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Why move to label nuclear and gas as 'green' is so controversial

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By Alice Tidey
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Climate activists demonstrate outside the European Parliament, July 5, 2022 in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Climate activists demonstrate outside the European Parliament, July 5, 2022 in Strasbourg, eastern France.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

MEPs have backed the European Commission's controversial proposal to label gas and nuclear investments as green. 

The plan, known as taxonomy, aims to make it clear to investors what can legitimately be called green and help policymakers put pressure on the financial sector to prioritise sustainable alternatives.

But it was rejected by two key parliamentary committees in mid-June which argued that although both power sources will be necessary to guarantee stable energy supply during the transition to a sustainable economy, they do not fulfil the criteria for environmentally sustainable economic activities.

What are the objections to the inclusion of nuclear?

"There are two broad groups of those who oppose nuclear fuel — although these lines are softening in light of the current energy crisis," Susi Dennison, the director of the European power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Euronews.

"The camp led by Austria, Luxembourg, etc, who threatened legal action over the commission taxonomy proposal at the beginning of the year objects to classifying nuclear energy as clean because of the lack of clear plans on how to dispose of nuclear waste safely and without environmental impact. Then there is a school of thought centred around safety concerns having phased out after the Fukushima nuclear disaster – Spain, Germany and Portugal are examples here," she flagged.

Christophe Hansen, a European People's Party (EPP) MEP from Luxembourg, also stressed during a press conference on Tuesday with other lawmakers who object to the taxonomy proposal that "the precondition to be eligible under the EU taxonomy, you would need a final repository for a highly radioactive waste by 2050, and there are currently only three member states that eventually would get that."

What are the objections to the inclusion of gas?

Gas, of course, is a fossil fuel.

The EU needs to cut its dependence on fossil fuels in order to achieve its pledge to slash emissions by 55% in 2030 compared to 1990 levels and become the first carbon-neutral continent in the world in 2050.

Dennison says that "although the proposal is for only new gas-powered plants that use biogas and hydrogen over the long term, in the near term insufficient low carbon gases are available which risks keeping EU greenhouse gas emissions higher than planned."

Russia's war in Ukraine has added another layer of complexity.

The EU has vowed to reduce its imports of gas from Russia — its biggest supplier — by two-thirds by the end of the year in order to greatly diminish the funds available for Moscow to wage its invasion. The 27 member states have meanwhile put an embargo on Russian oil which should result in imports being slashed by 90% by the end of the year.

To plug the gap the EU is now busy striking deals with alternative suppliers of liquified natural gas (LNG) including the US, Egypt, and Israel. But unlike imports from Russia, carried out primarily by pipeline, LNG from elsewhere requires the construction of terminals to transfer the LNG from a cargo ship to a site where it can be stored and transformed back to gas form.

The Commission has argued that newly-built LNG terminals will then be repurposed for hydrogen, which the bloc has put at the centre of its decarbonisation efforts.

Hansen told reporters, however, that LNG terminals would not be eligible so the taxonomy "is obsolete before it could even enter into force."

"The problem is that this is not a black and white decision," Hansen said.

"This taxonomy, this delegated act is not: 'We are pro-nuclear pro-gas or contra-nuclear contra-gas'. That's the wrong message here.

"We are just saying sustainable finance should be used for that. They are meant for and should not be used to finance a war. This needs to be avoided and I think we are going into the good direction to have a majority, even if it will be tight," he added.

Would some member states benefit more than others?

"Clearly there are strong national interests at stake depending on the energy profile of member states – those currently more dependent on nuclear eg: France or gas eg: Germany are keen to see a proposal that allows them to transition away from dependence on Russia at the lowest cost to their countries," Dennison underlined.

Despite this, a majority of EU leaders are backing the Commission's proposal, according to Jaroslav Zajicek, permanent representative to Coreper for the Czech Republic, which currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the EU.

"Eight member states said they were against so Council is in favour," he told reporters on Monday.