Amid energy crisis, EU MPs decide whether gas and nuclear power can be ‘green’

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BRUSSELS — European lawmakers will vote Wednesday on whether nuclear power or natural gas can ever be labeled “green” energy sources, a closely watched decision that could shape Europe’s climate policy for years to come.

It is a European Union framework known as “EU taxonomy”, which aims to direct investment to projects that are in line with the bloc’s goal of being climate neutral by 2050.

In February, weeks before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the EU executive introduced a plan to classify some natural gas and nuclear power as “transitional” green investments under certain circumstances, sparking a furious backlash.

Five months later, with Russia weaponizing gas and the global energy crisis intensifying, the issue is even more controversial — and central.

At the heart of the debate is whether gas-fired generators and nuclear power plants can ever, under any circumstances, be considered sustainable or environmentally friendly.

Before the war, the inclusion of gas was supported by member states who said it was needed as a “bridge” as countries weaned themselves off fossil fuels and increased their renewable capacity. France and others pushed for the inclusion of nuclear power, despite strong opposition from Germany.

The plan was opposed not only by environmentalists, but also by some EU advisers and even the chief executive of a a group representing major investors. Critics said the European Commission’s efforts to “protecting private investors from greenwashing” risked becoming greenwashing on an even larger scale.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has added new wrinkles to the debate. In many ways, the war has made Europe rethink its dependence on Russia, especially with regard to Russian fossil fuels, and intensified calls for an accelerated energy transition.

The EU has agreed to phase out coal and oil imports from Russia to hit the Kremlin’s military chest. But the bloc remains dependent on gas from Russia, a fact not lost on President Vladimir Putin, who uses that leverage to threaten and punish.

Frans Timmermans, a senior EU official who worked on the taxonomy project, admitted on Monday that the war “change something” when it comes to gas.

But defenders of the plan say the war has increased the need for rapid investment in the infrastructure needed to import gas from places other than Russia. They hope the new rules will spur more investment in infrastructure such as new gas pipelines or LNG import facilities.

As the price of gas rises, the war in Ukraine has also heightened interest across Europe in the construction of new nuclear power plants or prolonging the life of the old.

Officials and analysts expect a close vote. A total of 353 lawmakers – just over half of the 705 in the European Parliament – would be needed to reject the proposal. Since voting must be done in person, there is a chance that covid-19 absences could affect the vote.

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