states to substantially expand their renewable energy production. "We know that onshore wind and solar power are not very costly in most European countries," he pointed out.

What happens next?

After being presented on February 2, the European Commission's taxonomy proposal will be reviewed by the 27 E.U. member states and by the European Parliament. As the E.U.'s executive opted for a delegated act, a type of fast-track legislative procedure, only a total of 20 E.U. countries, or a majority of E.U. lawmakers at the European Parliament, would be able to reject it. While E.U. states are not likely to reject the taxonomy, a win in the European Parliament is not yet certain. Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have expressed anger over the inclusion of fossil gas and nuclear power in the E.U. taxonomy.

Both Green lawmaker Rasmus Andresen as well as conservative parliamentarian Peter Liese recently underlined how they'd prefer for the E.U. Commission to simply withdraw its proposal. German Social Democrat Joachim Schuster told DW he thought it possible that the European Parliament could vote against the act. And even if lawmakers were to support it, there is another threat looming: Austria and Luxembourg have already threatened to sue the European Commission over the taxonomy rules.