This week, the European Commission (EC) made a bold move in relation to energy classification and what it means to be green and sustainable. The EC wants to classify some natural gas-fired and nuclear power plants as “green,” with the caveat that these energy sources are “transitional”. Ursula von der Leyen, EC Chief, has long stressed that climate action is an issue that remains close to her heart and that countries must “put a price on carbon“. The puzzling new move has been labelled “greenwashing” by critics.
What does it mean to be “green”?
In the final version of a proposal published Wednesday, gas-fired power plants will be considered “green” this decade if they emit less than 270 g CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced or their annual emissions for 20 years do not exceed 550 kg CO2 equivalent per kWh.
These can be power plants with relatively high CO2 emissions, provided they switch to low-carbon gas or reduce their hours of operation in the following years. They must switch to low-carbon gas operation by 2035. The requirement in a previous draft that the plants begin the transition in 2026 has been removed.
New nuclear power plants must also be approved for construction by 2045 in order to receive the “green investment” label, and must be located in a country with a plan and the means to safely dispose of radioactive waste by 2050.
Countries’ reactions to this proposal depend on the extent to which they depend on gas and nuclear power plants. For example, France, which gets about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, leads the camp in favor of the proposed rules, which also includes Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
On the other hand, Germany, which will close its three remaining nuclear power plants by the end of this year, will instead rely on natural gas, which it calls a “transitional technology.” Germany says it will replace natural gas with clean alternatives such as hydrogen by 2045.
Belgium plans to phase out nuclear power by 2045. Switzerland also intends to phase out its nuclear power plants. Denmark and Luxembourg oppose nuclear power, and Austria has even repeated its threat to sue if nuclear power is relegated to renewable energy.
EU countries and the European Parliament have four months to potentially block the rules, which could be done by qualified majorities in 20 of the 27 EU countries. That, however, is considered unlikely. If approved, the new rules will take effect in January 2023.