The European Union has an internal argument over what constitutes 'green energy'

(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Everyone knows what green energy is, right? It’s wind and solar and geothermal and hydroelectric. But what about nuclear power? Is nuclear green? Most people would probably say yes since it isn’t dependent on fossil fuels. But the Green Party in Germany, which is part of the ruling coalition at present, says no. Similarly, most people would probably not think of natural gas as green energy but Germany, which is heavily dependent on gas, says it is.

All of this had led to an ongoing debate within the EU about what constitutes green energy for purposes of investments. This all started back in February of this year.

Brussels has been attempting for more than a year to settle whether gas and nuclear energy should be labelled as green in the EU’s taxonomy, a rulebook that defines which investments can be marketed as climate-friendly.

In final rules due to be published on Wednesday, the Commission will confirm plans to label both gas and nuclear power plants as sustainable investments, provided they meet certain criteria, a Commission source said on condition of anonymity…

Four countries wrote to the Commission on Monday urging it to exclude gas, citing a “lack of scientific evidence” for labelling the fuel as green. Austria and Luxembourg have threatened legal action if the EU brands nuclear as sustainable.

The poles of this ongoing debate have been France and Germany. France gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear. Meanwhile, Germany is shutting down its remaining nuclear plants and receives much of its energy in the form of natural gas. Other countries have mostly sided with one of these two teams.

France, which sources around 70% of its electricity from nuclear, is leading Team Nuclear, which includes Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.

On the other hand, Germany will shut down its three remaining nuclear plants by the end of this year. It’s going to rely on natural gas, a polluting fossil fuel, instead, and the country calls it a “bridge technology.” Germany says it will replace natural gas with non-polluting alternatives such as hydrogen by 2045, which is its net zero target date. Poland and Bulgaria are also on Team Natural Gas.

Belgium plans to be nuclear free by 2045, and Switzerland also intends to phase out its nuclear power plants. Denmark and Luxembourg are anti-nuclear, and Austria yesterday repeated its threat to take legal action over nuclear’s potential label as renewable energy.

Early on it appeared that Germany would consider going to court over the new energy taxonomy, but this week Germany came to an internal agreement that it would vote against the new EU labeling but will not take the EU to court over it.

The Commission presented its long-awaited green labeling system for investments in the energy sector at the end of last year. The fact that nuclear energy is classified as a green technology — something that France had pushed for — immediately caused a strong backlash from the German government and especially ministers from the Green party, which has opposed nuclear energy since its foundation some 40 years ago…

The German Greens have since been pushing to not only reject the Commission proposal but also follow Austria’s example and file a lawsuit against the plan. But the other two coalition partners in the German government — the Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the liberal Free Democratic Party of Finance Minister Christian Lindner — have been warier about such action. Under a deal reached by the three coalition partners, Berlin will now vote against the proposal but won’t take the Commission to court.

“The German government … will not file a lawsuit because there was no agreement on this,” the finance ministry official said.

From my perspective, the German position, particularly that of the Green Party makes little sense. If anything you would expect green activists to more exercised about natural gas than about nuclear power but not so in Germany. It makes slightly more sense when you realize that Germany still generates a large amount of its electricity from coal and is a major coal producer. Gas is generally considered much cleaner than coal and a good source of energy as economies attempt to transition toward renewable energy sources. So in Germany natural gas may seem like clean energy in comparison. But their fixation on opposition to nuclear power still makes no sense.