The Green Brief: Europe’s green finance taxonomy wars, part 3

Green brief

Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

After a failed attempt last year, the European Commission is finally presenting today (21 April) its first batch of implementing rules under the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy, laying down detailed technical criteria for what can be labelled a “green” investment in the EU.

In doing so, the EU executive will also open a new chapter in what can now be branded as the European ‘taxonomy wars’.

The first chapter was opened in December 2019 when Britain and France –  backed at the time by Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia – blocked a deal on the EU taxonomy regulation, the overarching law which sets out the key principles of sustainable finance at European level.

Their fear back then was that the taxonomy would exclude investments in nuclear and gas projects from being labelled “green” in the race to cut emissions to net-zero by 2050.

To seal a compromise, negotiators from EU member states and the European Parliament agreed to delay a decision on gas and nuclear, leaving the European Commission’s experts groups to draft a series of “technical screening criteria” that would decide under which conditions gas or nuclear could be eligible for a “green” or “transition” investment label.

There is a trick, however. Those implementing rules, according to the December compromise, were to be decided via so-called “delegated acts”, a fast-track legislative procedure allowing the Commission to legislate almost on its own. The European Parliament and EU member states are denied any real say – all they can do is approve the Commission proposal or reject it as a whole. In other words, it’s take it or leave it.

This sowed the seeds of the second taxonomy wars, which opened in November last year when the Commission put out its first batch of draft implementing rules for a public consultation.

The draft caused uproar among eastern and southern EU member states, who complained that natural gas had been denied “transition” fuel status. A new veto threat was wielded by a similar group of countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia – forcing the Commission back to the drawing board.

A third chapter is now opening up, with the first series of “delegated acts” finally due to be published today, after the aborted November attempt.

In a repeat of the first chapter, the European Commission is again expected to delay a decision on gas and nuclear, leaving the Parliament and EU member states to decide separately at a later stage.

This may look like a risky bet for the climate. Critics among the Greens have already warned about an unacceptable politicisation of the taxonomy, and a departure from the science-based approach initially taken by the Commission expert groups.

But this is also the only pragmatic way forward. By tabling a separate proposal for gas and nuclear later this year, the Commission is throwing the ball back into the court of EU member states and Parliament, acting as co-legislators.

In doing so, Brussels is also putting them in front of their political responsibilities.

– Frédéric Simon

This week’s top stories

News from the capitals

HELSINKI | STOCKHOLM. Closure of pulp, paper mills sends shock waves across Finland, Sweden. Finnish-Swedish forest products company Stora Enso has announced the closure this coming autumn of the Veitsiluoto mill in northern Finland and that in Kvarnsveden in central Sweden, resulting the loss of 1,100 jobs. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Call to postpone ‘climate taxonomy’ proposal. Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger has joined the prime ministers of Czechia, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Malta, Greece and Cyprus in calling on the European Commission to delay its green taxonomy proposal. Read more.

WARSAW. A possible Russian offensive against Ukraine will basically prevent Germany from maintaining its current position on Nord Stream 2, Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland under Clinton, told EURACTIV Poland in an interview.

“A Russian military offensive against Ukraine would make it even more difficult for Germany to maintain its current position,” he said, adding that the best short-term solution is the suspension of work – or a moratorium – on the project by Germany and the suspension of sanctions by the US. More.

PRAGUE. Czechia will exclude Russian state company Rosatom from the pre-qualification round for a tender to supply a new unit for the Dukovany nuclear plant, Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlíček confirmed on Monday. This meaning only France, South Korea and the US will be allowed to take part in the tender’s security assessment procedure. Read more.

WARSAW. Poland moves to control coal assets. Poland’s Treasury will take over hard coal and lignite-fired generation assets as well as lignite mines from power groups PGE, Tauron, and Enea to integrate these assets into a single entity called the National Energy Security Agency (NABE). Climate and energy experts have said the move may hinder Poland’s road towards successfully decarbonising its energy sector. Read more.

HELSINKI. Production of renewable energy in Finland has reached 40% of the total energy consumption and is now higher than the share of fossil fuels, including peat, which fell to 37%, statistics from 2020 published by Statistics Finland show. Read more.

SOFIA. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov – whose government’s resignation was confirmed in a vote by parliament on Friday after his GERB party lost the elections on 4 April – is refusing to present the country’s recovery plan before lawmakers in parliament although he has been called to appear before them on Wednesday.  Read more.

BERLIN. Germany’s Greens have put forward their co-leader Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for federal elections in September in the party’s first bid to win the chancellery since it was founded 40 years ago. More.

HELSINKI. Gaining approval for the EU coronavirus recovery package worth €750 billion in frugal Finland is proving more difficult than expected as it is now dividing parliament and widely being referred to as a “necessary evil”. Read more.

PARIS. Several thousand deaths were avoided during the COVID-19 pandemic due to reduced emissions of air pollution particles, according to the French health agency. Read the full story.

BUDAPEST. NGOs criticise Hungary’s recovery fund’s energy plans. Hungary is wasting a historic opportunity in failing to use its recovery plan’s energy component to support the energy-efficient renovation of buildings, NGOs have said. Instead, critics say the plan envisions support for wasteful heating solutions, EURACTIV’s media partner Telex reported. Read more.

News in brief

Emissions under ETS drop by 13.3%. The greenhouse gas emissions of operators covered by the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) dropped 13.3% in 2020 compared to 2019. Emissions from fixed installations dropped by 11.2%, aviation by 64.1% and electricity sector by 14.9%. This is due to the pandemic and the success of the ETS programme, according to the Commission, which will unveil plans to strengthen and possibly extend the ETS in June. The system currently covers over 10,000 power plants, industrial plants and airlines, responsible for around 40% of the EU’s emissions. (Kira Taylor | Euractiv.com)

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Common ground on soil protection. A resolution calling on the Commission to design an EU-wide common legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of soil won 73 votes with only seven against and no abstentions in the European Parliament’s environment committee on Friday (16 April). Lawmakers called on the Commission to include measures limiting the use of synthetic fertilisers and soil sealing – covering soil – aiming to reach “no land degradation” by 2030 and “no net land take” by 2050.

“Soil is a powerful carbon sink, it protects us from floods, filters water and is – quite literally – the very basis for our food and many other materials vital for our existence,” said Manuela Ripa, the shadow rapporteur for the Greens. Unlike water and air, there is no coherent, integrated framework for Europe’s soil. Despite this, soil is key to agriculture, biodiversity and storing carbon. The resolution will go to plenary at the end of April and, in May, the Commission is due to present its Zero Pollution Action Plan on Air, Water and Soil. (Kira Taylor | Euractiv.com)

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Back to nature. Working with nature and boosting ecosystems can help reduce the impact of climate change, including lowering pressure on biodiversity, improving health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building a sustainable economy, found a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published on Thursday (15 April).

A second report, by WWF, showed the potential of removing barriers to restore Europe’s rivers – the most fragmented in the world. These barriers, like dams and weirs, are a key factor in the 93% decline in EU freshwater migratory fish populations. The report analysed 30,000 barriers – less than 3% of the total – and found 7,360 had a good or high reconnection potential. Removing those barriers would allow 50,000 km of rivers free flowing again.

Nature-based solutions were promoted in the EU’s climate adaptation strategy and strongly supported by the Council. While they are becoming increasingly prominent, the EEA says they could be mainstreamed more. Read the EEA’s report here and WWF’s report here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Blackrock’s green conflict of interest. The European Commission will consider forcing companies to disclose conflicting interests when bidding for EU-funded contracts following an inquiry into its appointment of a division of BlackRock – the world’s largest asset manager – to help develop green banking rules. The European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly didn’t ask the Commission to cancel the contract, but said it should have better scrutinised BlackRock’s motivation, pricing strategy and own measures to prevent conflicts of interest.

In a response published on Monday, the Commission said it will consider proposing amendments to EU law to require companies and organisations to disclose conflicting interests when they bid for EU-funded contracts. “The Commission is reflecting on possible clarifications relevant to the procedure to follow when a professional conflicting interest may be at stake in a procurement procedure,” it said. BlackRock declined to comment. (EURACTIV.com with Reuters)

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Wörsdörfer (re)appointed. Mechthild Wörsdörfer, a former European Commission official who quit the EU executive in 2018 to take a director position at the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris is coming back to Brussels by the front door. On Wednesday (14 April), the EU executive announced that the German official will rejoin the Commission as new deputy director-general at the energy directorate “where she will be in charge of the coordination of the just and clean energy transition, and international affairs, as part of the European Green Deal”. Ms Wörsdörfer is rejoining the EU executive after having worked there for 26 years. In her last position at DG ENER, she was director in charge of renewables, research, innovation, and energy efficiency. The date of effect of her appointment will be determined later, the Commission said. More. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com).

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Supermarket’s climate beef. Supermarkets are largely ignoring environmental and human rights abuses in beef, according to a new scorecard by campaign group Mighty Earth. The environmental NGO evaluated the 15 largest supermarkets and fast-food companies on their sourcing practices and found that, only four have taken some action to stop sourcing beef from destructive suppliers, even though beef is a major driver of deforestation.

Most efforts in the beef industry to prevent the destruction of ecosystems are concentrated in the Brazilian Amazon and don’t address other ecosystems impacted, like Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Australia. “A small handful of global beef suppliers are leading the destruction of our global forests and selling meat to food companies around the world,” said Lucia von Reusner, senior campaign director at Mighty Earth. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Climate control. The climate control tech market grew 10% from 2019, despite the pandemic according to a new report. Approximately 4.4 million devices were sold in 2020, according to findings by Delta-EE, a research consultancy. Smart thermostats retained the largest share of sales, with consumers spending more than €400 million on these. Delta-EE predicts an average of 23% growth annually over the next three years for the market. 

“COVID-19 had brought our attention closer to our home – quite literally – with many of us looking more closely at our household’s climate. The demand for efficiency and connectivity skyrocketed and we don’t expect it to slow down any time soon,” said Ricardo Lopez, connected homes research manager at Delta-EE. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

Upcoming events

29 APRIL: Blue economy: the potential of our oceans to contribute to a green recovery. According to OECD projections, by 2030, the “Blue Economy” could outperform the growth of the global economy as a whole, both in terms of value added and employment. Join our event to look at how a sector with a turnover of €750 billion that currently employs 5 million people in Europe presents important potential in terms of both its contribution to a green recovery and the European Green Deal goals. Register here.

4 MAY: The role of gas in Europe’s future energy mix and the transition to zero carbon of Europe’s power sector. The transition towards a net zero greenhouse gas economy puts the power sector in the spotlight. While the carbon intensity of power across the EU has fallen significantly, the situation in Europe is diverse and this pace must increase. Can gas – renewable or abated through CCS – be the optimal complementary energy technology to balance intermittent renewable electricity such as wind and solar in the coming decades? And how can we ensure enough funding for the different technologies for decarbonisation? Join this EURACTIV debate to discuss. Register here.

7 MAY. What can the US and the EU learn from each other to accelerate climate action? President Biden has fulfilled his pledge to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Furthermore, he set a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, a move that mirrors Europe’s own commitments. The US and the EU, the world’s second and third-largest emitters of greenhouse gases, respectively, are now committed to renewing their alliance in the effort to deal with the climate crisis. Their aim is not only to reduce their own emissions but, by cooperating with their global partners, particularly other major economies, to strengthen the world’s climate ambitions. Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss how the EU and US can cooperate, share ideas and technologies, and learn from each other to accelerate global climate action. Register here.

20 MAY. Cogeneration and district heating: an enabler of the green transition? According to a recent study, cogeneration or, as it is also called, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) in district heating, is thought to be an efficient enabler for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. With the latest Council conclusions, gas CHPs remain an important technology with a significant role in reducing emissions, especially in regions transforming away from coal and dense urban areas. Switching from coal to natural gas saves over 70% of CO2 emission, while providing security of heat supplies and improving air quality. Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss how an effective integration between heat and power can meet energy efficiency and contribute to climate change targets and what this will mean for the energy industry in practical terms. Register here.

On our radar

  • 21 APRIL: Commission expected to table its updated draft delegated act under the green finance taxonomy, setting out detailed criteria for what constitutes a “sustainable” investment in the EU.
  • 22 APRIL: Leaders’ Climate Summit. On the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement opening for signatures, the US will host a climate conference convening the leaders of major economies. The US is also expected to announce its updated Paris commitment around this meeting.
  • MAY (date tbc): Commission to publish zero-pollution action plan for water, air and soil as part of the European Green Deal.
  • 21 JUNE: Environment council. Ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the climate adaptation strategy.
  • JUNE (date tbc): Fit for 55 package. The Commission is expected to table a huge package of green legislation in June, including a revision of the renewable energy directive, a revision of the emissions trading scheme and our first glimpse at a carbon border adjustment mechanism.

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