France drops pink atomic bomb on EU green energy talks

France drops pink atomic bomb on EU green energy talks
Опубликовано: Friday, 31 March 2023 11:15

Paris may have forced Brussels into a concession on nuclear’s role in renewables, but it’s at the expense of a lot of goodwill.

BRUSSELS — France won a marginal victory in its effort to include nuclear power in the EU’s new renewable energy rules — but at a high political cost.

Negotiators from EU member countries and the European Parliament reached a provisional deal early Thursday on the Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII) — an effort to boost green energy to meet the bloc’s bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by the end of the decade.

The deal sets a mandatory bloc-wide renewables target of 42.5 percent by 2030 — up from the current goal of 32 percent.

France — which lags many other EU countries in the percentage of renewable energy it generates thanks to its reliance on nuclear power — fought to give hydrogen made from atomic energy a prominent role in the green legislation.

It failed, but did win a concession that would allow countries with large amounts of atomic power to count some hydrogen generated with nuclear energy — called pink hydrogen — to meet a green energy sub-target for industry.

French Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher hailed the agreement as “an important step forward” that marked “a change in paradigm ... for the recognition of the diversity of choice of energy mixes in Europe.”

Seeing red over pink

But that win came at a cost.

France had corralled a grouping of eight other countries — most from Central Europe — to back its nuclear effort. But in the end the compromise may only benefit countries with very large nuclear power percentages, essentially France and Sweden. That leaves allies with small or no nuclear sectors like Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria out in the cold.

“I think it’s the end of [the] low-carbon group as we’ve seen it,” said a diplomat from one EU country who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The way France has used the other member states from Central and Eastern Europe to get a provision that works only for France is something that made a lot of [other countries] furious.”

It’s also enraged a bloc of stoutly anti-nuclear countries that includes Germany and Austria. Seven of them wrote a joint letter earlier this month warning that including nuclear-generated hydrogen could “jeopardize the achievement of … climate targets” and reduce ambitions on renewables.

“The attempt to declare nuclear energy as sustainable and renewable must be resolutely opposed,” Austrian Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler said after the deal.

“The attempt to declare nuclear energy as sustainable and renewable must be resolutely opposed,” Austrian Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler said | Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE

Their worry is that allowing the pink hydrogen loophole will undermine investments in renewables like wind and solar.

“The concern among some member states is that allowing governments to count nuclear-generated hydrogen towards their targets means countries like France could just depend to a very large extent on that and invest less into what’s called ‘green hydrogen,’ made using solar energy, wind and so on,” said Albéric Mongrenier, director for energy and sustainability at the Centre on Regulation in Europe.

The scrap among member countries over nuclear power also undermined their unity in talks with the European Parliament; the Swedish Council presidency began negotiations on Wednesday in the unusual position of having no clear mandate.

That allowed Parliament to successfully extract more ambition on transport and the target share of renewables in the bloc’s overall energy mix, according to a parliamentary legislator present at the 14-hour marathon talks.

“This is a day to remember for those who use energy in Europe,” Markus Pieper, a German MEP from the center-right European People’s Party and the institution’s chief negotiator on the file, said after the talks. “The push from nuclear countries didn’t fail, but nevertheless it was severely restricted.”

Paris insisted that the agreed targets would be a “gigantic effort” for all members to meet, including France. “We’re all in the same boat,” said a French government official.

But other countries weren’t buying it.

“Some personal relationships are definitely damaged,” said a diplomat from a second EU country.

The provisional deal is also leaving a sour taste among small member countries already angered over Germany’s recent effort to block the EU’s 2035 phaseout of combustion engine cars.

“There is a general frustration in Council about the way Germany and France are playing by different rules than the other member states,” said a diplomat from a third EU country. “They’re also trying to push their very narrow national interests.”

A diplomat from a smaller EU country added: “Why is it the case that the largest two countries always get their way?”

Alexandre Léchenet contributed reporting.

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