Czechs lead the charge against EU’s ‘do no harm’ green criteria

Richard Brabec, the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Environment of the Czech Republic, at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 19 December 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The environment ministers of Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic have criticised the constraints imposed by the “do no significant harm” principle when it comes to EU funding. Others like Denmark, meanwhile, defend strict limits on fossil fuel spending in the EU’s recovery plan.

EU environment ministers met on Thursday last week to take stock of progress in negotiations over the European climate law.

They also discussed the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, including how individual EU member states are planning to spend their share of the €750 billion in EU funding that will be made available around the end of April.

While 37% of EU spending under the recovery plan is set aside for climate action, the rest is covered by the “do no significant harm” principle, which de facto excludes oil and coal from funding.

But some EU countries say the criteria is too strict when it comes to gas, which they regard as a transition fuel.

“The Czech Republic supports green recovery. Nevertheless, we have repeatedly emphasised that the do no significant harm principle both in the taxonomy regulation and the recovery and resilience facility should respect regional specificities and available technologies,” said Richard Brabec, the Czech environment minister.

Brabec said that the strict limits on gas condensing boilers and biomass boilers would limit domestic heating replacement schemes due to the low availability of suitable boilers.

He also warned that the Commission’s criteria “will endanger the very goals” of the recovery plan, which is to provide a quick economic stimulus that also helps the transition to a green economy.

Poland and Bulgaria echoed Brabec’s concerns. While the “do no significant harm” principle needs to be applied “across the board and on all projects that we support,” there are differences between member states, they stressed. Gas can be considered a transition fuel as long as networks are adaptable to the transmission of future decarbonised gases, said Polish environment minister, Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertyński.

Gas wins recognition as ‘transitional technology’ to climate neutrality

The lower carbon intensity of natural gas – which produces half the emissions of coal when burned in power plants – and the emergence of new technologies like hydrogen are setting gas apart from other fossil fuels in the clean energy transition.

But others rejected the idea, saying they were highly supportive of the criteria.

“We support the significant steps to integrate the do no significant harm principle by phasing out non-sustainable investments. It is essential that the national recovery and resilience plans do not support environmental damaging activities,” said Lea Wermelin, the Danish environment minister.

The EU’s climate chief, Frans Timmermans, also defended the European Commission’s proposed criteria: “Earlier this morning, we were talking about the -55% climate goal for 2030. Do we really, all of us understand what that actually means in nine years’ time? And that we have to make sure that if we want to have a shot at reaching that goal, all the investments we need to do now should help realise that goal?”

Recent analysis by the Green Recovery Tracker shows that, of the nine countries analysed, there was not much of a disparity between the EU’s east and west.

“We would think that Germany would clearly stand out and central and eastern European countries would be lagging massively behind,” said Timon Wehnert, senior researcher at the Wuppertal Institute for climate. However, “so far in the data we don’t see that,” he added, saying he was “surprised” by the finding.

At the European Commission, the overall assessment of the national recovery plans so far is also broadly positive. “We see that there is really a lot of progress being made across all the different dimensions of the plans, including the green dimension – both when it comes to the 37% climate tracking, and the do no significant harm criteria,” said Andrea Beltramello, a staffer in the cabinet of EU Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis, who is in charge of finance.

The split on the DNSH criteria reflects a wider division between EU member states on the role of gas in the transition to a green economy. In December, 10 EU countries delayed implementing rules on the green finance taxonomy because of the limited role for gas in the transition.

The European Commission is now working on an updated draft, which considers extending the role of fossil gas in the taxonomy. But the governments of Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain wrote to the Commission to express concern about “proposals coming from various member states” to increase the threshold for gas and asked the Commission to keep fossil fuels out of the taxonomy.

'Do no harm': EU recovery fund has green strings attached

The European Union’s proposed €750 billion fund to help the bloc recover from the coronavirus crisis will have green strings attached, with 25% of all funding set aside for climate action, the European Commission has said.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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