Greenwashing gas and nuclear

Toby Abse unpicks the European Union’s shocking new ‘taxonomy’ of fuels that ignores science and undermines the bloc’s own climate rhetoric

LAST year’s climate change summit Cop26 left us with the impression that, although India, China and Russia were still trying to minimise the urgency of global heating, the EU was at least nominally committed to taking some positive action. We were wrong. On 2nd February, the European Commission gave its approval to what it called a ‘taxonomy’ of fuels that categorised both natural gas (i.e. methane) and nuclear power as ‘green’. This shocking decision was the culmination of a rather fraught discussion that had been going on since December when it first became obvious that there was a minority of EU governments opposed to the initial draft proposals, in some cases very strongly. Sweden and Austria are threatening to contest it by appealing to the European Court of Justice, while Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg have also expressed opposition. However, while this decision has delayed any vote on the European Council (the body in which each of the 27 governments has one vote), even if Germany joins the six dissidents rather than abstaining, as the ‘traffic-light’ coalition of Social Democrats (red), Liberals (orange) and Green parties, had originally intended, the ‘taxonomy’ would be approved. Any Council opposition to a Commission decision requires a larger number of states representing a larger percentage of the EU’s total population to be able to exert a blocking veto. The only real chance of stopping this proposal from becoming EU law is if there is an absolute majority against it in the European Parliament. Obviously, it is opposed by both the Greens and the Left Group. It is likely, but not certain, that the Social Democrats will vote against it as a bloc. If the Liberals, now renamed Renew Europe under the influence of Macron’s En Marche, obey the French president, they will vote in favour. The European People’s Party (EPP-Christian Democrats) is divided, with the Austrians against. The two Far Right blocs (the inappropriately named European Conservatives and Reformists, led by the Italian neo-Fascist Giorgia Meloni, and the rival amalgam of AfD, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Lega, etc) are enormously enthusiastic about nuclear power, and generally favour gas (although divided on the question of Russian gas). Given enough popular pressure from European citizens – of the kind that stopped TTIP – it is still possible that enough wavering MEPs in the political centre might vote to revoke it, but it will be an uphill battle. 

The reason that such an absurd decision, which goes against all the rhetoric of a ‘European Green Deal’, was made had nothing to do with science, given that everybody knows that in the short term methane does more harm to the atmosphere than CO2, and that nobody knows what to do about nuclear waste. It was of course a reflection of the power politics of the EU. France is largely dependent upon nuclear power for its electricity, and Germany is increasingly reliant on gas. The Eastern European countries are by and large quite comfortable with their outdated Soviet-era nuclear power stations, and their right-wing nationalist/populist leaders are not very keen on any Green Deal anyway, indeed they often get annoyed enough about being asked to phase out coal. Although the new German traffic-light coalition closed three nuclear power stations in December, and is due to phase out the others this year, there is a limit to the ecological pressure the Greens can exert as a junior partner, and in terms of the Commission’s stance, it must be remembered that its German president, Ursula von der Leyen, was given her position by Merkel’s outgoing Grand Coalition, and not by Olaf Scholtz’s traffic-light one.

The biggest immediate impact of the taxonomy may not be on governments, since as yet it does not seem to bring any particular fiscal benefits, or affect interest rates, but is instead designed to influence the choices of private investors, on whom the Commission, with its neoliberal world view, is unduly reliant in its plans for ecological transition, something which can never be accomplished without massive state intervention. For example, BlackRock, the biggest of all investment funds, which administers around $10,000 billion, decided a year ago to take the ‘green road’, so that ‘green bonds’ will get priority over any other shares or bonds they choose to invest in. Therefore EU legitimation will mean they can invest in gas or nuclear without any of their savers having any qualms of conscience.

As it happens, this taxonomy decision coincided with a crisis in gas supplies to Europe. This was in part the result of the uneven recovery of various economies from the initial impact of the covid-19 pandemic, which led the Chinese, who were the first to recover, to quickly buy up a larger than usual proportion of the available reserves, and thereby raise the market price of the remainder. Moreover, the failure of the EU27 to work together in securing gas supplies and reserves allowed any potential supplier to benefit from bidding wars, yet another instance of the negative effects of nationalistic neoliberal competition. However, geo-political factors have aggravated a simple supply and demand problem, since Russia is the major source of gas arriving in the EU via pipelines, as opposed to the liquid gas coming from the USA or Qatar in tankers.

The rise in gas prices, both wholesale and retail (and the knock-on impact on electricity prices), poses a political problem for governments of any parliamentary democracy, since angry consumers are likely to vote them out at the net election.

Although I am aware that the rise in the price of gas is a major issue in the UK and elsewhere, I will just concentrate on the Italian case, which I know most about. The man who takes most delight in the current situation is the odious Roberto Cingolani, Minister for Ecological Transition (or ‘Ecological Fiction’, as Italian environmentalists call it). Cingolani, whose previous job was in Italy’s biggest armaments firm, has never had much time for ‘extreme environmentalists’, whom he on one occasion labelled as a bigger danger than climate change itself, and who argued that too rapid a shift towards a more ecological economy would be a bloodbath. He has always been an enthusiast for both methane and nuclear power, frequently babbling about a ‘fourth generation’ of mini nuclear reactors (perhaps modelled on those in nuclear submarines), which would allegedly produce little or no radioactive waste. No doubt he would enthuse about the recent experiment in Oxford with nuclear fusion, which of course only involved a very small quantity of material for a very short time, and required more energy to activate than it actually produced, still leaving us decades away from the mass production of safe nuclear power. However, right now, he says about Italy’s six coal-fired power stations that, ‘We will have to re-convert them all by the proposed date of 2025, also thanks to the technologies of “good” gas in the sense of the EU directive.’ He has also just removed the restrictions on drilling for gas both on land and under the sea in what he hastens to say are suitable areas, i.e. not in areas where there is not likely to be any gas – as Alessandro Giani, the Scientific Campaign Director of Greenpeace Italia points out: ‘It would be useless to plan a bathing establishment on the Dolomites, don’t you think? This works in the same way’. Giani adds ,’If the objective is the decarbonise the economy by 2050, to do that you must start from Point A and move towards Point B that does not foresee the extraction and consumption of methane gas.’ Needless to say, on 12th February, the day chosen by 44 associations, movements and committees to demonstrate in 20 Italian cities against gas and nuclear power and in favour of renewables, Carlo Bonomi, the President of Confindustria (Italy’s CBI) said, ‘We can double the national production of gas in 12-15 months and assign a quota to industry on long-term contracts at reasonable prices.’ A doubling of Italian production would still only cover 10% of the current national requirement, so it would not free Italy from dependence on the international market with all its vagaries in terms of both price and supply. On 18th February, Mario Draghi’s government followed Bonomi’s orders and announced a plan to double Italy’s gas production as soon as possible.

Toby Abse is a member of the Socialist Alliance and AGS national committees

Photo by Antony Easton

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