Ideology vs. Decarbonization: How Nuclear was Ousted from the EU Green Taxonomy

Despite its low carbon emissions, the European Commission ruled that nuclear energy could not be considered “green”, therefore depriving it from investments. An international expert from Institut Sapiens explains why, and details on how the European energy mix will be impacted. 

The Green Taxonomy – a high sounding word to designate a system of classification – has probably been the European Union’s most ambitious project for the past year. It was imagined as the tool transforming Ursula Von Der Leyen’s promises of carbon neutrality in 2050 into concrete action. Beyond the sphere of ideas, this pact for “sustainable finance” was meant to take up the transition challenges by directing financial flows towards the greenest activities.

The renewable energies sector was obviously put on the pedestal of this New Green Deal. However, the status of nuclear energy triggered a controversy: although it is decarbonized and produced not less than one quarter of EU electricity, nuclear has not been classified as a “green activity”.

Instead, it was labelled under the category “Does Not Harm”. Those three words turned out to be a compromise. A way for the European Commission to solve this puzzle, satisfying ecological aspirations, and not compromising a sector several European countries are largely dependent on.

For Philippe Charlez – an expert at the French think tank Institut Sapiens and author of “Croissance, Energie, Climat : dépasser la quadrature du cercle” – nuclear remains the solution on the medium term. “We’re not going to solve the climate equation with windmills and solar panels. A 100% renewables mix is technically impossible.”, he asserts, slashing the idealism of such NGO’s as NegaWatt in France. He explained that “There is a need for storage technologies, and huge investments in equipment[…] And if we wanted to replace our 60 reactors by windmills with a 2 MW capacity, this would require an area comparable to a whole French department!

To be green or to be efficient?

Once he established the indispensable character of nuclear, Mr. Charlez came back on the two reasons of its exclusion from the Green Deal. The first, and most formal one, was that “when we say “green”, we refer to a source of energy that does not emit CO2 and is renewable. Although nuclear is indeed a decarbonized source, it doesn’t not fulfill the second condition, which deprives it from its spot in the green category”. 

Yet the second reason is more insidious. Not only did the controversy around nuclear lead to the creation of a special label – not planned in the beginning of the negotiations – but it also revived the anti-nuclear discourse. “When we discuss nuclear issues with an ecologist, we get the impression that nuclear is a “person non grata”, and even to a larger extent than coal”, notes Mr. Charlez. “We make people believe that the steam arising from nuclear plants are carbon emissions. More than 80% of high school students believe that nuclear emits more greenhouse gases than coal industry. That is why we are not living in a society of reality – we are in a society of perception.”

 » Decreasing the share of nuclear and of fossil fuels cannot be done simultaneously, we have to choose our fights « .

The expert also observes a historical shift in the arguments used against nuclear, which might justify its exclusion of the deal : “The anti-nuclearism appeared even before we started talking about climate issues. It was related to non-proliferation concerns : even civil nuclear had a flair of Hiroshima. Today, many consider that nuclear is about to disappear, and the fight against it is coming to its end. Their sabotage strategy worked well: if today we wanted to relaunch our nuclear industry in France, it would be difficult.” 

However, decreasing the share of nuclear and of fossil fuels cannot be done simultaneously, according to him. “We have to choose our fight”, he concludes. He further nuances his discourse, saying that keeping nuclear only because it allows a country to keep jobs is not a valid argument. “The good argument against wind energy is to say that it is intermittent and supplies energy only 20% of the time”.

Does not harm… anything except investment

On what the “does not harm” label actually means, Mr. Charlez was hesitating. Obviously, he conceded, the goal is dissuasive for investors. “Investors are very worried about trends and communication: when they see people in the streets with anti-nuclear slogans, they won’t bother themselves with investing in it”.  

Paradoxically enough, nuclear was put in the “Does Not Harm” category side by side with gas, which emits around 100 times more CO2 per kWh. This decision was assimilated to Germany’s defense of its national energetic agenda, which shut down its reactors in the early 2010’s. A wrong decision, according to Mr. Charlez: “It is enough to talk to some serious energy experts in Germany to understand that getting rid of nuclear was a very big mistake: they did not even reduce their GHG emissions”

Indeed after renouncing to nuclear, Germany needed to ensure a baseload source of energy, and had the dilemma between gas and coal – both being highly responsible of emissions. Germany now has a dependency of 24 % on gas in its energy mix: as gas cannot claim to be officially classified as a “green source”, it was in its interest to create a special status for it.

Moreover, the impact of the reform on energy security is not neglectable. Mr. Charlez analyses that “the changes in taxes and regulations obviously impact the energy security of certain countries, such as Poland [which electricity mix is dependent on coal at 80%]”.

This would have long-term consequences both in terms of competitiveness and geopolitics: “with these green categories, [Poland’s] coal will not be extractible anymore, because it won’t have subsidies, and become too expensive for banks to invest. That would oblige it to import more gas from Russia: therefore, it would lose its energy independence.” The same logic applies to Germany, where 37% of gas is supplied by Russia, implying a relationship of dependency.

A policy at the benefit of competitors?

The impact of this classification will be different on gas and nuclear. “If the green taxonomy is accompanied by a carbon tax, the gas industry will benefit from less investments, as its costs will rise due to its high carbon emissions. In what regards nuclear, it won’t have such a big impact, since the investments in the sector are already minimal.”

Asked about the potentially overlapping climate policies between a carbon tax and the taxonomy, Mr. Charlez remained confident in their complementarity : “imposing one energy instead of another requires three ways : either by a norm, by a tax (born by producers or consumers and having a dissuasive character), or by the market. Implementing the taxonomy along with the carbon market (ETS) would mean combining the norm and the market.”

 » The European discourse is a discourse of the rich. In Moscow, Pekin or Washington, the way of tackling these issues is radically different  » .

This taxonomy and the decrease of investment [into nuclear and fossil fuels] can potentially lead to more competitive markets in China or the US.  “The European discourse is a discourse of the rich. I am sure that in Moscow, Pekin or Washington, the way of tackling these issues is radically different. The Europeans are doing great in the environmental sector, and they are continuing their efforts, until suicide, to the greatest pleasure of others.” 

In the end, getting rid of nuclear needs a clear understanding of how to replace it, and preferably with a more decarbonized source. The European energy mix and its dependency towards neighbors will inevitably be impacted by the current anti-nuclear atmosphere. But Mr Charlez does not have doubts : “to satisfy their climate ambitions, countries such as Belgium or Germany have no other choice than to keep nuclear”.


Photo Credits: Jeanne Menjoulet, Flickr.


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