A battle with consequences
The outcome of this fight matters. The taxonomy will set the pace for “sustainable” investment in the EU, and will be studied worldwide, and as such has been hotly contested. An initial recommendation in March 2020 from the Commission’s Technical Expert group (TEG) entailed the effective exclusion of gas and nuclear from the EU taxonomy, leading to both lobbies scaling up their efforts to force their way back in. But the truth is that fossil fuels can never be sustainable, and that – though not as harmful to the climate – nuclear raises major sustainability concerns.
The gas industry has moved heaven and earth to achieve its goals. 776 staff have been employed in 182 gas-related companies and industry groups to lobby the EU. Together they spent between €64.9 and €78.4 million each year, with prominent contributions from oil majors such as Shell, BP Exxon and TotalEnergies (1). Money gets results: namely, an extraordinary 323 meetings with EU officials — more than one meeting every two days (2). This has been buttressed by support from cental and eastern European states, such as Czechia, Hungary and Poland, which are betting on gas to replace their coal fleets.
To persuade their targets, gas lobbyists emphasize its supposed ‘transition’ fuel status (3). But in truth, gas can emit as much greenhouse gas (GHG) as coal and recently became the biggest GHG emitter in the EU power sector. Moreover, global gas production must be drastically reduced to limit global warming to 1.5°C and European infrastructures and plants are already overbuilt to respect this objective.
While the gas lobby deployed a veritable armada in pursuit of its goal, the nuclear industry and its backers – weighing in smaller at €7.9m annually, with 119 staff from 27 organizations – pursued a much more surgical approach. For one, the frequency of meetings between EU Commissioners and nuclear lobbyists more than doubled after its initial exclusion by the TEG (4). The report also unveils the role played by ‘astroturfed’ groups set up to mimic civil society groups, as well as by nuclear industry’s experts, whose influence reaches into the EU Commission’s very own Joint Research Committee (JRC).
Like its gas counterpart, the industry has amply benefited from state backing, with nuclear-dependent France leading a coalition of seven states vociferously advocating for its inclusion. It is worth noting that the French government teamed up with notorious gas advocates to protect nuclear, while simultaneously opening the door to gas inclusion in a move that looks a lot like a “nuclear for gas” deal. French state-owned EDF was the biggest individual nuclear lobbyist, spending over €2m per year on EU lobbying.
Nuclear advocates seek to depict it as environmentally friendly (5), emphasizing its role as a ‘decarbonized’ power source. Yet as the report argues, nuclear fails the ‘Do No Significant Harm’ (DNSH) principle at the heart of the taxonomy, given the various environmental risks it poses, as recognized by various experts groups.
Life or Death Moment for the Sustainable Taxonomy