A European Union proposal to designate natural gas and nuclear as sustainable energies and open these sectors to green investment avenues is proving divisive among nations, with France and Germany already at loggerheads over the suggested scheme.

France is eager to pursue the policy while Germany’s recently appointed Economy & Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck described it as “greenwashing” and “wrong”.

The draft proposals seen and quoted by international media including The Guardian and AFP would allow gas and nuclear to be included in the EU’s “taxonomy of environmentally sustainable economic activities”, subject to certain conditions.

Legal action threatened

However, Austria’s government has already threatened to sue the European Commission — the executive branch of the EU — if the proposal becomes legislation.

Leonore Gewessler, Austria’s Minister of Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation & Technology, said neither gas nor nuclear belonged in the taxonomy “because they are harmful to the climate and the environment and [would] destroy the future of our children”.

The proposal, which the EU finally issued on 31 December, is intended to support the 27-nation bloc’s shift towards a carbon-neutral future and, unless blocked by a supermajority of member nations, the proposal would become EU law from 2023.

“It is necessary to recognise that the fossil gas and nuclear energy sectors can contribute to the decarbonisation of the Union's economy,” AFP reported the European Commission’s proposal as saying.

However, the proposal states that for nuclear power, appropriate measures should be put in place for radioactive waste management and disposal.

Also, for gas-fired power generation, emissions limits should be set much lower than those for coal-burning plants.

“Governments within and outside the EU have been waiting with bated breath for the EU Commission proposal on energy taxonomy, as a first test of how serious the EU is in showing leadership on climate change,” said Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow and head of the European Power programme at international think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The implications of this decision are far reaching in terms of how the EU’s energy relationships will shift as it transitions away from carbon. But the decision is also a test of whether EU states can rally around the need for urgent climate action or whether, after the financial and migration crises, this will simply entrench divisions within the Union.”

Dennison admitted that “immediate reactions from a number of capitals over this weekend did not look promising on this front”.

As part of the European Green Deal, with the European Climate Law, the EU has set itself a binding target of achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

This objective requires current greenhouse gas emission levels to decrease significantly in the next decades.

As an intermediate step towards climate neutrality, the EU has raised its 2030 climate ambition, committing to cutting emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

“The EU is working on the revision of its climate, energy and transport-related legislation under the so-called 'Fit for 55' package in order to align current laws with the 2030 and 2050 ambitions,” stated the European Council.

The Fit for 55 package includes a proposal for a review of the renewable energy directive. This proposal would increase a current EU-level target of at least 32% of renewable energy sources in the overall energy mix to at least 40% by 2030.

It also proposes the introduction or enhancement of sectorial sub-targets and measures across sectors, with a special focus on sectors where progress with integrating renewables has been slower to date, such as the transportation, buildings and industrial sectors.

While some of those targets and provisions are binding, several others remain of an indicative nature in terms of recommended pathways.

EU energy ministers meeting for the December 2021 Energy Council, welcomed the progress made on the proposal based on a report prepared by the Slovenian presidency, according to the European Council.

“In particular, they discussed the balance between the need to support the potential of renewables as a cost-efficient source of energy and to recognise national circumstances and different starting points,” the Council said.

However, the EU’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton in December stressed that the European Union needs to be “pragmatic” in its future energy mix.

Breton said the bloc will need to double its overall electricity production over the next three decades and that “is simply not possible without nuclear power”.

“If you don’t want nuclear power, you have to be pragmatic. We cannot afford ideological dogma,” he told German daily Die Welt.

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