The Complex Politics of Sustainability: Is the EU Really Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear and Natural Gas?

On New Year’s Eve, the European Commission agreed on a proposal to include nuclear power and natural gas, under certain circumstances, in the EU taxonomy for sustainable finance – leading to much controversy within the bloc. What is the reasoning behind this suggestion? And what are the consequences if it is put into practice? Maria Wetterstrand tries to untangle these questions and points out that translating science into policy cannot be apolitical.

According to most observers, the intention of the European Commission to classify nuclear power and gas under certain circumstances as “sustainable” is based on a political compromise, rather than a scientific assessment. Consequently, critics have denounced the plan as contrary to the original idea of the taxonomy.

For one, there are concerns that it could lead to quite paradoxical results if the Commission’s proposal were to become reality: certain energy plants burning natural gas would thus be able to obtain a “green” label, while waste-to-energy plants – which have been explicitly excluded from the taxonomy – would not. The taxonomy would also set stricter sustainability thresholds for the use of hydropower and bioenergy than natural gas: the suggested limit for emissions from natural gas is set at 270g CO₂e/kWh, while the limit foreseen for renewable gaseous fuels and hydropower stands at 100g CO₂e/kWh. Under the current EU plans, a fossil fuel would thus be considered sustainable, while many renewable energy sources with a lesser climate impact would not.

The inclusion of nuclear power in the taxonomy has also been strongly criticised by certain EU Member States and NGOs: while nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases, it is not a renewable energy source. Furthermore, the mining of uranium and storage of nuclear waste carries potentially significant environmental risks.

Nevertheless, the Commission is of the opinion that these energy sources should be part of a sustainable finance taxonomy that was supposed to solely include technologies that could sustain an eco- and climate-friendly European Union in the long term. Why is that?

The answer is that it is a threefold trade-off.

First, it is a trade-off between today and tomorrow. While most decision-makers agree that renewable energy is the long-term solution from a sustainability perspective, many argue that there is a need for investment in “transitional technologies”. Natural gas and nuclear would be included in such a “transitional” category – enabling them to be accepted as sustainable up until a later date.

Secondly, it is somewhat of a trade-off between different environmental threats. Even though the taxonomy was intended to solve a wide range of sustainability issues without significantly harming nature, climate protection seems to have been awarded a higher priority than other environmental challenges. More simply put: the environmental risks connected to nuclear are not considered severe enough in comparison.

Thirdly, it is a trade-off between Member States: for instance, the French Government has strongly supported the inclusion of nuclear in the taxonomy, while many German politicians fear that the country may not be able to successfully exit from coal and nuclear power without the help of natural gas. The European Commission’s proposal thus represents a compromise that is supposed to make all EU governments somewhat happy.

While it therefore makes perfect political sense, the concerns of environmental campaigners remain. Apart from the seemingly contradictory logic of the classification, it is feared that the steering effect of the taxonomy will decrease if too many activities are included. Likewise, there is a risk that transitional technologies may draw investment away from fully renewable activities.

The taxonomy was supposed to softly steer finance in a more sustainable direction by offering clear guidance on what solutions and activities could provide the foundation for a truly “green” EU. Experts were to define the activities fulfilling those criteria, not politicians. This was the basis for granting the EU Commission the legal right to decide about the details of the taxonomy through delegated acts which may only be vetoed by EU governments and MEPs but not amended.

However, with time, the taxonomy has become more and more political – and maybe, that is unavoidable: there simply is no single truth to “sustainability”. The way towards a climate neutral society is lined with politics.

The Commission’s proposal is now in the hands of its Platform on Sustainable Finance and the Member State Expert Group. They will review it and offer feedback on it by 21 January. An amended proposal will be published soon afterwards, leaving it then to the Council and the European Parliament to decide if they want to press ahead with this model. Therein lies the crux: whatever the opinion of the experts, the politicians deciding the future of this delegated act are first and foremost accountable to their voters.

That’s the reason why this is and will continue to be a political issue.

Maria Wetterstrand is Miltton Europe’s CEO, a Swede who stopped by Finland on her way to Brussels.