The European Commission stoked tensions over the role nuclear power and gas should play in the clean energy transition when it today proposed new rules on what qualifies as ‘green investment’. After more than a year of heated debate, he decided to consider gas and nuclear as “sustainable” under certain conditions.
“Given current scientific advice and technological advances, the Commission considers that private investment in gas and nuclear activities has a role to play in the transition,” the Commission said in its announcement.
The EU has pledged to produce zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – a target that research has shown is needed worldwide to prevent the worst effects of climate change. By 2030, the EU plans to cut its emissions by more than half compared to 1990 levels.
To achieve these goals, the bloc will need a grid running on carbon-free energy. But how much of that mix will be made up of renewables like wind and solar versus more controversial energy sources like nuclear and gas is still up for debate. With nuclear power comes concerns about accidents and what to do with radioactive waste. The gas industry, meanwhile, has touted itself as a cleaner-burning alternative to other fossil fuels, but recent research has shown it to be dirtier than previously thought due to gas leaks. methane. Methane, which constitutes the majority of “natural gas”, is a greenhouse gas more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“We must use all the tools at our disposal,” Mairead McGuinness, Commissioner for Financial Services, Financial Stability and Capital Markets Union, said in a press release. “Today we are setting strict conditions to help mobilize finance to support this transition away from more harmful energy sources like coal.”
According to the Commission’s new rules, certain nuclear and gas projects can be qualified as sustainable “transition activities”. This means that they are supposed to help phase out polluting energy sources. The provisions set out by the Commission include a deadline of 2030 to obtain construction permits for new gas projects that limit their emissions and replace coal. New nuclear power plants eligible for the qualification of sustainable investment should obtain their construction permit by 2045.
These new requirements represent an effort to classify nuclear energy and gas according to the EU taxonomy, a set of guidelines for investors that aims to “prevent greenwashing” by defining what is considered sustainable.
Those in favor of viewing nuclear and gas as sustainable under the right conditions say the technologies are needed to provide a constant power source when there is not abundant sun and wind. In the future, advanced batteries could solve this limitation through solar and wind power. But in the meantime, there are already nuclear and gas-fired power plants that can step in to maintain grid reliability, proponents say.
The nuclear and gas industries have also promised technological advances to allay environmental and safety concerns. Small modular nuclear reactors under development, for example, may require less fuel than older, less advanced reactors. Fossil fuel companies have also sold carbon capture technologies as a way to reduce planet-warming pollution from power plants. But the high costs of deploying these technologies have raised concerns about their feasibility and how they could affect customers’ utility bills. Energy prices are already volatile in Europe as countries phase out coal and grapple with tight gas supplies that Russia could tighten further as a political bargaining tool.
The controversy that revolves around nuclear power, in particular, opposes France to Germany and Austria. France already gets more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear power plants (making it more dependent on nuclear power than any other country in the world), and it plans to build even more nuclear reactors to meet its climate goals. Germany, on the other hand, plans to close all its nuclear power plants by the end of the year. Austria, which has also opposed an expansion of nuclear power, has threatened to take legal action against the new rules.
The new rules will come into force in 2023 unless enough member states or MEPs vote to block them. So far around 250 MEPs have pledged to block the rules, Reuters reports. At least 353 votes are needed to stop the measures from moving forward.