European Parliament backs nuclear energy and natural gas as "sustainable" energy sources

The European Parliament rejects a proposal to exclude these two sources from the Commission's "European Taxonomy", opening them up to investment worth millions of euros

AP/JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS  -   European lawmakers gather to vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday 6 July 2022 in Strasbourg, eastern France

The European Parliament has given the green light to the qualification of natural gas and nuclear energy as sustainable. MEPs on Wednesday rejected a proposal to exclude these two sources from the so-called "European taxonomy", endorsing the Commission's proposal. The taxonomy aims to classify economic activities according to their sustainability, guiding private investment through incentives and benefits to the sectors most needed for the energy transition. And now, barring a qualified majority vote against in the EU Council, gas and nuclear energy will benefit from this scheme as of 1 January 2023, eligible for millions in investments.

The vote was very close, arousing passions on both sides, but in the end 328 MEPs, particularly from the conservative, liberal and extreme right, won the vote, against 278 social democrats and left-wing MEPs opposed to this designation.

AP/JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS - A pro-nuclear activist demonstrates in front of the European Parliament, Wednesday, July 6, 2022 in Strasbourg, eastern France

Financial Affairs Commissioner Mairead McGuinness welcomed this result, calling the Commission's draft legislation, the so-called Supplementary Delegated Act, "a pragmatic proposal" that will ensure that private investment in these two energy sources meets "strict criteria". "Our proposal guarantees transparency so that investors know what they are investing in," she said.

Parliament's President Roberta Metsola stressed the need to maintain ambition on climate targets. "This Parliament will stand firm in asking us to remain ambitious and at the same time realistic to ensure that immediate short-term measures do not become the new normal in the medium term," she said. 

AFP/ JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN -  Emile-Huchet thermal power station, the coal-fired power station and the combined gas-fired power station at Saint-Avold and Carling in eastern France
A temporary fix

If it goes through the Council, these two sources will be listed as transitional, insofar as there is no technologically or economically viable low-carbon alternative, gaining less advantage than energies labelled as green. The Commission's idea is that these two sources can help efforts to achieve the energy transition. "Nuclear and gas activities will allow us to move more quickly away from more polluting activities - such as coal-fired power generation - towards a climate-neutral future based predominantly on renewable sources," the Commission explained in the press release presenting the project.

According to the European Green Pact, by 2030 the EU aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and Brussels expects gas and nuclear power to contribute to this ambitious goal temporarily, and by meeting a number of requirements.

Gas will aim to help replace coal, and gas investments will only be endorsed in low-emission projects or until 2030. Nuclear energy will have to meet stringent safety and environmental requirements, and investments will be recognised under the taxonomy until 2045 for new plants and until 2040 for modifications and extensions of existing plants. 

PHOTO/JOHANNA GERON via AP - European Commissioner for Financial Services Mairead McGuinness during a press conference

A nuclear reactor generally takes between 5 and 20 years to build, depending on delays, and has a lifetime of around 40 years, which can be extended with proper maintenance, so Europe's energy future could remain linked to this source beyond the turn of the century. Although its economic cost is very high, the attraction of new green investment could provide a boost to the sector.

Speaking to Atalayar, the president of the Spanish Nuclear Society, Héctor Dominguis, welcomed this decision, reaffirming the importance of nuclear energy for a "safe, competitive and sustainable electricity system". "Many countries have realised this and are taking decisions to extend the life of their nuclear plants and build new ones to complement the growth of renewables, but we understand that this should be the order, first maintain what we have and in parallel explore the possible commissioning of new facilities," Dominguis said. The Spanish government previously agreed with the major electricity companies to close Spain's seven nuclear power plants by 2035, but Dominguis claims that the Spanish nuclear fleet could operate for at least another 20 years.

Division in the EU

Opponents of the project, for their part, have accused the Commission of abandoning the path to climate transition, and of allowing "greenwashing" for companies. "From now on, the Commission will have to stop claiming that the EU is a leader in global climate action - How on earth can we demand that others stop using fossil fuels when we ourselves decided that natural gas is a green investment?" cried Silvia Modig, a Finnish MEP for the European Left.

Greenpeace's EU office also condemned the vote on energy, calling it "an outrageous result to label gas and nuclear power as green [...] and further fill Putin's war chest". The NGO also vowed to take the issue to European courts. 

AP/OLIVIER MATTHYS - The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, during a press conference

The measure has not gone down well in some capitals either. Luxembourg and Austria have announced their opposition to the deal, and will also go to the European Court of Justice. "It is not credible, not ambitious, not knowledge-based, it jeopardises our future and is more than irresponsible," lamented Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler.

But, barring any surprises, the law will go through. The proposal to exclude gas and nuclear energy will now go to the Council, the co-legislator in which the EU-27 are represented and which acts as a kind of upper house. To go ahead, this project would have to overcome a complicated metric, with at least 20 of the 27 countries representing 65% of the EU's total population voting in favour, which is highly unlikely.