In a landmark vote for Europe’s climate and energy policies, the European Parliament on Wednesday endorsed labeling some gas and nuclear energy projects as “green,” allowing them access to hundreds of billions of euros in cheap loans and even state subsidies.
The decision placed the European Union’s heavy thumb on the scale of a global debate about how and how quickly major industrialized economies can move from their heavy reliance on fossil fuels — and it immediately proved controversial, prompting boos from opponents inside and outside the parliamentary building in Strasbourg, France.
Critics said it would lock in and prolong Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels, while the measure’s proponents, including in the European Commission, the E.U. executive arm that drafted it, said it was part of a pragmatic approach to the transition to renewable energy, especially as Europe seeks to wean itself off Russian fuel imports in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
The measure had been in the works even before Russia’s tanks crossed the border, but it gained urgency as the European Union responded to the invasion by banning Russian energy sources, including most coal and oil. Left untouched has been Russian gas, on which Europe remains heavily dependent.
The Russian invasion presented European countries with an urgent choice: to get gas from anywhere other than Russia, or double down on renewable sources like wind and solar.
Wednesday’s vote signaled Europe’s intention to prolong its reliance on gas — the principal component of which is methane, which speeds up global warming.
The choice could undermine a competing European imperative to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030. E3G, an energy research group, said it was “at odds with the overall direction the E.U. is taking.”
The amendment the Parliament backed on Wednesday was part of a broader E.U. effort to give banks and other organizations tools to evaluate which projects deserve loans and funds on the basis of being environmentally friendly.
The policy, known as the “taxonomy,” is meant to stop “greenwashing,” the pervasive practice of mislabeling energy projects as environmentally friendly, and it could determine where hundreds of billions of dollars in investments will flow in coming decades.
But critics of the proposal contend the classifying gas and nuclear projects as sustainable is in itself “greenwashing” and runs counter to European efforts to slash carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, while also increasing the risks of nuclear accidents.
Europe’s Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
The European Union has begun a transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate the efforts.
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, called Wednesday’s decision hypocrisy.
“This will delay a desperately needed real sustainable transition and deepen our dependency on Russian fuels. The hypocrisy is striking, but unfortunately not surprising,” she wrote on Twitter after the vote.
The classification of gas and nuclear power as “green” was contentious even beyond environmental circles, with its opponents in the European Parliament spread across the political spectrum, including from the right.
“Billions of euros in ‘green’ financing now risk being diverted into polluting energy sources that are far from being harmless and temporary, at the expense of energy efficiency and renewables,” the European Environmental Bureau, a Pan-European environmental lobby group, said in a statement shortly after the vote, calling it an “act of institutional greenwashing.”
But the measure eventually succeeded with strong backing from Germany and France, Europe’s two leading economies, and it will help both of them sustain their energy policies and industries.
In the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan, Germany moved away from nuclear energy entirely, pledging to shift to renewable energy sources. But it has remained hugely reliant on Russian gas as a “bridge” and fallen back on the use of coal especially during shortfalls.
France, by contrast, gets 70 percent of its energy from aging nuclear plants, which have been plagued by problems and shutdowns in recent years. It recently announced a blueprint budgeted at 51.7 billion euros — more than $53 billion — to build up to 14 next-generation reactors by 2035.
While nuclear energy generation does not directly produce carbon emissions, the specter of nuclear accidents has left many wary of it on a continent still traumatized by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986.
The European Commission has said that it knows that gas and nuclear are not perfectly aligned with environmental goals and carry risks, but that it still considers them important in Europe’s transition from its current energy mix toward a carbon-neutral future that will be mostly built around renewables. It calls gas a “low emission” fuel, which is only accurate when compared to coal, which is very polluting, but not compared to wind and solar.
“This vote is important recognition of our pragmatic and realistic approach in helping many member states on their transition path towards climate neutrality,” the commission said in a statement shortly after the vote.
“Climate neutrality is our objective and legal obligation. We are committed to using all available tools to move away from high carbon-emitting energy sources,” it added.
These goals, and the means to achieve them over the next few decades, are key to Europe’s efforts to lead the world on climate policy. But Europe’s decision to classify gas and nuclear energy as “green” is now likely to reverberate widely and could also undercut European efforts to coax other countries, like China, to rein in their own emissions, analysts said.
The new classification for gas is likely to make it far harder to meet a climate goal championed at the last international climate negotiations: cutting methane.
Methane is more potent in its ability to warm the planet than carbon dioxide emissions, although it breaks down in the atmosphere sooner. Over 20 years, it can create 80 times as much warming as the same amount of carbon dioxide.
In short, cutting methane emissions would slow down warming more quickly, which is the argument that the European Union itself used when it joined the United States last November in announcing a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
Prominent nongovernmental organizations including WWF and Greenpeace said they planned to litigate against the E.U. labeling of gas and nuclear, and European lawmakers are also expected to sue the European Commission over its handling of the policy.
But apart from a divergence from its environmental goals, the step on Wednesday also constitutes a strategic error in dealing with Russia, other critics said.
So far E.U. nations have banned Russian coal and most will phase out even the import of Russian oil in response to the Ukraine invasion, but they remain especially dependent on Russian gas for electricity and heating.
Russia has used its gas exports to Europe as a lever to exert pressure on the European Union. The bloc is trying to get gas from other sources, such as Africa, the Middle East and the United States, but is far from banning the Russian imports because it needs them too much.
By doubling down on longer-term gas investments, the European Union practically locks in higher global demand for the fuel longer term, even if it doesn’t buy it from Russia itself. That will mean that Russia can continue selling its gas to other countries at high prices, perpetuating a vital revenue stream.
Some Ukrainian experts and lawmakers decried the decision.
“Vladimir Putin is rubbing his hands with glee today,” Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian deputy, said in emailed comments. “Europe just handed him a huge present by classifying gas and nuclear as sustainable. A gift that will channel billions into his pockets and further boost his war chest.”