BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Indebted euro strugglers Italy and Spain are missing Kyoto targets and must pay up for international emissions credits or undermine the bloc's climate leadership, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said on Wednesday.
As a whole, European nations are still well placed to meet EU goals and a first set of Kyoto targets (2008-12) as their emissions fell last year to the lowest level since 1990.
Helped by a warm winter, which lowered demand for fossil fuels for heating, 2011 EU emissions fell by 2.5 percent from 2010 when they bucked a decreasing trend to rise by 2.4 percent.
"Europe will meet its Kyoto targets within KP 1 (first Kyoto commitment period), but things are not changing fast enough," EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade said in a telephone interview.
"The criticism comes from other parts of the world that this is easy for Europe to achieve. It's not. We're going two steps forward and one step back."
Economic recession has a double effect. It can reduce industrial output and energy use and therefore lower emissions, but it also leads to "perverse behaviour", McGlade said, meaning companies and citizens burn the cheapest, most carbon-intensive fuels and fail to invest in cleaner technology.
In Greece, evidence is mounting that people trying to save money are burning wood, which causes carbon emissions, McGlade said.
Elsewhere, use of carbon-intensive coal has increased as a collapse in the price of carbon allowances has made it cheaper than other less-polluting fuel.
Equally, economic growth does not inevitably lead to increased emissions and European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has repeatedly called for a shift to a green economy as the way out of economic and climate crisis.
"While our economy grew 48 percent since 1990, emissions are down 18 percent," Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said in a statement on Wednesday.
"These figures prove once again that emissions can be cut without sacrificing the economy. Now, it is important to keep the direction."
So far Italy has a shortfall of 14.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, while Spain has a much smaller gap of 0.1 million tonnes on average over the period 2008-2011.
EEA officials said it was not possible to say how much buying the relevant credits would cost because the prices at which nations sell credits are usually not made public.
However, Spain and Italy should be helped by a collapse in the price of EU and international carbon permits, which have fallen to record lows because of over-supply.
"What we're saying for Spain is they are well aware of their situation. Spain has set aside more than 350 million euros," McGlade said. "With Italy, we can't see a provision in the financial arrangements."
The nations have a grace period following the end of the first Kyoto period to meet commitments or face fines.
The real challenge is the longer term.
Last year's Durban climate change summit kept the Kyoto process alive, but failed to secure a comprehensive deal.
The task of working out the next phase of international action against climate change will continue at a summit in Doha beginning next month.
The European Union also has to agree new climate policy before the end of its set of 2020 goals, which include a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions compared with 1990 levels.
Current non-binding aims for beyond 2020 lay out the need to cut emissions by 80-95 percent by the middle of the century to stave off the most devastating effects of global warming.
Editing by Jason Neely