EU countries argue over whether nuclear and gas are ‘green’

Many central European countries are looking to switch from carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity to natural gas.

Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

Hours before the window for filing objections closed, EU environment and energy ministers meeting in France on Friday disagreed sharply on a European Commission provision that would classify nuclear power and natural gas as “durable”.

The controversy pits countries led by France – where nuclear generates 70% of electricity, the world leader – against Germany, Austria and other countries in the 27-nation bloc.

Debate over the Commission’s so-called “taxonomy” is not on the agenda of the informal three-day talks in Amiens, but has flared up nonetheless.

At the end of December, the European Commission unveiled a classification qualifying investments in gas-based nuclear energy as sustainable, in order to favor sectors that reduce greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

Nuclear energy is carbon-free and the gas is significantly less polluting than coal. European Union countries had until Friday midnight to propose changes.

After that, the Commission – taking these suggestions into account – must “rapidly” publish a definitive text which will be definitively adopted four months later. Its adoption in its current form seems more than likely: it would take a majority of MEPs in the European Parliament or 20 of the 27 member states to derail it, and the critical mass is lacking in both cases.

A letter to the executive of the European Commission from some MEPs protesting that the deadline for proposing changes was too short fell on deaf ears.

And among EU member states, a dozen supported France’s position and the taxonomy proposed by the Commission.

Many are central European countries looking to switch from carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity to natural gas.

“Nuclear is carbon-free energy,” French Environment Minister Barbara Pompili told reporters in Amiens. We can’t deprive ourselves of it at the same time as we have to reduce our carbon emissions very quickly.”

“A very bad signal”

Despite the headwinds, the anti-nuclear resistance has not weakened.

“It’s neither sustainable nor economical,” retorted German Environment Minister Stefan Tidow. “It’s not green energy.”

Luxembourg and Austria have gone even further, threatening to take the matter to court if nuclear is certified as sustainable, citing the risk of accidents and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste.

“It would be greenwashing,” Luxembourg’s Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg told AFP.

“And that would send a very bad signal: it’s not a transition energy, it takes too long,” she added, referring to the delay in building nuclear reactors.

Her Austrian counterpart, Leonore Gewessler, said labeling nuclear energy as sustainable “will undermine the credibility of the taxonomy” because it does not meet the legal test of “doing no harm to the environment”.

The European Commission has proposed a measure requiring financial products to specify what percentage of financed activities involves nuclear energy, a transparency measure that would allow investors to stay away if they wish.

Berlin has expressed reservations about the possibility of joining Vienna and Luxembourg in a legal challenge.

“At the moment we are working on our response, and when the Commission presents a new text, we will analyze it from a legal point of view,” said the German State Secretary for Economic Affairs and Action. for the climate, Sven Giegold.

Austria has also opposed labeling the gas as sustainable, with the Netherlands – which supports the nuclear power label – arguing that “there is no scientific reason to include” the gas. The Polish undersecretary of state for the environment, Adam Guibourge-Czetwertynski, disagrees.

“Gas is replacing coal because there is nothing better in the short term, it makes sense,” he said.

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