European Union lawmakers voted Wednesday in favor of calling natural gas and nuclear power “green” or “sustainable” sources of energy, backing a proposal from European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, that has spurred criticism from scientists and environmental advocates.
The new rules, if accepted by member states, could unlock billions of dollars of private investment and state subsidies for natural gas and nuclear projects.
The rules will go into effect in 2023, unless 20 of the union’s 27 member states reject them, which is unlikely. Most member states — including heavyweights such as Germany and France — backed at least one of the two energy sources.
The European Commission has argued that natural gas — a fossil fuel primarily made of methane, a significant contributor to the climate crisis — plays a key role in transitioning to renewable energy, angering climate activists and some lawmakers. Natural gas typically emits less carbon dixoide than coal, but critics argue more focus should be place on boosting renewable energy, and that supporting new gas projects will only prolong the life of the fossil fuel.
Nuclear, on the other hand, is “green” in that it does not directly produce carbon dioxide emissions. The arguments against it typically revolve around safety, including how to store the radioactive waste it produces. Nuclear plants are also costly and projects are often beset by delays.
Bas Eickhout, a Green lawmaker from the Netherlands who sits in the European Parliament, recently said he had “never seen such a strategic mistake by the Commission,” and calling natural gas “sustainable” contradicts the European Union’s pleas to the rest of the world to rapidly decarbonize their economies.
“We are undermining the entire credibility of our Green Deal,” he previously told CNN, referring to the EU’s centerpiece climate legislation. “And on the gas side, I really I don’t see it. I fail to see the added value.”
While the proposal came months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it gained momentum after the EU responded to the war by banning Russian energy sources such as coal and oil, which European countries have been highly dependent on.
The EU has vowed to cut planet-heating emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and become a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. Net zero is where emissions are dramatically reduced, and any that remain are offset, whether using natural methods like tree planting or technology to “capture” emissions. The effectiveness of such technology is currently limited.
But climate and energy advocates say Wednesday’s decision will instead hinder Europe’s green transition.
“This will delay a desperately needed real sustainable transition and deepen our dependency on Russian fuels,” Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, tweeted in response to the vote. “The hypocrisy is striking, but unfortunately not surprising.”
Environmental groups are expected to challenge the new rules in court. Already, groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation have said they plan to sue the EU over the policy.
“Gas and nuclear are not green, and labeling them as such is blatant greenwashing. This harms the climate, and future generations,” Ester Asin, director at WWF European Policy Office, said in a statement. “We’ve lost this battle, but we won’t give up the fight. [We] will explore all potential avenues for further action to stop this greenwashing and protect the credibility of the whole EU Taxonomy - and calls on Member States and MEPs to do the same.”