McGuinness insists EU move to label nuclear and gas ‘green’ based on science

Comments come amid backlash towards draft of so-called taxonomy

Ireland’s EU commissioner Mairead McGuinness has insisted that a controversial plan to classify some nuclear and gas power energy as “green” for investment purposes is based on scientific advice.

It comes amid a backlash towards a draft of the so-called taxonomy, which is a labelling system for economic activities deemed to be “green” and is intended to drive investment towards achieving the European Union’s goals of carbon neutrality by 2050.

The draft was issued on New Year’s Eve, hours before a deadline to release it within 2021. The Commission has been forced to deny this was an attempt to slip the proposals out with little notice.

The deeply contentious file falls under Ms McGuinness' brief as commissioner for financial stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union, putting the Irish former Fine Gael MEP in the hot seat as EU member states and political groups tussle over the topic.

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France is a strong supporter of nuclear energy and has insisted it must be included in the taxonomy green list for the EU to reach its carbon-cutting goals. Countries such as Germany and Austria, wary of nuclear accidents and issues around waste disposal, are fiercely opposed to its inclusion.

A phalanx of member states are also wedded to including gas on the list, arguing that it is needed as a transition fuel to replace coal where renewable energy has not yet reached the adequate level.

Setting standards

The taxonomy is intended to set standards for what kind of activities businesses can present as “green”. There are plans to make it apply also to EU funds, potentially driving a flood of money towards the sectors included.

Under the draft plans, nuclear power plant investments could be labelled as green if it is a “transitional” fuel and receives a permit before 2045. Any project must include funding, plans and a site for the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

Gas power plats could qualify if they replace a more polluting fossil fuel source such as a coal power station, receive a construction permit before the end of 2030, and emit less than 270g of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour. They must also have a plan to switch to low-carbon gases by the end of 2035.

The draft proposal has been sent to member states and the European Parliament and will now be subject to discussions. It could be blocked if a qualified majority of at least 20 member states, or half the MEPs in the European Parliament, vote to oppose it.

Austria’s climate minister responded to the draft by threatening to “sue” if the plan for nuclear went ahead as described. Meanwhile, some in the nuclear industry protested the proposed tightened standards were too strict. The issue also caused discord between the Green and Social Democrat parties in Germany’s new coalition.

Ms McGuinness said in a statement to The Irish Times that the Commission’s work in the area “is based on robust, science-based criteria” and that the taxonomy regulation “gives a prominent role to scientific advice and advice from experts across the economy and civil society”.

The taxonomy “underpins” efforts to cut emissions by a planned 55 per cent in the EU by 2030 as investment will be essential to reach the targets, she added.

"The existing energy mix in Europe varies from one member state to another, and the choice of energy mix for each member state is a national competence. This is beyond question," McGuinness said.

“Some parts of Europe are still heavily based on high carbon-emitting coal.

“The taxonomy provides for energy activities that enable member states to move towards climate neutrality from different positions. The taxonomy is about accelerating the transition to a better, cleaner and safer future, and only investments that commit to this acceleration will be recognised.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times