Ireland's European Commissioner Maireád McGuinness is moving closer to classifying nuclear energy and gas as having a role to play in the transition to climate neutrality as an energy price crisis consumes the European Union.
Soaring electricity bills have made the issue politically explosive as the European Commission prepares to release the second part of its so-called taxonomy, which determines what activities are eligible for funding by green bonds, and therefore billions of euro in budget and Covid-19 stimulus cash directed towards the EU's goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
France has lobbied intensely for nuclear energy to be classified as green, and plans to invest massively in the sector. But the inclusion of nuclear has been fiercely resisted by other countries, including Italy and Germany, which has almost completed a planned phase-out of the fuel begun in response to the 2011 Fukushima accident.
Other member states, including Greece, have demanded that natural gas be acknowledged as a good replacement for dirtier fuels though this is abhorred as "greenwashing" by climate groups.
Ireland was among a group of nine northern member states to back a quicker shift to renewable energy
Ireland’s Commissioner is caught in the middle of this political storm as her role as financial services chief is to draw up the taxonomy, due for publication by the end of the year.
“Member states will travel on different paths in order to reach the goal of climate neutrality by 2050,” McGuinness said in a statement to The Irish Times. She added that €350 billion in additional investment would be needed annually to reach the EU’s aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.
“The taxonomy can be a useful tool to help direct investment towards more sustainable energy investments,” she said.
Gas may be accepted as a transition fuel, particularly in regions that are currently dependent on coal such as Poland, with the possibility of a time limit or sunset clause for such transitional activities, The Irish Times understands.
Experts within the Commission have been sifting through technical reports and submissions by stakeholders in a bid find a way forward between the demands to accept nuclear as green because it is a low-carbon fuel, and resistance by those who point to the environmental impact of nuclear waste.
There are signs that France and the pro-gas member states are winning the argument. This was made clear in a tweet by the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday in which she said that the EU needed “more renewables” but that “we also need a stable source, nuclear and, during the transition, gas”.
The deep divisions between member states over the energy issue were evident as they met in Luxembourg for an extraordinary summit on Tuesday dedicated to addressing the electricity cost crisis, which has been spurred by dramatic increases in the price of gas due to a combination of factors including demand in Asia and tight supplies from Russia.
Ireland was among a group of nine northern member states to back a quicker shift to renewable energy, and to reject a call led by Spain and France for EU-level intervention to change how the energy market works to counter price rises.
"We're coming into the winter and the big concern not just in Ireland but across Europe. was how do we protect people from the rising price of energy, how do we keep vulnerable people warm in their homes this winter," Minister of State Ossian Smyth said as he left the meeting.
“In the medium term, we also need to think about what we need to do to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again. How do we avoid dependence on foreign powers or unstable areas for our supply of gas, and how can we move faster towards energy independence in clean energy sources like renewables.”