The year is off to a bad start for the European Green deal. In the midst of the New Year celebrations, the European Commission has launched a short consultation (until 12 January) for "experts" from member states (Italy is represented by an official from the MEF) and the Sustainable Finance Platform on its proposal for a delegated act on the introduction of natural gas and nuclear power in the list of activities useful to achieve the objective of zero harmful emissions for the climate by 2050, the so-called taxonomy for sustainable finance. The taxonomy sets the standards for defining a "sustainable" economic activity according to a series of criteria based on their ability to reduce emissions and not harm the environment, which have been developed over months by groups of experts and approved in a law by Parliament and Council in 2020.
It is very important to note that it remains perfectly legal to continue investing in nuclear and fossil fuels, these rules do not prohibit anything: they are intended to be a guide for investors, governments, companies and can be a powerful aid to sustainable finance, which is still largely insufficient to cover the costs of the transition. Since the law was passed, the Commission has been working on so-called delegated acts, which, once submitted, will automatically be passed unless 15 states or 65% of Europeans or 353 MEPs object within four months. This Delegated Act, a text of some 60 pages not easy to read, deals with one of the most controversial issues that has been at stake for months, namely the role of gas and nuclear power. As there is no blocking majority to reject the Commission's proposal, either if it included gas and nuclear power or if they were excluded, one can understand the pressure from member states, lobbies, NGOs, banking institutions, etc., and the divisions within the Commission itself. In December, even the European Council discussed it without reaching an agreement.
In its presentation note, the Commission considers that "taking into account scientific advice and current technological advances, there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition to a predominantly renewable future." It assures that there are "clear and strict" conditions for this to be acceptable, the criteria will be reviewed regularly and in any case investors "will be able to identify whether the assets include gas or nuclear," and to what extent, so that they can make an informed choice: i.e. the Commission defines gas and nuclear as green assets, but knows full well that this is not true. From this last reassurance alone, one can understand the hypocrisy behind this outright sabotage of the Green Deal, which translates into the risk of continuing to invest millions of euros in technologies and fuels that take us away from the goal of climate neutrality (zero emissions) in 2050: in fact, renewable energies and energy efficiency risk being put on practically the same level as the construction of nuclear power stations using current technologies until 2045, or gas plants with very generous conditions (270Gr of CO2 per KWh instead of the 100 initially envisaged) and practically unverifiable, so complicated as to be bogus.
One can therefore understand the extremely critical reactions of the "greenest" governments to the publication of the proposal. The green Luxembourg environment minister Claude Turmes branded it as a provocation, the Spanish socialist minister Teresa Ribeira as a wrong signal for the financial markets, because gas and nuclear power "are not green", and the newly appointed green German minister Robert Habeck as a "mistake". For her part, the Austrian minister responsible, Leonore Gewessler, has already said that she will attack the possible delegated act in the Court of Justice because it contradicts the law adopted in 2020.
Until a few weeks ago, the Commission's position was unclear: then the President herself and the Green Deal champion Frans Timmermanns gave in to pressure from France and fossil and nuclear lobbies; both need huge public subsidies and private investment to survive: Macron has cunningly promised support for the inclusion of gas in the taxonomy in exchange for equal support for nuclear power, and has thus brought with him not only the Eastern European countries but also Italy and Merkel's Germany, which has just given way to a new government and whose position is very clear on nuclear power (NO across the board) and much more nuanced on gas. And yet, to include gas and nuclear on such loose terms today would be to remove coherence and meaning from the very principle of taxonomy, and also to abandon the declared ambitions of setting global standards for sustainable finance. It is no coincidence that many financial institutions have already said that if gas and nuclear enter the European taxonomy they will continue to use the existing standards that, while partial and somewhat self-imposed, exclude gas and nuclear. To date, the Green Bonds issued by the Commission to finance Next Generation EU do not include gas or nuclear.
The risk is also that the European taxonomy will lose its usefulness. This is a very important point: as the case of the failed coal renaissance in the United States has well demonstrated, this European rule will not stop the progression of green investments. But it will not make them easier or more competitive, especially in a country like Italy, heavily dependent on gas and lagging behind in energy efficiency and renewables, where much of the industrial, media and political establishment remains skeptical about the real feasibility of a rapid exit from fossil fuels. Being able to invest for at least another decade in gas-fired plants, albeit with some limitations, and moreover being able to label them as green, will make choices even more difficult; it will also further confuse the public, who are told every day that the increase in bills is the fault of the transition and not instead of the delays in investment, regulation and research to free us from dependence on gas and the structure of pricing. Reality also shows that it is not always true that to switch from coal to renewables it is necessary to switch to gas, and calling gas and nuclear "green" will not help us stabilize energy prices.
There are still 10 days before the national experts give their opinion and a few weeks before the Commission publishes its final proposal; the battle will probably focus on the criteria for admission to the green taxonomy rather than on general principles. The moral is always the same: urgency to act on energy and climate has not yet passed into "main-stream" politics, with very serious consequences. This means that those who do recognize the urgency of the need to act must join forces and further increase pressure and mobilization.
Monica Frassoni, January the 3rd, 2022