Europeans split over goals to cut emissions
BRUSSELS: Confronted by fears of a sharp economic slowdown, Europe's ambitious climate-change reduction plans were called into question Thursday when several countries threatened to veto proposals unless they are made more affordable.
At an European Union summit meeting dominated by the fallout from the financial crisis, discussions on how to achieve cuts in carbon emissions within the 27-country bloc led to fierce exchanges among European leaders.
Italy and several eastern European countries said that they could not accept current proposals, insisting on the right to veto them. That promises to make the process of agreement the contentious measures more difficult than ever.
At stake is the credibility of the European claim to lead the push to combat global warming. Officials say that a failure to reach a deal in December would be particularly damaging because it would undermine Europe's ability to negotiate with a new administration in the United States, which is expected to be more open to efforts to tackle climate change.
Against a backdrop of mounting economic gloom, an effort by France, which holds the EU presidency, to expedite the climate change plans backfired as countries refused to commit themselves to a French target of striking a deal in December. France insisted that its targets remain in place.
In order to meet a 20 percent target, the legislation would tighten EU emission ceilings on energy and manufacturing companies beginning in 2013. The package would also set renewable-energy targets for individual countries aimed at driving the EU to adopt cleaner power.
"We have to find a solution before January," said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the chairman of the two-day summit meeting. "We are not going to hide behind the crisis. Europe must set an example."
But combative exchanges at a dinner for heads of government Wednesday night set the scene for a protracted battle over who will shoulder most of the cost of the goal - the reduction of CO² emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
The EU talks are based on a package of draft laws proposed by the European Commission, which spell out how the 20 percent reduction target would be achieved by each of the 27 countries. Swift agreement is needed because the legislation will have to be approved by the European Parliament which reaches the end of its mandate in June.
Moreover a failure in December would hand the task of clinching agreement to the Czech Republic, which takes over the EU presidency in January and whose governing coalition is divided over climate change.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy led the assault on the package, saying that he was not in office last year when it was agreed on. "We don't think this is the moment to push forward on our own like Don Quixote," he said. "We have time."
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, welcomed a concession, implicit in the conclusions of the meeting Thursday, that decisions will be taken by leaders under a rule that requires each country to agree. "The EU will decide by the unanimity rule," Frattini said.
Backed by seven of the newer EU member states, Poland led a concerted move to weaken the text of the summit conclusions that initially stressed the need for a deal in December.
The group of skeptics includes Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. Like Berlusconi, Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland also said that the targets had been set before he was in government.
Tusk underlined the problems confronted by Poland's reliance on coal-fired power stations, compared to countries like France that have a bigger nuclear-based component in their energy mix. "We don't say to the French," said Tusk, "that they have to close down their nuclear power industry and build windmills, and nobody can tell us the equivalent."
"We have achieved this veto right in order to use it if there is no other possibility," he said.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis of Latvia said that his country would veto the package unless there were more concessions for countries that joined the EU in 2004. And Germany has already made clear its concern about the competitive impact of the EU emissions trading system on energy-intensive industries should other blocs not adopt similar arrangements.
But David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, accused countries of trying to wriggle out of commitments they had made just last year. "There is no setback," Miliband said, emphasizing that he expected an agreement on the current timetable.
"A number of countries have shown buyer's remorse for the agreement in 2007," he said. "There is no going back. No going back on determination to have agreement by the end of the year."
The scale of the backlash against the proposals has caused concern including in Denmark which will host crucial climate change talks next year. "There is not reason to hide the fact that we face some very difficult negotiations up to December," Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark said.
In an effort to assuage concern over the impact of the economic slowdown on industry, Sarkozy called for consideration of a stimulus package for the economy. Sarkozy pointed particularly to the automobile industry, which has asked for a multi-billion euro bailout fund.
"Can you ask the European car industry to provide clean cars, change the whole industrial apparatus, without giving them a helping hand?" he asked.
He said European automakers might need help similar to that being offered by the U.S. government to its auto sector. This weekend Sarkozy and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, will meet with President George W. Bush to discuss proposals to revamp global financial structures.
Sarkozy said there was a need to "recast the capitalist system" and questioned the future of credit-rating agencies which, he said, had failed to prevent the recent financial meltdown.
EU leaders have backed calls for a meeting of economic powers - including China, Russia and India - to plot an overhaul of the financial markets similar to the meeting in Bretton Woods in 1944 that set out the rules of international trade and financial relations.
James Kanter contributed reporting from Brussels.