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Europe’s plan to call natural gas ‘sustainable’ triggers backlash from climate campaigners

By Ivana Kottasová and Angela Dewan, CNN

The European Commission is coming under criticism after unveiling a long-delayed proposal to designate natural gas and nuclear power “sustainable” sources of energy Wednesday.

Including the energy sources on the EU’s green list could unlock a wave of private investment into new nuclear and gas projects. But the plans have angered climate activists and could still be blocked by European lawmakers, who are also deeply divided over the issue along national and political lines.

EU Financial Services Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, presenting the proposal to journalists in Brussels after more than a year of horse-trading between member states, was forced to deflect accusations of EU “greenwashing” and concede that the proposal was “imperfect.”

She said that the feedback she had received on the proposed list was “widely divided in all of our institutions.”

“However, I believe that we have found a balance between fundamentally different opinions,” she said, adding that natural gas was included as a “transitional” fuel source only and would come with “strict” conditions.

“The end is a low-carbon future powered by renewable energy. We do not have the capacity for that yet,” she said.

Only four countries — Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg — have publicly voiced opposition to the inclusion of both gas and nuclear, but most other member states — including heavyweights such as Germany and France — backed at least one of the two energy sources.

The policy has opened up a fierce debate on whether natural gas — a fossil fuel that contributes significantly to climate change — should play a role during the transition to renewable energy and for how long. Natural gas typically emits less carbon dixoide than coal, but critics argue more focus should be place on boosting renewable energy, and that supporting new gas projects will only prolong the life of the fossil fuel.

Nuclear, on the other hand, is a low-carbon source of energy, but arguments against it revolve around safety, including how to store the radioactive waste it produces. Nuclear plants are also costly and projects are typically beset by delays.

Bas Eickhout, a Green lawmaker from the Netherlands who sits in the European Parliament, said he had “never seen such a strategic mistake by the Commission,” and that the policy contradicted the European Union’s pleas to the rest of the world to rapidly decarbonize their economies.

“We are undermining the entire credibility of our Green Deal,” he told CNN, referring to the EU’s centerpiece climate legislation. “And on the gas side, I really I don’t see it. I fail to see the added value.”

The European Union is often considered a world climate leader and its policies have inspired many in other countries.

“We are always proud to say that the world is following the example of the EU, and that will happen here as well. Europe is going to say fossil gas is OK for 10 years. What do you think what kind of message you’re giving to, for example, African countries who are also thinking of their energy future, and will then be stuck in gas for longer?” Eickhout said.

Climate and energy experts have also criticized the decision as one that could hinder Europe’s green transition.

The European Union is aiming to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and become a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. Net zero is where emissions are dramatically reduced, and any that remain are offset, whether using natural methods like tree planting or technology to “capture” emissions. The effectiveness of such technology is currently limited.

Greenpeace described the decision as an “attempted robbery” where billions of euro were being diverted from renewables to gas and nuclear.

“This anti-science plan represents the biggest greenwashing exercise of all time. It makes a mockery of the EU’s claims to global leadership on climate and the environment,” Greenpeace’s EU sustainable finance campaigner Ariadna Rodrigo said in a statement.

“The inclusion of gas and nuclear in the taxonomy is increasingly difficult to explain as anything other than a giveaway to two desperate industries with powerful political friends.”

The European Commission’s proposal sets a limit on how much carbon dioxide (CO2) a gas project could emit at 270 grams per kilowatt hours (kWh).

But Tsvetelina Kuzmanova, a sustainable finance policy adviser at the climate think tank E3G, said that power plants should not emit more than 100 grams per kWh to be considered sustainable. And even that threshold should decline over time.

The lower threshold Kuzmanova suggests would require any new natural gas projects to offset or capture some of their emissions.

She also criticized the EU’s argument that gas was a “transitional” fuel, saying that term should be reserved for energy sources that have no real alternatives.

“For the energy sector in producing electricity, heat, cool and power, that’s not the case. We already have renewables, so it violates this principle and could hamper the much-needed investments in renewable technologies,” she added.

The bloc is also facing calls to reduce its reliance on natural gas, as ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine threaten to disrupt its energy supplies, keeping prices near record highs.

A recent report published by the think tank InfluenceMap, which tracks the impact of business and finance on climate policy, showed that fossil fuel companies were lobbying aggressively to influence the policy and several others concerning the future of gas.

“It seems the gas sector has been able to exert its influence and undermine a science-based climate policy process in favor of measures that serve its short-term interests,” said InfluenceMap’s Rebecca Vaughan, who tracks sustainable finance.

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