Austria and Greenpeace are planning legal action against the controversial EU taxonomy, while some claim that Russian lobbying influenced the vote.
A controversial proposal to label gas and nuclear power as sustainable energy sources has legal challenges ahead, following a recent vote in the EU parliament.
Under the proposal, gas and nuclear energy projects could be included in the “taxonomy of environmentally sustainable economic activities” under certain conditions, allowing them to receive funding from the EU under its programme to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.
This proposal was issued by the European Commission at the end of 2021 and was met with a mixed response from Irish energy experts and campaigners.
The EU parliament voted down an objection to the proposal last week, with 328 MEPs voting against the objection and 278 in favour, with 33 abstentions.
The taxonomy looks set to come into effect next year, but climate campaign groups and some EU countries plan to oppose it through legal action.
Viewed as greenwashing
There has been an outcry from many groups and climate experts on the recent vote. DCU assistant professor on climate politics Sadbhb O’Neill said the decision is “simply greenwashing”.
“The taxonomy needs to be robust, stringent and clear for it to have any meaning to investors and the public alike,” O’Neill told SiliconRepublic.com.
O’Neill said that gas offers “no benefits over coal and oil” once its lifetime emissions are calculated. She said that although nuclear emits no carbon dioxide emissions, it still has significant environmental impacts, including radioactive waste “whose risks to the environment last for thousands of years in some cases”.
“The taxonomy had the potential to accurately track and guide climate investments but this is only possible if it is underpinned by science and designed to align with the EU’s climate targets as well as the Paris Agreement ratcheting mechanism,” O’Neill said.
Theresa O’Donohoe of Futureproof Clare, a climate campaign group, told SiliconRepublic.com that the EU’s decision to include gas and nuclear is “counterintuitive to our race against time”.
She referenced “stark warnings” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its recent climate reports and said decision-makers are “rowing back on the steps needed” to address climate issues.
“If they had acted sooner by removing financial support for fossil fuels and investing everything in renewables then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would not be such a problem,” O’Donohoe said.
MEPs who opposed the taxonomy have expressed frustration at the decision, with Ireland’s Green Party voicing concerns about the climate message it sends. Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe said the European Parliament has threatened its position as a “climate policy leader” with the decision.
“Today’s decision sends a dark and dangerous signal around the world,” Cuffe said in a statement. “Energy lobbyists now see that many MEPs are willing to negotiate away our climate ambitions when faced with the slightest opposition.”
Still a step forward?
Some are arguing that the taxonomy has the benefit of bringing in greater transparency and clarity, regardless of gas and nuclear being included.
This is the view of EY Ireland’s head of sustainability Stephen Prendiville, who said that the taxonomy is an important step in linking human activity to consequences for the planet, regardless of whether gas or nuclear deserve the labels.
“We don’t need the taxonomy to be perfect for everyone,” Prendiville said. “We need it to be implemented widely and robustly, verified and assured consistently, and ultimately we will need to consider refinements and updates as we see the practical applications on disclosures over a number of years.”
NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus shared neutral views on nuclear energy the day the vote took place. Kalmus said it is a mistake to shut down operating plants in a climate emergency, describing Germany’s decision to move away from nuclear energy as a “cautionary tale”.
It makes much more sense to build out wind and solar rather than nuclear, but Germany stands as a cautionary tale on how, if you prematurely shut down existing nuclear generation it gets replaced by coal and pushes us all deeper into climate disaster.
— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) July 6, 2022
“I’m not passionately on either side of the great nuclear debate,” Kalmus said on Twitter. “Nuclear isn’t as bad as the anti-nuclear folks think (and fossil fuels are even worse than many of them think), but nuclear is, nonetheless, not the path forward.”
Legal action ahead
The taxonomy has a batch of legal challenges ahead of it, as Austria is seeking support from other EU countries to challenge the decision in the European Court of Justice.
Luxembourg plans to back Austria in this legal challenge, while other countries such as Spain and Denmark are considering support, Euractiv reports.
Climate campaign group Greenpeace is also planning legal action against the European Commission over the taxonomy. The group’s EU sustainable finance campaigner Ariadna Rodrigo said labelling gas and nuclear as green is “dirty politics” and “an outrageous outcome”.
“We’re inspired by the climate activists here in Strasbourg this week and are confident that the courts will strike down this politically motivated greenwashing as clearly in breach of EU law,” Rodrigo said in a statement on 6 July.
Greenpeace has argued that Russian-backed firms lobbied MEPS to influence the taxonomy vote. O’Neill said that there should be “at the very least a public inquiry” if this is correct and raised issues with the impact lobbying can have on climate decisions.
“In general the influence of lobbying adds to the damage done to public trust in climate policy-making,” she said. “I support the calls by some civil society organisations for a ban on all advertising claims based on ‘net zero’ or ‘climate neutrality’.”
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