From nuclear energy to wood burning: crisis puts green policies in check in Europe

The proximity of the European winter and the continent’s deep energy crisis, aggravated by the almost total cut in natural gas supplies by Russia this month, have led Europe to rethink its green energy policies.

Recently, the European Union voted to keep nuclear energy in its taxonomy of sustainable sources — a list of economic activities considered to be in line with the EU’s transition project to climate neutrality. The block also faces an internal struggle related to the burning of wood as a source of electricity. While the European Parliament voted to end public incentives for the practice and gradually reduce the modality in counting renewable energy targets, member states protested the negative impact of cutting the timber subsidy.

Mirando the end of Russia’s dependence on fossil fuels, the EU wants to expand the use of renewable energy and thus accelerate the so-called green transition. Last Wednesday (14 ), MEPs voted in favor that, until 2030, 50% of the bloc’s energy comes from renewable sources. They were also in favor of ending subsidies for “primary woody biomass” (healthy trees cut down for fuel), but they displeased activists by failing to set dates for the reduction of wood use and by opposing the total elimination of this form of generation of energy. energy. Under the Parliament proposal, trees cut for road safety or fire protection can continue to benefit from subsidies for renewable energy.

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A Wood is currently the largest source of renewable energy in Europe, surpassing wind and solar generation by a large margin. And there is evidence that the climate change mitigation objective intended by this means is not being achieved. Last year, the European Union’s scientific research agency pointed out that the burning of wood emits more carbon dioxide than that of fossil fuels.

Recently, a document from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA, which is based in the US, in collaboration with Greenpeace Romania, showed that protected forests in Eastern Europe are being transformed into wooden heating pallets. The study made use of maps, official data and field research, such as tracking logs over a century old from forests to a factory that supplies pallets to customers in Italy, France and Poland.

According to the EIA, about 40% of the wood that leaves Romanian forests comes from of protected areas. “People buy wood pellets thinking this is a sustainable choice, but in reality they are favoring the destruction of Europe’s last natural forests,” David Gehl, a member of the Agency, told the New York Times. According to the publication, in Hungary, for example, conservation rules were overturned by the government last month to allow logging in ancient forests.

At the beginning of last year, more than 400 Scientists have written a letter asking European and world leaders to end subsidies for burning wood. “There was a misguided move to cut down entire trees or divert large portions of stem wood for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise be trapped in forests,” the document states. “Trees are more valuable alive than dead, both for the climate and for biodiversity”, he adds.

In this week’s vote, MEPs decided to gradually reduce subsidies, but rejected the elimination complete plant burning. If the EU stopped considering the energy obtained from burning wood as carbon neutral, many countries would distance themselves from the bloc’s aggressive renewable energy targets. In Italy, for example, the continent’s largest consumer of pallets, more than two-thirds of the renewable energy consumed comes from vegetable burning and there are tax deductions for the purchase of pallet stoves. Other countries offer similar exemptions and incentives for timber producers.

The New York Times reported that internal EU documents showed strong pressure from Nordic and Central European countries for continued timber subsidies. In them, Latvia would warn of a “possible negative impact on investment and business” and Denmark would have argued that this type of decision should be the responsibility of national governments.

According to the European Commission, the EU spent 10 billions of dollars in subsidies to bioenergy in 2020; against 14 billion in the previous year. The NGOs claim that most of this amount goes to firewood mills.

Before the Parliament vote on the issue, Bioenergy Europe, an industry association, published a statement stating that restrictions in this regard “will raise prices and increase energy poverty because, in the short term, sustainable bioenergy can only be replaced by more expensive natural gas and coal.”

The rehabilitation of nuclear energy

Europe’s energy crisis has also served as a turning point for nuclear energy. In May, Finland’s Green Party made a historic change in stance, voting to adopt a pro-nuclear stance at its national meeting.

The party’s manifesto, first among the Greens to adopt The position goes on to state that nuclear energy is “sustainable energy”, requiring a reform of the current energy legislation to speed up the approval process for small modular reactors (SMR). “This is a historic moment in the history of the green movement, as we are the first green party in the world to officially abandon anti-nuclearism”, celebrated Tea Törmänen, who attended the conference as a voting member.

In July , the European Parliament decided to label nuclear energy investments as green, which, for experts, marks a step forward in the bloc’s energy transition and security. If there is no opposition from the Council, the EU Delegated Taxonomy Act enters into force on 1 January 2023. This means that, as of this date, nuclear energy, hitherto demonized by environmentalists, will be able to access the market for sustainable investments. “Labeling nuclear energy as green is the clearest indication of this growing consensus around nuclear energy in the EU”, says Timur Tillyaev, an international investor in renewable energy.

“The potential capital injection should pave the way for industry innovation, helping countries to produce safer, more efficient and more affordable nuclear energy on a larger scale. This, in turn, will help the EU to stop relying on fossil fuels and especially Russian gas. Evidence suggests that innovations in nuclear technology should help to dramatically reduce the cost and time needed to build new reactors.”

According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). ), there are about 440 commercial nuclear reactors in operation at 140 countries, with 180 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity. Last year alone, this source generated 2.553 terawatts/hour (TWh) of energy, serving approximately % of global electricity demand (one terawatt hour is the estimated annual consumption of population of 150 one thousand people in Europe, the amount generated was therefore enough to supply almost 400 million Europeans). In addition, other 55 reactors are under construction. More than 40 countries operate around 553 research reactors, and 220 nuclear reactors feed around 140 ships and submarines.

Data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicate that the country with the most reactors is the USA, where there are 93. France is the leader in Europe, with 60 reactors. Then comes China, with 54. Russia has 30 reactors and Japan has 25. The ranking also has South Korea (24), India ( 18), Canada (14), Ukraine (14) and United Kingdom ()). Germany, on the other hand, completely moved away from nuclear energy, after the tragedy of Fukushima, in 2011, when an earthquake hit a nuclear power plant in the Japanese city, killing 2030 a thousand people and forcing the departure of 160 thousand residents of the region. Earlier this year, three of the six German reactors still in operation were deactivated.

After a long time investing in an energy security policy, France obtains 70% of your electricity from nuclear power. In February, the country announced plans to build six new reactors and is considering investing in eight more. According to the WNA, the low cost of generation makes France the largest net exporter of electricity in the world, with revenues of US$ 3 billion a year. About 14% of French electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel.

A WNA survey shows that 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions are from burning fossil fuels. Nuclear fission does not produce greenhouse gases. Emissions occur indirectly during the construction of the plant, as with renewable generation. According to the report, in its entire cycle, nuclear energy produces an equivalent amount of CO2 per unit of electricity to wind energy, and a third of that emitted by solar energy (considering the entire cycle, from the manufacture of plates, etc.).

According to Hannah Richie, a PhD in Geosciences, all energy sources have negative effects, ranging from air pollution, accidents and greenhouse gas emissions. She states that “nuclear and renewable energies are much, much safer than fossil fuels.”

“Our perceptions of the safety of nuclear energy are heavily influenced by two accidents: Chernobyl , in Ukraine, in 1986, and Fukushima, in Japan, in 2011. These were tragic events. However, compared to the millions who die from fossil fuels every year, the final number of deaths was very low”, she argues.

To illustrate, she uses the hypothetical example of a city of 140 thousand inhabitants in the European Union, which consumes one terawatt-hour of electricity per year, and is based on an estimate of deaths per unit of electricity. If the city were entirely coal-fired, the expectation is that at least 23 inhabitants would die prematurely each year from air pollution. In the case of the exclusive use of oil, they would be 18 dead; gas would result in three deaths; electricity in one. In the case of wind power, no one would die in a normal year. The mortality rate is 0,04 deaths per terawatt-hour. This “means that every 19 year a single person would die.” In the case of nuclear energy, only every 25 year would someone die. And in the solar this period would extend to 54 years.

“ The good news is that there is no conflict between the safest energy sources in the short term and the least harmful to the climate in the long term”, he celebrates. “Unfortunately, the global electricity mix is ​​still dominated by fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas account for around 60 %. If we want to stop climate change, we have a huge opportunity in front of us: we can make the transition to nuclear and renewable energy, and also is to reduce deaths from accidents and air pollution as a side effect”, adds Richie.

EU proposes intervention in the sector

Faced with the growing threat of rationing and blackout during the coming winter, the European Commission is also working on proposals for an “emergency intervention” for the electricity market. The ideas, published on Wednesday, include taking revenue from low-cost electricity companies, as well as sharing windfall profits by fossil fuel companies.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, justified that the “crisis contribution” by the sector, due to its “huge profits”, should result in a collection of more than 140 billions of dollars. The amount will be “for member states to cushion the blow directly”, protecting consumers from rising prices. “In these times, profits must be shared and channeled to those who need it most,” he said.

The project also calls for a mandatory goal of cutting electricity consumption in countries, as a way of ensure that Europe has fuel in the coldest season. According to von der Leyen, the Commission would authorize temporary state aid to European companies, as a way of balancing the effects of volatile energy markets.

Another point that is being analyzed and that has divided opinion is the ceiling for the price of gas. A revision of the text discussed by the member states is expected in the coming days. EU energy ministers are due to discuss the Commission’s proposals in September 30 .

The Brussels plan has been criticized by industry and member states. Representatives of more energy-intensive sectors, such as aluminum and steel production, argue that the measures are insufficient to alleviate the rise in prices that led to massive bankruptcies in the industry. European Aluminium, a trade body, has suggested, for example, that some of the windfall taxes should go to critical industries.

National differences should also be an obstacle to agreement on the proposals. With a liberalized electricity market, the Netherlands would find it difficult to charge a tax on low-cost (non-gas) power generators. Luxembourg, Lithuania and Latvia, which do not have generators and import electricity, have warned that they will not receive emergency revenue unless shared by neighboring countries.

Most of the 23 EU members also want the proposed cut in electricity demand (set at 5% of use at peak times) is not mandatory, but voluntary. Others are against the possibility of more regulation.

In France, operator RTE declared that there is no risk of a total blackout, but did not rule out power cuts at peak times to reduce demand. “As a last resort, organized, temporary and rotating load shedding interruptions may be activated to prevent a widespread incident,” he said in a statement reproduced by the Reuters news agency. The French government has also said it will limit residential energy price increases to 15% at the beginning of 2023.

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