A plan by Ireland’s European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness to classify nuclear and gas energy as “green” is facing major opposition in the European Parliament, with MEPs preparing to block the move.
The so-called EU taxonomy was intended as a classification system to label economic activities that are environmentally sustainable in an attempt to direct private investment to industries that help the green transition.
But an attempt by the commission, fronted by Ms McGuinness, to add gas and nuclear to this list is facing a kill vote in the parliament, backed by MEPs from her own centre-right political group, according to the results of an internal consultation seen by The Irish Times.
MEPs from the European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member, have joined with those from the centre-left Socialists and Democrats; Renew, of which Fianna Fáil is a member; the Greens; and the Independents’ Left group, to which Sinn Féin is affiliated, to back an objection that could block the change from coming into force.
At the parliament’s environment and economy committees, an overwhelming majority of 115 MEPs chose to object to the commission’s move, with just 23 from the hard-right Identity and Democracy and ECR groups opting to acquiesce to the addition of nuclear and gas to the taxonomy, the results show.
The MEPs now have weeks to approve a joint objection text in committees. It would then go to a full vote in the European Parliament in its July session, where a majority of at least 353 MEPs would be sufficient to stop gas and nuclear being added to the taxonomy.
The majority is easily achievable if the same political groups back the objection as they have in the committee stage. Observers believe that if the commission’s move is blocked in July, there would be little political will to make another attempt given the difficulties that have dogged the file and the additional controversy that now surrounds gas since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A former vice-president of the European Parliament, Ms McGuinness took the helm of the highly contentious EU taxonomy file when she became financial services commissioner in 2020, in the wake of the resignation of Phil Hogan.
Pro-nuclear France was keen to have the energy source designated as green, but this was ferociously opposed by nuclear-sceptical Germany and others.
Meanwhile, a coalition of gas-hungry countries lobbied for the fossil fuel to be included as a “transition” source of energy that is comparatively cleaner than the likes of coal.
Ms McGuinness, as a compromise, proposed adding gas and nuclear to the list, with conditions and caveats that they should follow high standards and, in the case of gas, replace dirtier fuels.
The proposals caused an uproar, with the chair of the commission’s expert advisory body on sustainable finance, Nathan Fabian, publicly stating there had been an “evident departure from a science-based approach”. Austria and Luxembourg threatened to take a legal challenge to the European Court of Justice.
There was additional anger at the commission because it published the proposal on New Year’s Eve, which drew accusations that it was seeking to avoid public scrutiny, something the executive has denied.
The legal basis for the taxonomy already came into force in 2020 and a long list of economic activities was added in January.
The move to add green and nuclear to this list is being done as a so-called “delegated act” – something which updates existing EU legislation rather than creating new law, and does not need the usual vote of approval by the European Parliament to come into force. It can, however, be blocked by an objection procedure backed by a majority of MEPs.
The opposition of MEPs to adding gas and nuclear to the taxonomy is grounded in doubts about the inherent merits of the move, but also in opposition to the commission’s method in using a delegated act to do it.
In a statement to the Irish Times, Ms McGuinness acknowledged there was “some opposition” to the proposal, “but also support particularly in light of efforts to wean the EU off Russian gas, and the need for investment in gas infrastructure while prioritising the ramping-up of investments in renewables”.
“It is better that private investment in gas and nuclear aligns with the strict criteria set out in the taxonomy rather than unrestricted investment if it is not taxonomy-aligned,” she said. “The war in Ukraine makes it more and more urgent to accelerate our investments in renewables, and to invest in nuclear and gas under the strict conditions [of the commission proposal].”