29 June 2022 – Europe’s addiction to fossil fuel corrodes our energy security and locks us into a pathway of irreversible and hostile change to our planet’s climate.
Emissions from gas, oil and coal bombard our planet’s oceans with heat equal to five Hiroshima-size nuclear bombs every second, and hold out the nightmarish prospect that South Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea could become too hot to inhabit inside 30 years, with eastern China and parts of southeast Asia and Brazil joining them by 2070.
We know that we face a historic and possibly existential crossroads. This is the moment for the EU to give investors a clarion call.
With wind and solar power almost universally cheaper than the alternatives, “unless one is invested in fossil fuels, there is now no reason not to take the clean energy path,” the last three UN climate chiefs wrote in a Guardian oped this month.
Regrettably, though, the EU’s proposed taxonomy regulation that MEPs will shortly vote on, would – in its current form – do the reverse, labeling fossil gas and nuclear power as priority green investments.
Justifying the decision last year, EU Financial Services Commissioner Mairead McGuinness said that the guidance would “help channel sustainable finance towards… reach[ing] our climate targets” and away from dirty coal.
But the primary component of fossil gas, methane, is a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year period, according to the UN IPCC which says that methane is responsible for up to 50% of global heating to date.
Gas may even be worse for our climate than coal if just 3% of its methane content leaks, according to the National Academy of Sciences. In April, NOAA scientists observed record levels of atmospheric methane concentrations for the second year running.
“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year,” said Fatih Birol, the director of the International Energy Agency, in 2021.
Yet so far this month Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have all announced plans to prospect for new gas fields in the North Sea.
We are in danger of spilling our last drink in the last chance saloon, and the taxonomy package is the proverbial elbow in our side.
Taxonomy-aligned gas plants would be up to 38 times more carbon intensive than onshore wind – and possibly more polluting than Europe’s existing electricity supply, according to one recent study.
Analysts say that the implicit blending requirements for taxonomy-aligned gas would increase costs by 30% for hydrogen, and 55% for green hydrogen. In the midst of a cost of living crisis this makes no sense, and it would not be a local problem.
The influence of the taxonomy regulation will be felt around the world.
Either it will attract other countries to weaken global climate ambitions, or the EU will lose some of its credibility as other countries, and investors, ignore it.
As Blackrock’s chief investment strategist Martin Lueck said, labeling gas and nuclear as sustainable energy sources “is obviously nonsense, and we all know it.”
Nuclear is at least a lower carbon energy source than fossil fuels, but its highly radioactive waste byproduct will remain a toxic hazard to people and the environment for many thousands of years.
Nuclear plants are also at risk from accidents of the type seen in Chernobyl, from natural disasters as happened in Fukushima, and from military conflict as nearly occurred in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, where thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored in open-air containers.
When the Russians bombed the plant in February, the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield tweeted: “By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe.”
The EU’s Green Deal promises that its initiatives “live up to a green oath to ‘do no harm’.” That commitment does not allow nuclear to be considered a “green” energy source in good faith.
We simply cannot foresee all the natural disasters, malfunctions, accidents and conflicts that could one day expose the planet and its people to radioactive hazard, and the precautionary principle demands that we act accordingly.
It is not as though there are no more cost-effective investments we could make. Energy storage will be a vital innovation needed by renewable electricity grids for generations to come.
Meanwhile, energy efficiency, as IEA director Fatih Birol put it, remains the “critical solution to so many of the world’s most urgent challenges.” Insulating buildings is the most popular, progressive and healthy way to cut emissions that we are yet to take at scale.
The IEA says that doubling the global rate of energy intensity improvement to 4% a year would also save 650 billion cubic metres of gas and 30 million barrels of oil a day. These are, respectively, four times the EU’s imports from Moscow and triple Russia’s 2021 production.
By contrast, doubling the world’s nuclear capacity in 2050 would only decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 4% according to Greenpeace analysis of World Nuclear Association figures. And even doing that would require 37 new large nuclear reactors to be brought online every year from now until mid-century, a scarcely credible proposition.
In practice, the nuclear strategy would offer a super-expensive subsidy to a super-toxic legacy sector – that would barely make a dent in our baseline energy needs. It would, though, depend entirely on the continued expansion of planet-heating fossil gas infrastructure in the interim.
As the current UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said in a tweet last month: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
We need to finally put human needs at the centre of our economic model, instead of profits. Before taking decisions, we should first ask: How much energy and natural resources do we really need to meet our needs? Decarbonizing steel production would be pointless if it just produces under-used cars and houses, that create traffic jams and property market bubbles, but not real social prosperity.
We are surpassing planetary boundaries because humanity never separated economic growth from the ever-rising demand for energy and resources. The result is that we are burning the safe space in which human societies evolved.
We must stop ignoring the inherent wastefulness of our production and consumption. High-income countries, including Europe, invented, and benefited most, from the current economic model, and must lead the transition. Taxonomy regulation is an important litmus test of how serious and sincere we are.
It is time to stop the madness. MEPs have a chance to help the EU recover its sanity. They must take it.
First published in Euractiv