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EU environment ministers are meeting today (15 March) to debate their strategy for international climate negotiations, but no consensus is emerging about whether the EU should raise its target for greenhouse gas emission reductions for 2020.

One of the central topics to be discussed is whether the EU should hold on to its pledge to reduce emissions by 30% by 2020 only if other countries make similar moves, or make the upgrade unilaterally, diplomats said.

Eastern European countries are taking the approach that the EU must first come up with a methodology to analyse how other countries’ pledges compare, one senior official said. Other sceptics of a unilateral move include Italy and Finland.

Their approach is contrasted by a group of Western member states including the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, which think it is in Europe’s own interest to move to 30%, the diplomat explained.

Currently, the EU has a unilateral goal of reducing its emissions by 20% by 2020.

France, for its part, has positioned itself somewhere in the middle, taking the view that upgrading the target remains a credible objective. But this should not be done without first eliminating the risk that European businesses could end up at a competitive disadvantage, the official added.

Little movement is expected in either direction, with member states appearing to be in ‘wait-and-see’ mode until the European Commission has presented a new impact assessment of how much it would cost Europe to move towards 30%. The global downturn has forced down European production, and consequently emissions, and a tighter goal is now expected to be attainable at a lower cost than when the original 20% target was agreed, the diplomat pointed out.

“Nobody knows how to go to 30%,” another diplomat said, stressing that this would raise a lot of questions, including on the admissibility of credits for preserving forests that act like a carbon sink.

He added that French President Nicolas Sarkozy would in the meantime keep pressing for carbon border tariffs that levy a tax on imports coming from countries where carbon regulation is not as stringent as in Europe. While the mechanism is talked up as a way to level the playing field for EU companies, most EU countries have dismissed it as a protectionist measure that could lead to a backlash.

Keep or ditch Kyoto?

Another difficult debate will concern the Kyoto Protocol and what to do with it after its expiry in 2012. EU countries all want to use two separate negotiating tracks for developed and developing countries, but there are disagreements about whether the Kyoto Protocol should be continued post-2012 when the treaty expires.

The mood as regards continuing with the Kyoto Protocol seems to be shifting in the EU as a result of the Copenhagen climate conference, which did not go according to the EU’s plans.

The European delegation went to the Danish capital with the intention of replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a new international climate agreement that sets obligations for all countries and – most importantly – includes the United States. But this was not well received by developing countries, which would be quite happy to continue with the Protocol, under which they have no obligations.

“One failure in Copenhagen was that the EU was accused of killing Kyoto,” one diplomat said, arguing that the Union would want to avoid ending up in a similar situation again.

“This has of course had an impact on the internal discussions,” he added.

Poland and many other EU member states, mainly in Eastern Europe, would like to see the Kyoto Protocol continued in order to safeguard their large stocks of surplus emission credits, the official said. The restructuring of their industrial sectors after the collapse of Communism led to a significant drop in their emissions, which has now left them in possession of significant assets in unused credits.

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