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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 February 2007, 20:36 GMT
Hard road ahead for EU emissions plan
Mark Mardell
By Mark Mardell
BBC Europe editor

Europe's environment ministers have backed a plan to cut the European Union's carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Perhaps they should wear a blue carnation to celebrate.

They have also set a further target of 30% - but only if other industrialised nations join them.

Traffic jam near EU offices in Brussels
The European Commission wants to limit vehicle emissions
This is the latest step in the EU's desire to lead the world towards a new deal on climate change. If the 27 presidents and prime ministers sign up to the targets at a meeting next month there are hopes this could lead to an agreement of the G8 nations in the summer.

The big prize is of course persuading the United States to come on board.

UK Environment Minister David Miliband said: "We've always said that 2007 is a crucial year in our ongoing efforts to combat climate change and today's agreement is an important first step.

"The unilateral commitment to cut EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 - the first of its kind - shows we're willing to take concrete action on an issue that citizens care about."

But getting the full agreement even at EU level will not be plain sailing. Some countries like Poland and Hungary are worried that the target could stop their industrial development and are arguing that the burden should be shared, with Western Europe taking more of the pain.

Early compromise

While no ministers spoke out on Tuesday, their bosses may not feel so constrained when they get round the table for the Spring Council on 8 March.

Insiders are nervous, arguing that the current Polish government is difficult to predict and may not be persuaded that just because Britain, France and Germany all want something they should give way.

Setting big targets is one thing, achieving them is another - the commission's proposal covers a great deal of ground, from more triple glazing to storing carbon dioxide underground

One diplomat described the new policy approach as an "after you" policy being replaced by "me too". Green campaigners are less impressed saying it is more like "we'll jump if you do" and they are urging the European leaders to adopt a more daring approach in the spring.

While the plan to offer 20% as a firm target with a further 10% on the table is now being described as a strategy, it was in fact an early compromise by the commission.

They knew that Germany in particular would not agree to a binding 30% target.

But setting big targets is one thing, achieving them is another. The commission's proposal covers a great deal of ground, from more triple glazing to storing carbon dioxide underground.

But at Tuesday's meeting ministers wouldn't agree with the commission that there should be a binding target to increase renewable energy to 20% of a country's fuel mix. The UK and others argue it should be left up to individual nations.

This is code for saying: "Don't forget nuclear!".

Nuclear power used to be the big bugbear of environmental campaigners, but many governments at least see it as part of the solution to climate change. They don't want to be made to build more wind farms if they would rather build more reactors.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas
The environment commissioner pledged a "differentiated approach" on targets
The proposal to include air travel within the EU's carbon trading scheme is particularly tricky. It wouldn't make much sense if it only covered flights within the European Union, as it would simply push up prices for one part of the world.

Already there is a suggestion that major airlines might relocate to Switzerland.

It's clear the US would object strenuously if flights from all parts of the world were included. Ministers have given broad backing to the idea but have thrown up more questions than they have answered.

And what about the proposed law I've promised to follow in detail? The commission wants a legal limit on the amount of CO2 the average car can produce. Their limit would be 130g of carbon for every kilometre driven.

GM carnations

The motor industry, particularly the German industry, does not like this one little bit. The German environment minister told the meeting that the EU must push for binding standards as the industry did not meet voluntary ones.

He said the timetable - agreement by June - was ambitious but could be met. He asked the meeting if the ministers agreed that new laws were needed, and the targets were right.

  • Sweden and France said "yes" to both
  • Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark want tougher targets
  • Poland would rather not have a new law at all
  • UK junior environment minister Ian Pearson said the government wanted legislation but "a lot more work needs to be done" - a classic holding of cards close to the chest

Ministers will actually vote on the issue in June after the commission have come up with a report on the economic impact of such a measure.

And the blue carnation? One of the ministers' other decisions was to allow the sale of a genetically modified blue carnation.

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