BRUSSELS — Wednesday’s vote by European Union legislators to include natural gas, and nuclear in the bloc’s list of sustainable activities was backed by an executive proposal that has drawn fierce criticism from environmental groups and could lead to legal challenges.

The EU is determined to set the highest global standards for climate change mitigation and this decision could damage its image and put into question the region’s commitment towards climate neutrality by 2050.

The European Commission made the proposal earlier this year as part of its plans to build a climate-friendly world. It divided member countries and drew outcry from environmentalists about what they call “greenwashing”.

Last month, EU legislators representing the economy and environment committees rescinded the plan. This set up Wednesday’s decisive voting in Strasbourg, France. MEPs voted against the resolution with 328-278 votes, 33 legislators abstaining. The results were announced to cheers.

To veto the proposal, an absolute majority of 353 was required. The so-called Taxonomy Delegated Act will be in force and effective next year if the European Parliament and its member countries do not object by July 11.

Greenpeace immediately stated that it would submit a formal request to the European Commission for an internal review and, if that fails, will take legal action at The European Court of Justice.

“It’s dirty politics, and it’s an absurd outcome to label gas or nuclear as green and keep more money flowing (to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war chest), but now we will fight these in the courts,” stated Ariadna Rodriguez, Greenpeace’s EU sustainable financing campaigner.

Bas Eickhout, European Parliament’s rapporteur, regretted “a dark day” for climate change and energy transition.

The European Commission’s green labeling system defines what is considered an investment in sustainable energies. Private investors will be able to invest in both gas and nuclear energy if they meet certain conditions.

The EU is aiming to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at most 55% by 2030. According to the commission, the classification system is essential for direct investments in sustainable energy. To meet the 2030 targets, it estimates that 350 billion euros per year of investment will be required.

In the midst of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the introduction of nuclear and gas into the equation has caused divisions among the 27 members countries and the political parties.

Claude Turmes (Luxembourg’s energy minister) said that he was deeply disappointed by the European Parliament’s inability to block the plan of the commission. He added that his country, along with Austria, would continue legal efforts to stop the labeling nuclear and natural gas as sustainable.

Steffen Hebestreit, a spokesperson for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the German government stood by its position and considered nuclear energy unsustainable.

Hebestreit said that “Nevertheless, the German government believes the taxonomy can be an important instrument to achieve climate protection targets because it is obvious that natural gas is a crucial bridging technology for our way to CO2 neutrality, and the inclusion of natural gas use in the delegated acts takes this into consideration.”

As lawmakers discussed the issue, protests that began on Tuesday were continued Wednesday outside of the EU legislature.

The vote was condemned by environmentalists as setting a precedent that other lawmakers could use to declare polluting energy sustainable.

Tsvetelina Kuzmanova, a member of E3G’s campaign group, stated that “we have now officially validated Greenwashing by Law.”

She stated that the process and decision were entirely political, not scientific to benefit only a few member states. This would not be allowed in court, and will only cause more uncertainty for financial markets, and jeopardize (the EU’s) climate ambitions.

Fridays for Future, a youth activist group, stated that billions of euro could be invested in gas infrastructure and nuclear power stations as a result. This would divert much-needed funds away from renewable options.

The argument against the proposal is that it would boost Russian gas sales at the same time it invades neighboring Ukraine. However, the European Commission stated it had received a support letter from the Ukrainian government supporting its position.

Mairead McGuinness, European Commissioner, quoted Tuesday’s letter from Ukraine’s energy minister: “I strongly believe the inclusion of nuclear and gas in the taxonomy as an important element in Europe’s energy security, especially in view of replacing Russian gas.”

McGuinness stated, “I don’t think we should second-guess the letter.”

The 27-nation bloc has decided to cut ties with Russian fossil fuels because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The member countries have committed to banning 90% of Russian oil by the end of the year, and to also ban imports of Russian coal beginning in August.

Gas, a fuel that powers factories and generates electricity, has been excluded from EU sanctions. This is to avoid serious economic harm. It relied on Russia for 25% and 40% of its oil before the war in Ukraine.


This report was contributed by Frank Jordans, Kirsten Grieshaber and Kirsten Greshaber.