March 13, 2008 / 1:00 PM / 10 years ago

EU aims to set pace in fight on climate change

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders met on Thursday to agree a timetable for action on tackling climate change they hope will enable the bloc to set the pace in global talks next year.

The EU sees itself as a world leader in the fight against global warming after member states agreed last year to cut emissions by 2020 and increase the share of wind, solar, hydro and wave power in electricity output by the same date.

But failure to agree on the details by this time next year would delay EU laws and weaken the bloc in United Nations talks on curbing emissions with other countries, including the United States, in Copenhagen in November 2009.

“One year ago we have agreed unanimously in Brussels. Now we have to translate this commitment in concrete terms,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on arrival.

The 27 EU member states are due to agree during a two-day summit in Brussels to enact legislation by next March aimed at ensuring their economies are ready for tougher climate change rules after the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change, ends in 2012.

The summit will also endorse calls for more transparency in financial markets following the global credit crisis and review a Franco-German plan to boost EU ties with Mediterranean states.

INFLATION SHADOW

Highlighting the risks that have dented European growth forecasts, the euro hit another record high of $1.56 on Thursday and oil prices hovered near a peak of $110 a barrel.

That prompted the head of the main EU employers’ group, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere of BusinessEurope, to call for international talks on stabilizing foreign exchange markets.

But Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier who chairs the group of 15 euro zone countries, said he thought growth in the area was not at risk. Others were less upbeat.

“I don’t think you can find anyone in Europe that is not concerned about high fuel prices. They are pushing inflation on a much higher level than it is right now in many areas,” Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip told reporters.

But the environment will dominate the summit. In a display of green credentials, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Sky News as he sped to Brussels by train he would propose EU tax breaks on eco-friendly fridges, lightbulbs and other appliances.

Aside from cutting emissions by at least one-fifth by 2020 from 1990 levels, EU states have agreed to use 20 percent of renewable energy sources in power production and 10 percent of biofuels from crops in transport by the same date.

Leaders said before the meeting the EU must stick to those targets -- including the biofuels aim despite fears it is pushing up the price of food -- but environmental pressure group Greenpeace called the emissions target “way short of the mark”.

“We have wasted a lot of precious time, too much time, during Bush’s administration,” Greenpeace’s Mahi Sideridou told Reuters, adding she expected that whoever succeeds President George W. Bush’s next year will be more committed to action.

INDUSTRIAL WASTELAND

EU states are divided over how to handle the needs of energy-intensive industries such as steel, cement and aluminum, how to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from cars and whether to break up Europe’s big power companies.

“We have to act very quickly to define the conditions for aluminum, steel, paper and cement ... They need to make their investment decisions,” Seilliere told a news conference after talks with EU leaders, trade unions and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet.

However Barroso and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, holder of the EU presidency, said it was too early to come up with specific measures for heavy industry yet.

Some fear the cost of tackling global warming could drive industry out of Europe. John Monks, general secretary of the European Union Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), called for a “carbon tax” on imports from less environmentally-conscious parts of the world.

EU leaders are also due to back calls for a global voluntary code of conduct for sovereign wealth funds, the large pools of capital controlled by governments whose investments in foreign markets have prompted concerns about their political motives.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, Darren Ennis and Marcin Grajewski, Adrian Croft in Brussels and Ian Simpson in Milan; editing by Paul Taylor and Timothy Heritage

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