MEP Canfin: The French hard line on nuclear is a dead end

Everyone agrees that neither gas or nuclear can be included in the "green" category of the EU's sustainable finance taxonomy, says Pascal Canfin. The EU’s approach must therefore be pragmatic and linked to defining objective criteria under which these two energy sources can be useful for the energy transition, he argues. [© European Union 2021 - Source : EP]

The hard line defended by France over the inclusion of nuclear power in the green finance taxonomy is a dead end because there is no majority in favour of it at the EU level, warns lawmaker Pascal Canfin. Instead, the French MEP argues for including nuclear energy in the ‘transition’ category.

Pascal Canfin is a French MEP for the centrist Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, where he chairs the assembly’s environment committee (ENVI). He spoke to EURACTIV’s energy and environment editor, Frédéric Simon (original interview in French available here).

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • European Commission is right to consider untying nuclear and gas from rest of green finance taxonomy. Although the two are politically important, it would have been unacceptable to hold the rest of the taxonomy hostage.
  • Red line though is the “do no significant harm” threshold spelled out in the taxonomy, which must be observed by gas and nuclear power, even if they are dealt with separately.
  • On forestry and bioenergy, the Commission must confront Sweden and Finland, which have exerted “colossal” pressure to get biomass included as a green energy source in the taxonomy.
  • This is linked to “unacceptable attitude of Social Democrats and Greens” in Finland and Sweden, who have a vision of the forest that does not sufficiently take into account issues linked to climate and biodiversity.
  • Everyone agrees gas or nuclear cannot be included in the “green” category. EU’s approach must therefore be pragmatic and linked to defining objective criteria under which these two energy sources can be useful for energy transition.
  • On nuclear, the hard line defended by France will lead the country to isolation. An alternative is to work on conditions under which nuclear energy could be brought into “transition” category.

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The European Commission is set to publish a delegated act on green finance on Wednesday (21 April), mainly covering renewable energies. At a later stage, it will publish another legislative proposal by September which will cover so-called transition technologies, a decision which will therefore be up to EU member states and the European Parliament. Does this two-step approach seem reasonable to you in view of the dissensions over gas and nuclear power?

About ten days ago, I suggested to the Commission to untie the subject of gas and nuclear from the rest of the taxonomy. And to treat them together because these two technologies pose the same type of questions as to the conditions of their acceptability.

For me, these two technologies should never be used as an excuse to hold hostage the rest of the taxonomy. As long as we are not yet in the landing zone on these technologies, the right solution is to separate them from the rest. I think it’s done now, and that’s a good thing. Europe must move forward on taxonomy and green finance, the stakes are too high, particularly in terms of Europe’s credibility and international leadership.

Gas and nuclear power are politically very important, but it is ultimately one element among many in terms of investment. Now, should the treatment of gas and nuclear power be done through a delegated act or a separate law? There are pros and cons in both options. For my part, I am open to both.

There is one thing I would like to stress, though: if the Commission chooses the path of a regulation, which would therefore be debated, negotiated and amended by Parliament and the Council, the red line for me would be to touch the “do no significant harm” threshold.

Because what is considered harmful to the environment is an objective factor that cannot be compromised. And it would be unacceptable to me to circumvent this principle on the sole ground that the subject is dealt with in a regulation rather than a delegated act.

… which amounts to relaunching the debate on whether or not nuclear is harmless, a question which still has to be evaluated by European experts by the end of June.

It is not just nuclear, this principle is also valid for gas, with a threshold that has been set at 270g of CO2 per kilowatt hour. And it would be unacceptable if this threshold were not incorporated into the new regulation, whatever its form.

By choosing the regulatory route, the Commission is also throwing the hot potato to Parliament and Council, which will have to decide. It is also a way of recognising that the inclusion of gas and nuclear in taxonomy is an essentially political issue and therefore not based on scientific criteria, as the Commission initially wanted.

That’s why there are pros and cons. On the one hand, if the Commission chooses a delegated act, this guarantees that “do no significant harm” principle enshrined in the general taxonomy will have to apply, including for gas and nuclear. On the other hand, if it creates a different act, we no longer have this guarantee.

Conversely, if the Commission creates a delegated act to include gas and nuclear in the taxonomy, some would say that this discredits the entire taxonomy. And so, from this point of view, it may be better to deal with this issue in a specific regulation.

There are pros and cons, also in terms of timing. A delegated act would go much faster than a new regulation which will take at least twelve months to be voted on. On the other hand, if we create a specific law for gas and nuclear power, without respecting the requirements that have been placed on other sectors, then I think that this poses more problems than it solves.

My red line is to avoid holding the rest of the taxonomy hostage to gas or nuclear issues.

LEAK: EU to table ‘climate taxonomy’, leaving gas and nuclear for later

The European Commission plans to delay a decision on whether to label nuclear and natural gas power plants as a sustainable investment under green finance rules due to be published next week, according to a leaked document seen by EURACTIV.

In the European Parliament, is there a majority emerging to support the proposed delegated act due out on 21 April? This proposal won’t deal with either gas or nuclear, so it should go easier, I guess.

Beyond gas and nuclear power, there is the issue of forests and bioenergy, which is the subject of debate.

For my part, I am critical of the forestry part. First, the scope is too narrow because good climatic forest management is required only for forests with an area exceeding 25 hectares. Below this threshold, forests will therefore not be subject to these obligations.

In practice, this means that two-thirds of managed forests in Europe will not have to report on the climate. For me, this is insufficient, the minimum is to reach the average which is 13 hectares.

The second problem is that the delegated act provides for a climate assessment of forest management in 2050, whereas it was initially planned to happen in 2040. If we want to be able to rectify this before the 2050 deadline when Europe must achieve climate neutrality, this assessment must obviously be made sufficiently in advance.

Why did the Commission go back on what it had originally proposed? Because the pressure from the Nordic countries and in particular from Sweden and Finland is colossal. However, in these two countries, the parties in power are coalitions between the Social Democrats and the Greens.

So we come to the rather bewildering conclusion that it is the Social Democrats and the Greens in Finland and Sweden who are weakening the taxonomy. Well done!

The Commission, for its part, what is its calculation? In the East, it is already facing enormous opposition from countries like Poland and the Czech Republic on the energy side. If in addition, it loses the support of the Nordic countries, it loses its majority on taxonomy in the European Council. The Commission’s reasoning is pragmatic: it must avoid a blocking minority.

We must therefore examine the root cause of this. And the cause is the unacceptable attitude of the Social Democrats and the Greens who have a vision of the forest that does not sufficiently take into account the issues linked to climate and biodiversity.

The NGOs are therefore fundamentally correct: the taxonomy proposals are insufficient in terms of forest protection and it will be essential, at the very least, that a short-term review clause be included in the delegated acts.

In Parliament, could the issue of forests cause the upcoming delegated act to fail?

First things first. Let’s look at the proposal that will come out of the European Commission on April 21. If this proposal does not suit the Nordic countries on forest management, will the Green and Social Democratic governments of Sweden and Finland be ready to kill the taxonomy over it? This is the debate. For my part, I believe that the Commission should take this risk, all the more since gas and nuclear power are excluded from the first delegated act.

Concretely, would that mean excluding forests and biomass from the first delegated act and including them in the second package, together with gas and nuclear power?

Not necessarily. The Commission can still play on the criteria by proposing to carry out the climate assessment of forest management in 2040 rather than in 2050, or by setting an eligibility threshold at 13 hectares instead of 25.

I think that the Commission must make the Greens and the Finnish and Swedish Social Democrats face up to their responsibilities.

LEAK: EU taxonomy draft leaves bioenergy and forestry off the hook

The European Commission has decided to leave out agriculture but kept controversial criteria for bioenergy and forestry in the first batch of proposed implementing rules due to be presented on Wednesday (21 April) as part of the EU’s green finance taxonomy, EURACTIV has learned.

Coming back to gas and nuclear power, do you think there is a majority in the European Parliament to include these two technologies in the green finance rulebook? Or are we heading towards a stalemate?

My approach is pragmatic and not ideological: let’s dogmatic stances for or against gas and nuclear in all circumstances. Instead, let’s try to look as objectively as possible whether, under certain conditions, gas or nuclear power can move forward the energy transition.

On gas, the conditions that have been spelled out by the European Commission suit me. That is: investments may be eligible when 1) gas replaces coal in transition regions; 2) below the “do no significant harm” threshold of 270gCO2/Kwh; 3) time-bound until 2025 to avoid stranded assets; and 4) limited to district gas heating systems.

I think this approach is the right one because it’s not black or white but under certain very strict conditions. For me, this is the only possible compromise and I hope that in a few months, depending on the legislative timetable, it will be the same compromise that will come back to the table again.

Because if the conditions are tougher, one part of the European Parliament will reject it and if the conditions are too soft, the other part of Parliament will reject it too.

So, on gas, in my opinion, this is the only possible path.

Another path, mentioned by Luxembourg energy minister Claude Turmes, would involve an alliance between the pro-nuclear and pro-gas countries, with France and Germany heading both camps. With such an alliance, the inclusion of gas and nuclear in the green taxonomy could find a majority in both Council and Parliament. Does this alliance seem conceivable to you?

Let’s be serious. At present, everyone agrees that gas or nuclear cannot be included in the “green” category. However, they can be considered in the “enabling” category, under certain conditions.

And this is where we have to move away from ideological or religious positions to arrive at an objective analysis of the costs and benefits of gas and nuclear power, both in terms of gains for the climate and in terms of risks, which are linked to CO2 emissions for gas and linked to waste in the case of nuclear power.

And once we have objective criteria, thanks in particular to the work that is being done by the expert committees of the Commission, everyone can then take up their responsibilities at the political level by deciding to vote for or against.

Now, a law or a delegated act that would say that gas or nuclear is useful in the transition in all circumstances and needs to be incorporated as such in the taxonomy, honestly I don’t see how this could find a majority in Parliament.

And conversely, a law or a delegated act that says “under no circumstances, gas or nuclear can be useful in the transition and included in the taxonomy” would not find a majority either.

So there is a balance to be found between the two. For gas, I think we have found that point of equilibrium, but not yet for nuclear. That’s why we have to give ourselves some extra time.

Do you think it would be possible to take nuclear out of the taxonomy and treat it separately?

In my opinion, we have to deal with gas and nuclear together, because politically it is linked to the same issue. And the question is: “Under what conditions can these two technologies be useful for the transition?” And this question must be answered at the same time for these two technologies.

In France, the subject is extremely sensitive. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire recently promised that France will fight to have nuclear power recognised as “green” in the taxonomy. According to him, “this is a real political fight” on which France will fight with the greatest determination at the European level. Is there a fundamental misunderstanding here on the part of French leaders about the very role of the taxonomy?

I will be transparent. There are currently two possible lines on the subject in France.

The first is to stick with an idea that cannot find the approval of the European Council, which consists in saying that nuclear power must be included in the taxonomy’s green category, without conditions, despite the risk associated with waste.

This hard line leads to the isolation of France. It is somewhat equivalent to the basic Polish position of saying that gas is green at all times because it helps Poland replace coal. This position, as we can see, is not tenable in the long term because it does not take into account the risks associated with CO2 emissions from gas and the fact that it is incompatible with climate neutrality.

These two extreme positions are dead ends.

And then there is the second French position. This one consists of recognising the complexity of the problem but refusing to allow nuclear energy to be excluded in principle from the taxonomy. And therefore to work on the conditions under which nuclear energy could be brought into the “transition” category.

Is the green taxonomy the right place to settle this debate? Or are there other ways, in your view, to have nuclear power recognised as useful for the transition?

This comes back to the first question, which is whether to legislate through a delegated act or a separate legislative act. As mentioned earlier, there are pros and cons to both.

For my part, I warn the pro-nuclear camp against the French hard line. In the end, I think it is counterproductive because there will never be an agreement at the European level to include nuclear power without conditions in the taxonomy. Likewise, there will never be agreement at the European level to say gas is green in all circumstances.

So there is only one possible pragmatic path. The landing zone should be defined independently by the technical analysis of experts. And then, following the proposal that the Commission will eventually present, everyone will assume their political responsibilities by voting for or against.

Macron, Orban urge EU to 'actively support' nuclear power

A group of seven European leaders fronted by French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the European Commission to stop hindering nuclear power and consider ways of bringing atomic energy into the EU’s green finance rule book ahead of an EU summit on Thursday (25 March).

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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