The Taxonomy for Sustainable Investments by the European Commission’s Technical Expert Group (TEG) has received a mixed welcome. The technology neutral taxonomy is supposed to make it easier for financing institutions and other investors to find sustainable investment projects that fulfil the criteria for climate mitigation and other environmental objectives.
The TEG ran into some internal conflict during the process of preparing the taxonomy. Apparently some TEG members did not want to allow nuclear into the taxonomy with similar criteria that other activities have. The first report by the group, published in June, ended up demanding more information on the topic of nuclear energy’s environmental credentials.
Technology neutral climate mitigation, or not
In Autumn, Finland – the current European Council’s president – led a proposition to include “Renewable and climate-neutral activities” as sustainable. In practice, this would mean a much broader toolbox than limiting the tools to “renewable”, which is a somewhat internally inconsistent term in itself, as it ranges from chopping and burning our forests to massive hydro projects to solar panels on one’s roof and wind farms in one’s backyard.
Europe’s three anti-nuclear brothers, Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, ended up voting against Finland’s proposition. Now the case is discussed in the “Trilog” of the European Commission, Parliament and Council. What happens next with the taxonomy depends greatly on the outcome of these discussions.
The negotiators should note that there is another central topic that might depend on the result the Trilog comes up with: that of the level of ambition of Europe’s common climate targets and its social and political acceptance. Many European countries are planning to use nuclear energy as a central tool in their energy mix, both to cut emissions (and emissions costs in the ETS) and to improve energy security.
Many of these countries, such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland, have energy security and economic development of their people at the heart of their policies – of which a key part is the possibility to increase productivity and competitiveness with affordable energy. At least some of these countries have been unenthusiastic on the emission reduction targets planned by other EU countries, as a big part of their domestic energy use is produced with coal and other fossil fuels. They need a viable alternative, and see nuclear as just that.
As a latest gesture of tone-deafness, German Green politicians demand that their Federal Government try to prevent France from going ahead with their preliminary plans to build six more nuclear reactors by 2035, which would likely replace some of their aging plants. German electricity is five to ten times more carbon intensive than French electricity. Perhaps it would be prudent for the Germans to clean up their own act before advising others what to do.
European climate policy at stake?
If use and expansion of nuclear energy is made even harder than it is today by leaving it outside the taxonomy, there is a significant risk that these countries will walk away from the European climate targets. And they have good reasons to do so: the socio-political acceptance for massive emission reductions, and the implied costs, in these countries is shaky as it is. If these reductions are needlessly made even harder and costlier by limiting the available toolbox to adhere to the political preferences of some rich countries, the thought of having an ambitious climate policy loses what social licence it might have held. It becomes very unlikely that any serious politician would even try to get such a mandate from the people, and even less likely that he would get it.
It is incongruous to demand ambitious levels of climate policy from a country with one hand and then take away the tools they want to use to achieve it with the other. The scale of the effects of this are staggering, considering that the IAEA estimates that nuclear power avoids almost 2 billion tonnes of CO2 being emitted each year, the equivalent of “taking over 400 million cars off the road per year.”
Accepting nuclear energy into our toolkit for climate mitigation improves both the acceptability of more ambitious targets and the likelihood that we will be able to meet them. It is high time we all take climate mitigation seriously and give up opposing every other technology available for the job.
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