Warning to all: the Green Deal, Europe's great idea to get out of the crisis and tackle climate change, is in danger: the European Commission could be about to sink it in a wholly inappropriate greenwashing exercise, thereby further compromising its claims to global climate leadership.

After COP26, after so much "blah-blah", the Commission is about introduce gas and nuclear into the implementing decrees of the Taxonomy legislation, which gives the "green" stamp to a number of activities under the EU Sustainable Finance Plan: the Taxonomy sets the standards for defining a "sustainable" economic activity according to a set of criteria developed over months by expert groups and approved by Parliament and Council in 2020, depending on their ability to reduce emissions and not harm the environment; note that these rules do not forbid anything: they aim to be a guide for investors, governments, companies and a powerful aid to sustainable finance.

In other words, investing in gas and nuclear power would not be forbidden at all, as those who insist on introducing them into the Taxonomy claim, but they certainly could not be defined as "green" economic activities, because they have negative effects on the environment or produce emissions.Existing nuclear power plants have been designed for 30 to 40 years of operation, and extending their life - perhaps with public subsidies - dangerously reduces their safety, as well as producing new waste. A new large power station, which is more or less the same as the old one except that it is a little safer, takes 11 to 15 years to build at enormous cost; the smaller ones about will not be on the market before 2035 and will not be cheaper. So, you can be pro-nuclear. But let us at least avoid the mockery of considering nuclear power useful for an ecological transition that must be linked to a 55% reduction in emissions within nine years (we are currently at 20%) compared to 1990 levels. The argument of "no" to old nuclear and "yes" to research is also to be handled with care. In order to ensure the green transition, about 360 billions per year of  public and private investment will be needed, i.e. to accumulate the energy produced by renewables and to make energy-saving technologies more effective, almost three times the entire EU budget; it would be very important to set priorities on what to research first and to favor the most promising and above all "quick-fix" technologies.

A similar argument applies to gas; gas today produces more CO2 than coal in Europe and Italy is among the countries that depend on it the most (over 65%); it is no coincidence that emissions have begun to rise again with the recovery. It is therefore clear that in a country like ours, reducing emissions and starting the transition means above all drastically reducing this dependence. However, if you look at the numbers, it is also difficult to conclude that gas is really a 'transition' fuel. The idea behind this definition, repeated everywhere like a mantra, is that on the path from coal to renewables and very strong forms of energy saving, it is necessary to pass through gas, which emits half the CO2 emissions at the point of combustion alone.

But, as Julian Popov explains very well in Euractiv, if we look at the countries that have significantly reduced coal in energy production, we see that this is not mainly replaced by gas, but by renewables and energy efficiency.  In the EU, between 2010 and 2020, coal production (including the UK) fell by half. Gas has not replaced the lost coal generation, on the contrary, it has decreased as well, by 7%. The trend is visible in several European countries and also globally - over the last 10 years, coal-fired generation has fallen from 40% to 34%, while the share of gas-fired generation has remained the same at around 22%. The same is also true in the building sector - where new regulations and European funds are incentivizing heat pumps, insulation, and the integration of renewable sources; in transport - where the choice to favor electrification and batteries has practically already taken place; and in industry. And this trend will be even stronger if energy prices and geopolitical uncertainties continue to go up and down. It is therefore really nonsense to focus on gas and continue to support the construction of new infrastructure, subsidizing its use and dressing it up as 'green', thus entering into direct competition for resources with other technologies and clean energy sources. Gas will certainly play a role, says Julian Popov, but limited to temporary support to fill the gap left by energy efficiency and renewables, and to balance in the short term the intermittent generation of renewables, for which promising solutions are already in sight, but which require still a lot of research and resources.

It is in this context that the Commission is about to give in, at the risk of compromising years of painstaking work, models and calculations, and after months of postponements, uncertainties and discussions; Commissioner Dombrowski just announced  the intention to include gas and nuclear power among the "sustainable" activities consistent with the criteria of green finance. It is a bit like defining a long list of safety requirements for taking part in a trip to the mountains and then saying that you can still go in a swimming costume and slippers. To include gas and nuclear power would be to remove coherence and meaning from the very principle of the Taxonomy and also to give up on Dombrowskis's own stated ambitions to set 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, although partial and in some ways self-imposed, exclude gas and nuclear. The risk is thus that the taxonomy will also lose its usefulness.

Behind this backsliding there is clearly a lot of work by the fossil lobbies and Macron's France, whose atom industry needs huge public subsidies and new prospects to survive, no matter whether they are realistic or not; 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 against on nuclear but unclear on gas. In recent weeks, a number of governments, political forces, NGOs, experts, banks, the very members of the technical committee that has assisted the EU institutions for two years in the complicated work of drafting the basic legislation, have tried to dissuade the Commission with public appeals and solid arguments: now the Commission has all the power to decide: the responsibility for this mistake, if it decides to do it, will be entirely its own.  Yet for once, the Commission had no need to follow this or that government: according to the rules, a delegated act implementing a law can only be rejected by a majority in the Council representing 15 governments and 65% of Europeans and/or 353 votes in the EP: and those numbers do not seem to be there either way. This is undoubtedly a difficult time for the Green Deal. We will see the final text, which has been delayed in being published (we are talking about 22 December), a sign of the divisions still existing within the Commission... Confirming that the games are not yet totally over, at least on the details if not on the principle, Vice-President Timmermans said today that gas and nuclear must have a recognized role in the transition even if this "does not make them green".

Whatever happens, though, it is unfortunately clear that Italy is once again on the wrong side. After the Manifesto of Confindustria that contained the explicit request to sabotage the Taxonomy, supported with enthusiasm by Minister Cingolani, Undersecretary Gava (Lega) immediately applauded the decision announced by Dombrowskis, claiming that it is necessary to define "green" gas and nuclear "last generation" to stabilize energy prices. This is nonsense, which once again gives the idea that it is the "ecological" transition that is to blame for the rise in prices, and that it is therefore better to continue throwing public money away and supporting dangerous or fossil fuels than to focus quickly on renewables and efficiency, giving them priority in terms of investment and resources.

The moral is always the same and applies both in Italy and in Europe: there can be no green transition without environmentalists in government, in the sense that the urgency to act has not yet passed into "main-stream" politics and this carries very serious consequences. Those who do recognize the urgency to act must more effectively join forces and increase pressure and mobilization before it is too late.


December 10, 2021