The European Commission is facing a furious backlash over plans to allow gas and nuclear to be labelled as “green” investments, as Germany’s economy minister led the charge against “greenwashing”.
The EU executive was accused of trying to bury the proposals by releasing long-delayed technical rules on its green investment guidebook to diplomats on New Year’s Eve, hours before a deadline expired.
The draft proposals seen by the Guardian would allow gas and nuclear to be included in the EU “taxonomy of environmentally sustainable economic activities”, subject to certain conditions.
The taxonomy is a classification system intended to direct billions to clean-energy projects to meet the EU goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Robert Habeck, who became the economy and climate action minister last month as part of a traffic-light coalition of Social Democrats, business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens, said the plans “water down the good label for sustainability”. Habeck, a co-leader of the Greens, also told the German press agency dpa it was “questionable whether this greenwashing will even find acceptance on the financial market”.
Austria’s government repeated its threat to sue the commission if the plans go ahead. Leonore Gewessler, the country’s climate action minister, said neither gas nor nuclear belonged in the taxonomy “because they are harmful to the climate and the environment and destroy the future of our children”.
She added: “We will examine the current draft carefully and have already commissioned a legal opinion on nuclear power in the taxonomy. If these plans are implemented in this way, we will sue.”
She also accused the commission of a “a night and fog operation” in the timing of the publication, a charge echoed by Luxembourg’s energy minister, Claude Turmes, who described the draft as a provocation.
However, opponents are not expected to secure the supermajority needed to block the plans.
France and other pro-nuclear states, such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, support the inclusion of nuclear, while many governments in central, eastern and southern Europe lobbied for gas to be included as a “bridge” fuel.
Germany’s finance minister, Christian Lindner of the FDP, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Sunday that Germany needed gas-fired power plants as a transition technology because it was foregoing coal and nuclear power. “I am grateful that arguments were apparently taken up by the commission,” he said.
He was speaking after Germany closed three of its six nuclear power plants on Friday, to meet a pledge of phasing out the technology by the end of 2022.
France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said the proposal was good on a technical level and the EU could not reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 without nuclear power.
Under the draft, gas could only be classed as a “sustainable investment” if “the same energy capacity cannot be generated with renewable sources” and plans are in place to switch to renewables or “low carbon gases” by a specific date. Nuclear power could only be included if a project demonstrated it had a plan to deal with radioactive waste.
NGOs accused the commission of seeking to evade scrutiny. WWF, a member of an official expert group on the taxonomy, said the commission had allowed just eight working days – until 12 January – to provide a formal response “to this highly complex and controversial file”, whereas most Brussels consultations last four weeks.
“The European Commission couldn’t have tried harder to bury this proposal,” said the WWF spokesperson on sustainable finance, Henry Eviston. “For fossil gas and nuclear, we get a document written behind closed doors and published on New Year’s Eve. If the EU is confident in this proposal, it must hold a public consultation.”
The EU taxonomy became law in July 2020, but legislators left important details to be resolved through “delegated acts” – secondary legislation meant for technical issues that is not subject to the same degree of ministerial and parliamentary oversight.
The plans have already attracted the ire of Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists, who say this “fake climate action” contradicts the EU’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.