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Breakingviews – Guest view: The EU is tarnishing its green jewel

Por Sandrine Dixson-Declève*

BRUSSELS (Reuters Breakingviews) - When Ursula von der Leyen announced the European Green Deal in 2019, she hailed it as “Europe’s ‘man on the moon’ moment”. A key component of this revolutionary programme would be the European Union Taxonomy, using the latest climate science to define truly green investments. The European Commission president is now in grave danger of allowing this all-important tool to become toothless.

A recent draft of the Taxonomy is creating alarm among financial institutions, scientists and civil society. Under intense pressure from fossil-fuel lobbyists and an unlikely coalition of Nordic and central and eastern European governments, the European Commission has departed from science-based decision-making to classify new cogeneration gas plants as green investments. It’s a huge mistake, and just one example of how the new draft has moved away from science.

The new gas criteria are striking in their inconsistency. The Commission shows an apparent commitment to science-based criteria by rightly maintaining an emissions threshold of 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour for electricity generation and classifying all activities with emissions of more than 270 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour as environmentally harmful. These are the thresholds suggested by the science.

However, it then contravenes this very rule by introducing a loophole for new gas cogeneration facilities which replace less efficient plants. These facilities will qualify as sustainable if they simply meet the 270 grams threshold. This is not just logically inconsistent: it deals a fatal blow to the EU’s leadership on climate.

While it may sound reasonable to replace a coal plant with a cleaner installation, the new proposal does not take into consideration the urgency of the transition required in the power sector. Europe needs to close coal plants and replace them with truly low-carbon, renewable alternatives. Far from being a bridge fuel, new gas will lock us into a high-carbon future for decades, hampering the EU’s ability to meet its climate targets.

This is the crucial point. The EU asked experts who developed the Taxonomy’s criteria one simple question: to accomplish the EU’s 2050 climate targets, which economic activities must we support? We answered unequivocally that fossil fuels have no future if Europe is serious about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% this decade compared to 1990 levels.

Instead, we argued the EU should focus on transformative energy investments to improve buildings’ energy efficiency, favour widespread heat pump installation, and finance solar heating. We also asserted that the Taxonomy’s criteria on what counts as sustainable forestry should go beyond existing minimum compliance and reflect our 2030 emissions reduction targets. But because that clashed with the political imperative of certain member states to link forestry ambition to existing national legislation, the EU simply ignored the science.

The EU must listen to our original recommendations and remove fossil fuels from the Taxonomy. The current proposal will fail millions of European citizens who echo Greta Thunberg’s simple request that leaders listen to the scientists. It will also force many environmental and scientific organisations to demand that environmentally friendly Members of the European Parliament join forces with those who oppose all environmental regulation to strike the Taxonomy down. That would be a devastating setback for the wider European Green Deal.

Finally, it would contradict the EU’s stated objective of prioritising renewable energy and energy efficiency, and create serious difficulties for the European Investment Bank. The EIB has both committed to apply a science-based taxonomy and to eliminate all fossil fuels from its lending portfolio from this year onwards.

As the world’s largest importer of natural gas, Europe is indirectly responsible for a large part of the enormous methane leakages in that commodity’s production process that can make it just as polluting as coal. Europeans have a duty of leadership to clean up these supply chains. Excluding dirty gas from the Taxonomy would be more impactful than electrifying all transport and possibly even than closing all remaining coal plants in Europe: measures which are themselves essential to reach the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction targets.

Classifying fossil fuels as green, by contrast, would endanger those targets and unravel the EU’s credibility on climate neutrality precisely when the Biden administration is becoming a new competitor for global leadership. For the above reasons, the Taxonomy must not classify fossil fuels as green.

Of course, if member states wish to use natural gas in their transition to climate neutrality, they will still be perfectly free to do so. Just as the EU Energy Efficiency Label does not prevent the sale of less efficient fridges but simply prevents manufacturers calling them green, the Taxonomy would simply explain whether a member state’s investment is in line with climate science. Each member state can choose to listen to the science or not.

To European leaders, I say this: your choice between fossil fuels and the Green Deal will define your legacy. Will you lead the world by protecting the European Green Deal via a science-based EU Taxonomy? Or will Europe face accusations of greenwashing for the next decade? Our continent’s credibility is at stake.

- Sandrine Dixson-Declève represents Climate-KIC as a member of the European Commission’s Sustainable Finance Platform and Technical Expert Group, which recommended how the European Union’s Taxonomy should function. She is also co-president of the Club of Rome.




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