Before Summit, E.U. Debates Limits on Carbon Emissions

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

POZNAN, Poland, Dec. 10 -- With delegates from around the world struggling to make progress here toward a new agreement on combating global warming, the European Union is locked in its own contentious debate over whether to toughen limits on carbon emissions, even though much of the continent has fallen behind on meeting current targets.

The Europeans' disagreements over how fast to cut emissions in order to avert dangerous climate change, which could culminate in a vote as soon as Thursday in Brussels, highlights the difficulties the industrialized world faces as it decides how aggressively it can afford to act, especially amid a severe economic downturn.

The outcome in Europe could have major implications for the U.S. Congress, which is poised to enact limits on greenhouse gas emissions after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

At the Brussels meeting, E.U. leaders must decide whether to finalize plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020, while also reducing energy use by 20 percent and obtaining 20 percent of their energy supply from renewable sources. Coal-dependent nations such as Poland want to delay further lowering of emissions limits under the European Union's nearly four-year old cap-and-trade system. Even Germany, a leader in pressing for aggressive action on global warming, wants to postpone additional auctions of pollution allowances to ease the financial burden on its heavy industry.

"It's an unfortunate backing away from the position they've taken for many years," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

"There is still a huge gap" between what European nations have promised and what they've accomplished, said Reinhard Buetikofer, who recently stepped down as leader of Germany's Green Party. "Everyone looks much better in rhetoric than in reality."

Poland, which is hosting this week's U.N. climate talks, joined forces with Italy and threatened to veto the European Union's climate and energy package last year, arguing it could not afford to meet its requirements. Germany, some of whose companies have a financial stake in Poland's utility sector, has been a key ally.

Ironically, Poland has reduced its carbon emissions by 32 percent over the last 20 years as aging Soviet-era industries shut down, far outpacing the 6 percent cut it pledged to make under the 1987 Kyoto Protocol that the Poznan talks seek to replace. But Poland still gets 94 percent of its electricity from coal, making it the second most coal-dependent nation after South Africa, according to World Coal Institute figures for 2007.

Poland and its allies are resisting the European Union's current proposal to require that energy producers buy at auction 100 percent of the available carbon pollution permits by 2013 (until now, some these "credits" were allotted for free), and just this month, Polish officials asked to push back a 2016 deadline for starting a domestic carbon trading system. Instead, they are asking the European Union to set up a "benchmarking system" in which coal-fired utilities must install the best available pollution controls or pay a penalty.

Polish environment minister Maciej Nowicki, who is presiding over the climate talks, said in an interview Tuesday that while his nation is "absolutely determined" to help meet the European Union's 2020 target, it cannot comply with a policy that could boost energy prices "up to 90 percent, which is a terrible problem from a political, social and economic point of view."

"There are not any alternatives, even short-term or near-term, to coal-generated energy production in Poland," he said. "For the time being, there are no formal proposals that would satisfy us."

Even some of the most advanced E.U. members are hoping to modify the proposal pending in Brussels. Germany is simultaneously trying to phase out nuclear power, which accounts for 22 percent of its power generation, while grappling with technical problems with its offshore wind farms and local resistance to projects such as new coal-fired and biomass power plants.

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