Raise your hand if you had this on your 2022 bingo card: Natural gas is now climate-friendly.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament rejected a motion that would have excluded some nuclear and gas projects from the bloc’s list of “environmentally sustainable economic activities,” which are intended to help increase investment in climate- and environment-friendly undertakings and prevent greenwashing. The highly anticipated vote, which came after months of heated debate, will allow investments in gas and nuclear technologies to be classified as “green,” opening the door for those projects to access a huge range of subsidies and loans.
The decision is mostly a rhetorical one, and there are some guardrails on both technologies in terms of which projects could count as “green.” Still, the vote, if accepted by the EU’s member states, would mark a major shift in how the bloc, once a leader in green energy, considers its energy transition — and shows how the Russian war in Ukraine is rattling climate policy. Ironically, as the taxonomy itself is intended to prevent greenwashing, the inclusion of natural gas also could spell big trouble for the EU’s aggressive climate goals.
“The EU has always been a trendsetter for policy in this area, whether it’s efficiency or carbon trading,” said Kalee Kreider, a former advisor to Al Gore and a special advisor to the United Nations Foundation on climate change. “This [vote] came as a surprise coming from the EU in particular. It was kind of a jolt to the system. The question is, is this a temporary jolt because there’s an unprecedented land war and an attempt to get off of Russian gas — there’s been shocks to the system that have resulted in this moment — or is this a sea change?”
Various scientists, politicians, and climate advocates reacted with heavy criticism to the news, including Greta Thunberg, who on Twitter called out the decision’s “hypocrisy” and said it would “delay a desperately needed real sustainable transition and deepen our dependency on Russian fuels.” Many critics pointed out that encouraging new natural gas projects would seriously hamper the EU’s goals of cutting CO2 emissions 55% by the end of the decade, runs counter to IPCC recommendations that the world needs to stop building all new fossil fuel projects basically now, and could deprive wind, solar, and other renewable projects of much-needed financing.
“In our view, fossil gas and nuclear should not have access to the same cheap financing as renewables as this inevitably will crowd out financing for the green transition, thus making its progress slower,” Anders Schelde, chief investment officer at Danish pension fund AkademikerPension, told the Financial Times.
Proponents of natural gas’s inclusion in the taxonomy argue that it’s a valuable resource to help European countries transition off of coal: natural gas plants emit some 50% to 60% less CO2 than an equivalent coal plant (although its production creates enormous methane emissions, a separate — and pressing — problem). The decision, proponents say, is also important in giving the EU another avenue to reduce its reliance on Russian fuel, as bans on Russian coal and oil imports have been implemented following the invasion of Ukraine.
But unlike coal, natural gas can’t be easily shipped; its use as a global commodity depends largely on building export terminals to liquefy it for transport, which can take years to construct and be extremely expensive. If European countries move forward with installing a host of natural gas facilities now, it’s almost certainly locking the continent in to decades of fossil fuel use — just as science tells us that we need to do an about-face on constructing any new fossil fuel infrastructure. And because these facilities take so long to get up and running, they likely won’t relieve any short-term pressure caused by the war in Ukraine.
“The underlying problem of gas is that it’s not a globalized commodity,” said Kreider. “It’s very subject to the kind of volatility you’re seeing right now. It functions better as a regional fuel rather than a globalized fuel — it takes a long time to build these LNG terminals. The concerns that are out there is that this shock to the system — that is primarily a humanitarian one, but is also an energy one — could lead to locking in 20 or 30 years’ worth of gas infrastructure.”
Wednesday’s vote also is a strange in pairing nuclear and natural gas — two energy sources that are often lumped together in conversations about transitioning off of coal and oil, despite their very different carbon footprints. While nuclear has a host of issues, including the disposal of waste, the monumental costs of building new plants, and safety, it is technically a carbon-free source of electricity. Governments and climate advocates are increasingly acknowledging that a wide range of nuclear options, from keeping older plants online to developing smaller types of reactors, is necessary to get the world off fossil fuels.
“The decision to put them together [in this vote] was essentially purely a political one,” Kreider said. “The way to see this decision is through the lens of EU politics. Two of the major players, France and Germany, had to come to an agreement to get the vote through. When you look underneath at the way they’re generating electricity, it’s nuclear and gas.”
Regardless of the politics behind the pairing, the resulting vote does rhetorically bind nuclear and gas together, exposing some historic fault lines in how environmental advocates think and talk about nuclear energy. Some of the civil society groups lining up to challenge the EU vote, like Greenpeace, have a long-standing beef with nuclear energy and have defined its pairing with gas in this vote as a larger example of the EU letting damaging fuel sources into the renewable energy henhouse. Other groups’ opposition seems to ignore nuclear’s role in the vote altogether, focusing instead on the issues with natural gas.
“Personally and symbolically, I love policies that lump nuclear and renewables, and don’t like policies that pair nuclear and gas together, because I think it just cements in people’s mind of nuclear being a different kind of fossil fuel,” said Jessica Lovering, the co-founder and executive director of Good Energy Collective, a pro-nuclear research group. She pointed out that many environmental groups that are opposed to nuclear energy today have their roots in movements that began in tandem with the peace movements of the 1970s and a larger opposition to nuclear weapons specifically.
“The opposition is definitely generational,” she said. “Their arguments around nuclear are still very stuck in the past.”
Regardless of how nuclear energy’s reputation shakes out, one thing seems clear: the vote is a success for the fossil fuel industry’s years-long pitch to make natural gas seem like the solution it isn’t.
“Gas people have been at this for a long time, marketing gas as clean, natural, and baseload,” said Kreider. “The problem is that none of the parts of that equation are actually true.”