World’s most promising anti-greenwashing tool scuttled

Succumbing to member states’ pressure and giving nuclear energy a “sustainable” label in a key regulation could derail the EU’s climate progress.

A general view shows the cooling towers of the Tricastin nuclear power plant site in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, France, November 21, 2022. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
A general view shows the cooling towers of the Tricastin nuclear power plant site in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, France on November 21, 2022 [File: Reuters/Eric Gaillard]

One year ago, hopes were high for what was considered to be the most important environmental legislation in Europe. The European Union’s taxonomy regulation was meant to become the global “gold standard” for science-based policy that directs investment towards climate-friendly goals.

But a long-delayed decision was made by the European Commission (EC) that ultimately included nuclear power and gas as “environmentally sustainable economic activities”. The Climate Complementary Delegated Act, a non-legislative supplement to the regulation, was adopted on March 9, 2022, and came into effect on January 1 this year. It is being challenged by Austria, a number of NGOs, and one member of the European Parliament.

Their argument is that the “sustainable” label given to nuclear energy and natural gas breaches the EU’s climate commitments, violates EU environmental law and is incompatible with the “do no significant harm” criteria of the taxonomy regulation itself. The EC refused to revoke the act leading the complainants to launch a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice.

As we await the court’s decision, it is important to recall how this legislation was undermined by the nuclear lobby and what the consequences will be if it is not struck down.

Lobbying for nuclear and gas

In December 2019, the European Union put forward its Green Deal – a set of policies ultimately aimed at reducing, eliminating or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

It was recognised that to achieve such an ambitious goal, investment has to be channelled to environmentally sustainable enterprises. The challenge was to define such enterprises and prevent the good intentions of the Green Deal from being hijacked by companies practising “greenwashing”.

This is where the EU taxonomy regulation came in. It was supposed to be a list of scientifically-based technical criteria to set apart economic activities that are genuinely sustainable from those that are harming the environment.

It defined environmentally sustainable activities as contributing substantially to specific environmental objectives that will speed up the decarbonisation of the economy, comply with safeguards and “do no significant harm” to the environment.

Nuclear energy and natural gas initially failed to meet the taxonomy criteria. Of course, that went against big interests in the energy sector and predictably a lobbying blitz was launched to reverse this decision.

A report by Reclaim Finance, an NGO which scrutinises the impacts of financial actors on climate, revealed a lobbying campaign worth millions of euros was initiated to amend the regulation in favour of the natural gas and nuclear industries.

Lobbyists met frequently with EU representatives during critical phases of the deliberations over the taxonomy. Russia, which would have been a major financial and geopolitical beneficiary of the financial incentives that would ensue from the inclusion of gas and nuclear, was an extremely active “stakeholder” during the entire legislative process.

But there were also EU countries which sought to put pressure on the European Commission to change the regulation’s provisions. At the forefront of that effort were Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, whose leaders wrote a joint letter arguing for the inclusion of nuclear power in the regulation.

The document used various common claims and arguments in support of nuclear sustainability. We were part of a team of fact-checkers from four EU countries who determined that 20 statements in the letter were false or misleading.

Among them were assertions that nuclear power is “environmentally friendly”, “essential to the transition towards clean energy sources”, a “promising source of hydrogen” and “affordable”.

A full analysis of the letter can be found here.

Why nuclear energy is not green

Why nuclear energy is not green is perhaps less obvious to the general public than natural gas. This likely is due to efforts by governments – such as the seven mentioned above – and organisations to mislead it.

False narratives of “clean” nuclear are also peddled by intergovernmental organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the OECD, and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

A common claim – which is also made in the letter to the EC – is that nuclear energy has a low carbon emission status. But if nuclear power can be said to produce lower carbon emissions, it is only true at the point of generation. When the entire life cycle of nuclear power plants is taken into consideration this contention crumbles.

Nuclear energy’s “upstream” activities that are necessary for operation, such as mining uranium, as well as transporting fuel, building and then decommissioning a power plant, and managing the radioactive waste that is a by-product of the process – are all linked to CO₂ emissions. Thus, the carbon footprint of nuclear energy generation is considerable, and according to some estimates, considerably higher than that of renewables.

Nuclear technology also needs significant amounts of cooling water and creates waste that is so toxic to the environment that no permanent storage solution has been developed for 70-odd years. It also represents a risk of seriously and permanently harming large swaths of territories in the case of an accident – which is now growing amid the current militarisation of civil nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

Posing an unmanageable danger to the environment, nuclear power falls short, even as a so-called “transitional activity”, defined in the regulation as an economic activity for which low-carbon alternatives are not available. This is because its financing today would derail the implementation of renewables by diverting investment away from them.

As Amory Lovins, a Stanford University professor and energy expert, says: “a low- or no-carbon energy source that costs more or takes longer to deploy will make climate change worse than one that is cheaper or faster, because the latter could have saved more carbon per euro and per year.”

Energy demand in Europe can easily be met by non-nuclear power sources, and considering the unreliability of nuclear power, with its ageing and deteriorating reactors, and vulnerability to extreme weather events, it is unlikely to have any energy contribution to make at all in the transition to renewables.

Even the most favourable calculations of the cost of nuclear energy show no advantage over renewable, which is seeing costs of deployment plummeting.

Government schemes keep consumer nuclear electricity prices artificially low. In fact, nuclear energy can only be made “competitive” with “hugely significant” government financing, as the EU Energy Commissioner inadvertently admitted in a recent speech. Hence, the seven governments’ letter also pleaded for “active support” for nuclear energy.

The profusion of nuclear delusions

There is a long history of attempts to link nuclear technology to overoptimistic technocratic environmental achievements that never materialise.

Media-hyped nuclear fiction abounds. For example, a recent fusion experiment in the US was touted as a major milestone in the search for an abundant source of clean energy. Predictably, it had a rather anticlimactic ending for anyone paying attention.

The energy generated in the experiment was significantly less than the amount needed to power the lasers involved in it. And the laboratory where the celebrated breakthrough took place was established to develop thermonuclear weapons, not civil nuclear energy projects, which explains its multibillion-dollar budget.

Such nuclear myths are usually debunked by independent experts whose critical voices are often buried beneath irresponsibly promoted fantasies. The morass of disinformation is meant in part to mask the industry’s own failures, but also the military interests of nuclear governments, by pushing unsupported theories to legitimise public funding. It is meant to confuse, demoralise and disable any organised effort to change things.

And the media, instead of challenging this intentional misleading of the public, has played a part in it. European media, for example, reported on the letter of the seven EU countries lobbying for nuclear to be included in the EU taxonomy regulation without checking the veracity of its claims.

Thus, a misinformed public and passive media have allowed political actors to influence regulations that are supposed to be politically neutral. Well-intentioned, vital, and comprehensive legislation, years in the making, has been subverted.

In its current form, this delegated act is likely to derail key 2030 and 2050 climate goals, and damage the Green Deal by influencing negatively green taxonomies being developed around the world. It will encourage greenwashing practices, redirect capital flows towards polluting sectors, and upset progress made on implementing the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.