Accord on environment reached at EU summit meeting

Posted in Europe | 10-Mar-07 | Author: Dan Bilefsky| Source: International Herald Tribune

Chancellor Angela Merkel.

BRUSSELS: The European Union approved a compromise agreement Friday that would make Europe the world's leader in the fight against climate change but would also allow some of Europe's most polluting countries to limit their environmental goals.

Issuing a challenge to the United States, China and India to match European ambitions in the fight against global warming, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called on the world to follow the EU's commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the year 2020. She said the bloc would commit to a 30 percent cut if other nations followed suit.

The accord by the 27-member bloc — unveiled after two days of heated negotiations and hailed by President Jacques Chirac of France as "a great moment in European history" — will require the EU to derive a fifth of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020. The bloc will also be required to fuel 10 percent of its cars and trucks on biofuels made from plants.

Merkel said the agreement would help the EU become a model for the rest of the world.

"This text really gives European Union policies a new quality and will establish us as a world pioneer," she said. She plans to press the issue at a June summit meeting in Germany of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations to try to push the world's biggest polluters — including the United States, China and India — to tackle climate change.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who has struggled to use his clout in Washington to press the Bush administration to be more diligent in fighting global warming, called the deal "groundbreaking."

"It gives Europe a clear leadership position on this crucial issue facing the world," he said.

The agreement faces daunting challenges to transform lofty ambitions into reality, environment analysts warned. Under pressure from several countries of the former Soviet bloc, which rely heavily on cheap coal and oil for their energy and are reluctant to switch to more costly environmentally friendly alternatives, the EU agreed that individual targets would be allowed for each of the 27 EU members to meet the renewable energy goal. That means that some of Europe's worst polluters in the fast-growing economies of the East will face less stringent targets than their Western counterparts.

Many of the eight former Communist nations that joined the EU in May 2004 are far behind the rest of the union in developing renewable energy. Poland, for example, obtains more than 90 percent of its energy for heating from coal. During the negotiations, countries like Slovakia and Hungary, which lack coastlines, argued that developing solar and wind-based energy would burden them unfairly.

Merkel and the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, defended the decision to have differentiated national targets for renewable energy, noting that while some EU member states like Latvia, Denmark and Spain had well-developed renewable sources, other coal-dependent countries like Poland had further to go to develop them.

Both he and Merkel acknowledged there would be difficult political and legal wrangling ahead, given that countries would have to approve binding targets set by the European Commission. EU lawyers still have to draw up the detailed rules specifying how the agreement will be enforced, but EU officials said the ultimate sanction for countries that violate the targets would include the imposition of heavy fines.

In a nod to Chirac, who lobbied hard for the EU to include nuclear power as a noncarbon energy alternative, the agreement acknowledges the role of nuclear power, suggesting it will be taken into account when the European Commission determines national targets. It quotes a European Commission report that said nuclear energy could help reduce greenhouse gases and cushion Europe against supply crises.

The move met stiff resistance from Austria, Denmark and Ireland, where nuclear energy is regarded with deep suspicion.

The EU leaders emphasized their commitment for a more collective approach with energy suppliers. EU officials said that the bloc was eager to diversify supply routes in response to the recent cases of Russia shutting down pipelines carrying oil and gas toward the West.

Some European business leaders fear overly ambitious environmental goals could harm European industry. Such arguments have featured prominently in the United States, where the Bush administration has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol out of concerns it could give India and China, two of the world's biggest polluters and fastest growing economies, a competitive edge.

Merkel acknowledged Friday that it was too early to determine the cost of the agreement, though she said that the research and development necessary to establish renewable energy in Europe would generate jobs. Barroso said that regardless of the cost, "We have also to consider the cost of doing nothing."

Green groups generally welcomed the deal. But Friends of the Earth, the Brussels-based lobbying group, called the agreement "timid and tentative." It said EU countries were already lagging and pointed to a recent European Environment Agency study showing that seven EU countries — including Spain, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy and Portugal — were set to miss their own Kyoto targets.