Fury in Parliament as EU green taxonomy deadline expires

“We are very united in the answer to the Commission that we do need the proper time to look on the details,” Sirpa Pietikäinen, one of the lead negotiators for the legislation, told EURACTIV. [Genevieve Engel / EP]

EU lawmakers from across the political spectrum are furious about the European Commission’s refusal to adequately consult them on a draft proposal to label gas and nuclear as a “transitional” source of energy, parliamentary sources have told EURACTIV.

The EU’s second list of economic activities qualifying for a green investment label – known as the second delegated act – has caused controversy because it includes both nuclear power and fossil gas as “transitional” sources of energy.

But whether lawmakers support or reject the idea, there is widespread consternation within the European Parliament over the EU executive’s handling of the file.

MEPs from nearly all political groups have either spoken to EURACTIV to vent frustration over the issue or written to the European Commission to express their discontent.

“Parliament is not happy about the lack of involvement,” one parliamentary source told EURACTIV. “This house is upset about being left out. There is a very broad feeling that we were not handled right as opposed to Council and now we’re not buying this kind of attitude,” the source said.

Meanwhile, the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group have said in a letter to the European Commission that they cannot support the delegated act in its current form because of the inclusion of gas and nuclear.

And the two leading lawmakers for the legislation have also written to the European Commission, conveying concerns about the procedure and “serious doubts as to the legality of the proposed technical screening criteria in the complementary delegated act”.

Timing too short for Parliament

The European Parliament was not involved in the drafting of the delegated act and did not receive the draft at the same time as EU countries, said Sirpa Pietikäinen, a Finnish conservative MEP who was one of the lead negotiators on the taxonomy regulation adopted two years ago.

While the Parliament can provide feedback on the draft delegated act, lawmakers did not have enough time to scrutinise it ahead of a deadline, which was already prolonged once and expires today (21 January).

The draft was sent out on New Year’s Eve when the Parliament was not in session, Pietikäinen observed, and MEPs were busy electing their new president after that, she explained.

“We are very united in the answer to the Commission that we do need the proper time to look at the details,” Pietikäinen told EURACTIV.

Pietikäinen said the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group in Parliament, is “united” in denouncing the Commission’s handling of the proposal, which was circulated when MEPs were on holiday.

“The way the Commission approaches it is upsetting, really upsetting,” Pietikäinen said, pointing out that the EU executive went to great length to consult with the member states but did not do the same with Parliament.

“It doesn’t go in line with the Commission’s initial thoughts and proposals” that were endorsed by the executive’s group of green finance advisors, she added.

LEAK: EU drafts plan to label gas and nuclear investments as green

The European Union, has drawn up plans to label some natural gas and nuclear energy power plants as “transitional” or “green” investments provided they meet specific criteria such as displacing more polluting coal plants.

To consult or not to consult

Parliamentary sources told EURACTIV that lawmakers had a meeting with the European Commission on Wednesday (19 January). They are demanding more time to scrutinise the draft delegated act.

They also requested a hearing in Parliament and a cost-benefit analysis – or impact assessment – to be made specifically for the delegated act.

Those demands are reflected in a letter sent by the chairs of the Parliament’s environment and economic affairs committees, which raised concerns over the Commission’s chosen procedure. They also remarked that the draft proposal did not come with its own impact assessment – a staple of all important EU legislation.

Because of its “controversial nature”, the two committee chairs called for more time to organise exchanges on the draft rules and called on the Commission to set up a public consultation, like it did for the previous delegated act.

Another letter was sent by five lawmakers from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the centrist Renew Europe group, The Left and the Greens, saying they were “deeply concerned with the process regarding the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities”.

It is not just lawmakers who are calling for a public consultation. Climate activists, too, want to have their voices heard. The environmental NGO Greenpeace told EURACTIV that, without a public consultation, there is the risk of an imbalance of voices when it comes to reviewing the delegated act.

Campaigners flagged a list of proposed amendments sent by the gas industry which called on the European Commission to ease the requirements for gas. This includes a suggestion to raise the maximum threshold for CO2 emissions coming from fossil gas – from 270g of CO2 per kilowatt hour to 340g CO2e/kWh.

Other lawmakers however do not believe the European Parliament needs more consultation.

“The Commissioner has always been open to engage with the Parliament on this delegated act,” said Christian Ehler, a German MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). “Some Members might feel they have not been listened to because they are disappointed by the Commission’s direction on this file. However, they have been heard, the Commissioner has engaged,” he told EURACTIV.

The European Commission confirmed to EURACTIV last week that it would not hold a public consultation on the proposal, saying it was not required to do so. One of the reasons put forward by the EU executive is that the debate around gas and nuclear in the taxonomy has been in the public domain since 2020 and that the European Parliament and EU countries have already had the chance to express their views.

When they adopted the taxonomy regulation in December 2019, EU countries and the European Parliament also agreed that the question of nuclear and gas would be dealt with in a delegated act, the Commission remarked, saying they have agreed to the process.

However, the European Commission will need to have a majority of lawmakers on board in order to pass its proposal. While MEPs cannot propose amendments to a delegated act, they do have the power to block by a simple majority.

This means at least 353 MEPs are needed in order to reject the draft.

One parliamentary source said “there is a good chance to get the objection” to the delegated act through the Parliament’s environment committee, which is seen as being “usually more progressive” than other committees.

“But we would need a majority in plenary and there are powerful vested interests in this unholy alliance of gas and nuclear,” the source told EURACTIV.

Still, opponents are hopeful that a majority can be found. Some German Greens and S&D MEPs have signed a letter opposing the inclusion of gas and nuclear, “which indicates that the new government coalition in Germany is not necessarily united on the issue,” the source added, saying “this could be a game changer”.

The Green Brief – A 'cloak and dagger' taxonomy

As Europe waited to welcome 2022, those in the energy policy bubble suddenly found themselves drawn away from the myriad of fireworks by buzzing phones. 

Letters abound

In Parliament, various groups of MEPs have sent letters to the European Commission in order to express their concerns about the draft delegated act.

So far, EURACTIV is aware of five different ones – two criticising the process, two criticising the inclusion of nuclear and gas and one defending it. Four EU countries also sent a letter to the European Commission, calling for the exclusion of fossil gas and nuclear.

None of these groups, however, seem to have a sufficient majority to reject the draft delegated act at the moment.

And according to Ehler, their demands are counterproductive. Calls to exclude gas and nuclear from the taxonomy “are ultimately undermining one or multiple Green Deal ambitions: we will not be able to fully decarbonise; or we will fail to ensure inclusion of all parts and peoples of Europe; or we will lose jobs, industries and ultimately our welfare,” he told EURACTIV.

This is echoed in one of the MEP letters, which supports the inclusion of nuclear and gas in the taxonomy. “In Member States with different starting points, the 55% emissions reduction target requires faster deployment of renewable energy sources by 2030. Natural gas-power plants can enable a much higher integration of intermittent renewables into our energy system by providing essential back up as well as ensuring grid balance, reliability and stability,” the letter reads.

“Moreover, both nuclear and highly efficient natural gas generation and cogeneration, as stable sources of energy production, can facilitate phasing-out of solid fossil fuels-based units, therefore improving air quality in Europe and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” it continues.

That letter is signed by over 75 MEPs from 14 different countries and six political groups, although it is mostly from right-wing lawmakers, like the European People’s Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

EU countries ramp up pressure to grant nuclear a ‘green’ investment label

A group of ten European countries have heaped pressure on the European Commission to grant nuclear energy a ‘green’ label under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, which acts as a guide to climate-friendly investments.

Meanwhile, a letter sent by lawmakers from the other side of the hemicycle calls for nuclear and gas to be taken out of the taxonomy.

“We are concerned about the meltdown of the EU taxonomy regulation, where words no longer have any meaning, and where a mechanism initially intended to set up a gold-standard for sustainable investment and to fight against greenwashing loses all credibility,” it reads.

The letter is highly critical of nuclear energy and draws attention to the fact that nuclear was not included in the first delegated act because of safety concerns.

This is not quite the case, however. In reality, the group that was drafting the criteria decided it did not have enough information on the subject and called on the European Commission to launch a new expert study to assess safety issues related to nuclear and the handling of radioactive waste.

That study, published in July last year, “did not reveal any science-based evidence that nuclear energy does more harm to human health or to the environment than other electricity production technologies”.

Austria ready to sue EU over nuclear's inclusion in green finance taxonomy

Austria’s energy and climate minister Leonore Gewessler told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview that her country was ready to go to court if the EU decides to include nuclear power into the bloc’s taxonomy on sustainable finance.

Moreover, the nuclear industry says it has extremely high standards for dealing with waste and implemented strict safety rules in the aftermath of previous accidents.

“We’re having this fight against renewables and nuclear, but at the end of the day, the fight needs to be against fossil fuels, because it’s fossil fuels that are killing people,” said Jessica Johnson from the nuclear industry body Foratom. “You have the impact of climate change…but you also have NOx emissions, SO2 emissions. They’re causing deaths from air pollution,” she told EURACTIV.

Johnson added that nuclear’s lifecycle CO2 emissions are comparable to wind energy and that nuclear plants last longer than renewables, something which is not taken into account in current debates.

Meanwhile, the gas industry says it needs the right policy framework to decarbonise.

“We really see that gas will play a role to help us get to the objectives of 2050 climate neutrality,” said James Watson from trade body Eurogas. “And of course, we support the role that natural gas can play in reducing emissions by 55% by 2030. So we fully support the European Commission’s, mid and long term objectives, we see that it’s important,” Watson told EURACTIV.

Canfin MEP: 'Here is my proposal to find the right compromise on gas and nuclear in the taxonomy'

With proper safeguards in place, both gas and nuclear power can be included in the “transition” category of the EU’s green finance taxonomy, says Pascal Canfin, a leading lawmaker in the European Parliament.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

Subscribe to our newsletters