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At least five Irish MEPs to oppose contentious 'green' label for gas and nuclear power

A European Commission proposal would classify natural gas and nuclear power as sustainable investments, sparking backlash from anti-nuclear states.

A nuclear power station in France's Loire Valley, September 2021
A nuclear power station in France's Loire Valley, September 2021
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 7th 2022, 3:10 PM

AT LEAST FIVE Irish MEPs plan to oppose a contentious EU proposal that would label nuclear power and natural gas as green energy sources.

Under an EU list that classifies economic activities as environmentally sustainable, nuclear power and natural gas could be designated as green energy sources for investors if member states give their approval.

The European Commission issued a draft plan on New Year’s Eve that sparked criticism from several anti-nuclear countries, including Austria, which has threatened to sue the Commission if it goes ahead.

MEPs have four months to scrutinise the document and can vote on it in the European Parliament if an objection is lodged.

Several Irish MEPs told The Journal they will oppose the plan if it comes to a vote, while one Fianna Fáil MEP confirmed they intend to support it.

Others say they need more time to scrutinise the proposal before making a decision.

Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe expects his political group in the parliament – the Greens/European Free Alliance – will lodge an official objection, giving MEPs the floor to vote on the issue.

The policy brought forward by the European Commission is called a Delegated Act. It would classify gas and nuclear as sustainable energy sources under the EU Taxonomy list, which is used by investors, companies and policymakers. 

Split response from Irish MEPs

Five Irish MEPs so far have said they do not support labelling nuclear power as a sustainable energy source, including Green Party MEP Ciarán Cuffe. 

“I fully accept that gas may play a role in the short to medium term as we transition away from using coal from power generation, but I do not see the need to apply a ‘green’ label to these energy sources,” Cuffe told The Journal.

“Labelling gas as green risks delaying climate action at the rate that is required. This would water down the European Green Deal.”

Fellow Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan has called on the public to sign a petition to “stop the greenwashing of nuclear power and gas”.

She is ”strongly against this attempt at greenwashing the European Green Deal to allow the continued widespread use of fossil fuels and nuclear”, a spokesperson said. 

A spokesperson for Independents Clare Daly and Mick Wallace said they do not believe nuclear or gas constitute green sources of energy.

“The EU sustainable taxonomy is meant to be a tool to prevent greenwashing. Instead, it has become a paint roller dipped in Dulux,” Wallace said.

The level of denial about gas being a fossil fuel is astounding.

“It emits methane, which is a powerful accelerator of climate change, not to mention the leaks we don’t even account for from extraction to transportation. Its green classification by the Commission has made a complete joke of the taxonomy, with severe repercussions.”

Independent Luke Ming Flanagan also said he is against the measure.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher will vote in its favour, saying that gas “will be used as a transition fuel” by many member states that “won’t be in a position to transition directly from coal and oil to renewable and so will need to be able to make use of gas to help them along the way”.

Nuclear is a trickier issue due to our long-standing opposition here in Ireland. However, we also can’t be hypocrites.

“Irish businesses and homes are already using electricity generated from nuclear as a result of the importation of electricity. With the proposed Celtic Interconnector between Ireland and France, electricity from nuclear plants will be part of our energy mix into the future.”

Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus said that “until we see the final text I can’t give a definitive position as to how I would vote, but I am on record as previously voting against efforts to promote nuclear energy and fossil gas as “transition” activities that can be deemed environmentally sustainable for the purposes of public funding”.

Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald, Deirdre Clune and Seán Kelly and Fianna Fáil’s Barry Andrews said they would take more time to analyse the proposal before making a decision.

Colm Markey and Maria Walsh, both of Fine Gael, did not respond to requests for comment.

No plans for nuclear in Ireland

In Ireland, the government’s official stance is against the use of nuclear power, though some campaigners suggest it should be explored as a means of shifting away from fossil fuels.

Government departments are now “considering” the European Commission proposal but say that there remains no plans to develop nuclear plants in Ireland.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications told The Journal that ”the department, in conjunction with the Department of Finance who are the lead department in relation to taxonomy, is considering the draft Commission Delegated Regulation which was issued last week”.

The Department of Finance also confirmed it is considering the text.

“Nuclear-powered electricity generation plants are prohibited in Ireland,” an Environment spokesperson told The Journal.

“The Government has no plans to revisit the prohibition on, or explore the development of, nuclear-powered electricity generation in Ireland.” 

Among the Irish public, opinions are split down the middle on whether Ireland should build a nuclear power station to increase clean energy supplies, according to recent polling by Ireland Thinks for The Journal.

Of a representative sample of 1,200 people, 43% said yes and another 43% said no, while 15% didn’t know.

Austria, which has official been against nuclear power since a narrowly-won referendum in 1978, has threatened to bring the European Commission to court if the plan is implemented in its current form.

The country’s minister of climate action, Leonore Gewessler, said that Austria would closely examine the draft and has requested a legal opinion around the inclusion of nuclear energy.

“If these plans were implemented this way, we will sue,” she wrote on Twitter.

Political leaders in Germany and Luxembourg have raised similar concerns, with Germany’s vice-chancellor, who is responsible for climate protection, calling it a case of “greenwashing”.

Luxembourg’s minister for energy similarly described the move as a “provocation” and said it risked “greenwashing” nuclear power.

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Commission considers ‘role for gas and nuclear’

In a statement, the Commission said it “considers there is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future”.

“Within the Taxonomy framework, this would mean classifying these energy sources under clear and tight conditions (for example, gas must come from renewable sources or have low emissions by 2035), in particular as they contribute to the transition to climate neutrality,” the Commission said.

“In addition, to ensure transparency, the Commission will amend the Taxonomy Disclosure Delegated Act so that investors can identify if activities include gas or nuclear activities, and to what extent, so they can make an informed choice.

“The activities covered in this complementary Delegated Act would accelerate the phase out of more harmful sources, such as coal, and in moving us towards a more low-carbon greener energy mix.”

the-european-parliament-room-debating-chamber-in-brussels The European Parliament hemicycle in Brussels Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Members of the EU’s Platform on Sustainable Finance and the technical expert group on sustainable finance (neither of which Ireland is represented on) must be consulted in line with the terms of the regulation and the groups can submit contributions up to Wednesday of next week.

The Commission plans to formally adopt the measure later this month.

The European Parliament and European Council can scrutinise the document and object to it within four months, which requires at least 20 member states representing at least 65% of the EU population in the Council or at least 353 MEPs in an EP plenary.

If neither objects, the Delegated Act will come into effect when the scrutiny period ends.  

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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