Thursday 24 March 2022

The EU, Italy, Gas and Nuclear Power


Abridged article by Tobias Abse originally for Green Socialist

COP26 left us with the impression that although India, China and Russia were trying to minimise the urgency of global heating, the EU was nominally committed to taking some action. But on 2 February 2022, the European Commission gave its approval to what it called a ‘taxonomy’ of fuels which categorised both natural gas (i.e., methane) and nuclear power as ‘green’.

This shocking decision was the culmination of a rather fraught discussion that had been going on since December 2021, when it first became obvious that there was a minority of EU governments that opposed the initial draft proposals, some very strongly. Sweden and Austria are threatening to contest it by appealing to the European Court of Justice, whilst Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxemburg have also expressed opposition.

However, whilst this decision has delayed any vote on the European Council even if Germany joins the six the ‘taxonomy’ would be approved. The only real chance of stopping this proposal from becoming EU law is if there is an absolute majority against it in the European Parliament. It is opposed by both the Greens and the Left Group. And possibly the Social Democrats will vote against it as a bloc.

If the Liberals, now renamed Renew Europe, obey the French President, they will vote in favour. The European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) is divided, with the Austrians against. The two Far Rights blocs are enormously enthusiastic about nuclear power, and generally favour gas.

Given enough popular pressure from European citizens, it is still possible that enough wavering MEPs in the Centre of the political spectrum might vote to revoke it, but it will be an uphill battle.

The reason that a decision, which goes against all the rhetoric of a ‘European Green Deal’, was made had nothing to do with science, it was a reflection of the power politics of the EU. France is largely dependent upon nuclear power for its electricity, and Germany is increasingly reliant on gas. The Eastern European countries are by and large quite comfortable with their outdated Soviet era nuclear power stations, and their right-wing nationalist/populist leaders are not very keen on any ‘Green Deal’ and often resist phasing out coal.

The ‘taxonomy’ may not be designed to influence the choices of private investors, but ecological transition, can never be accomplished without state intervention. For example, BlackRock, the biggest of all investment funds, which administers around 9,500 billion dollars, decided a year ago to take the ‘Green Road’, so that ‘green bonds will get priority over any other shares or bonds. Therefore, EU legitimation will mean they can invest in gas or nuclear.

This ‘taxonomy’ decision coincided with a crisis in gas supplies to the EU., in part the result of the uneven recovery from the COVID epidemic, which led the Chinese to buy up a large proportion of the available reserves. Moreover, the failure of the EU27 to work together in securing gas supplies and reserves allowed suppliers to benefit from bidding wars.

The rise in gas prices, and the knock-on impact on electricity prices, poses a political problem for governments since angry consumers are likely to vote them out at the net election.

In Italy, the man who takes most delight in the current situation is Roberto Cingolani, Minister for Ecological Transition or as Italian environmentalists now dub him, ‘The Minister for Ecological Fiction’. Cingolani has argued that too rapid a shift towards a more ecological economy would be ‘a bloodbath’. He has always been an enthusiast for both methane and nuclear power advocating ‘fourth generation’ of mini nuclear reactors, which would allegedly produce little radioactive waste.

Cingolani has also just removed the restrictions on drilling for gas both on land and under the sea. Mario Draghi’s government has now announced a plan to double Italy’s gas production as soon as possible.

Tobias Abse is a member of the Green Alliance for Socialism.

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