E.U. Leaders Commit to Steps To Try to Curb Climate Change

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 13, 2008

BRUSSELS, Dec. 12 -- European leaders adopted what they described as a historic pact to combat global warming Friday and challenged President-elect Barack Obama to join in their commitment to drastically reduce greenhouse gases despite the global economic crisis.

The 27 European Union nations also endorsed a $260 billion economic stimulus plan, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the bloc's gross domestic product, and urged the incoming Obama administration to prepare similarly ambitious measures and financial reforms for coordinated action at a summit of the world's 20 major economic powers scheduled for April 2 in London.

The appeals, at a two-day E.U. summit in Brussels, reflected widespread expectations among European leaders that Obama and his team will be easier to work with than the Bush administration and that, to a large extent, the president-elect shares their assessment of the need for bold steps to slow global warming and to revive economies that have been sapped by financial turmoil.

"Our message to our global partners is, 'Yes, you can,' " said José Manuel Barroso, president of the union's executive commission, echoing one of Obama's campaign slogans. "Especially to our American partners," he added.

The European leaders, particularly President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who holds the union's rotating presidency, committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 20 percent before 2020 -- and by 30 percent if other countries make comparable pledges at a U.N. environment conference scheduled for next year in Copenhagen.

To reach their goals, the leaders pledged that 20 percent of their energy will come from renewable sources by 2020, leading to predictions of windmill farms across the European countryside and carpets of solar panels such as those that were recently installed atop the Vatican in Rome.

In a measure of the expenses the pledge seemed likely to entail, only about 8.5 percent of Europe's energy now comes from renewable sources, much of it from hydroelectric or nuclear power stations. Experts predicted that the steps needed to reach the targets could raise electricity bills in Europe by as much as 15 percent for industrial users and add nearly $200 to the average household's annual bill.

Eastern European countries fought to get compensation for changes that will be necessary there if the goals are to be met. Poland, for instance, gets as much as 90 percent of its electricity from Soviet-era coal-fired generators, which are a major pollutant and, under the accord, would be forced to pay heavily for the carbon dioxide they spew into the air.

Under complicated formulas worked out in recent months, Polish and other high-pollution Eastern European industries will receive a disproportionate amount of subsidies to finance their part in a pay-to-pollute program. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told reporters he was satisfied with the outcome, despite previous reservations and flashed a victory sign to television cameras as he got in a car at the close of the summit.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had threatened a veto to protect several high-pollution industries in his country, said he also backed off because he did not want to play the role of spoiler after it became clear a strong majority favored going ahead with the pact. Similarly, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany declared the agreement a victory for Europe despite earlier fears that her country's giant economy would be called on to underpin the subsidies for Eastern Europe.

In recent weeks, Merkel has been called "Madame No" by the French media because of her hesitations over the antipollution reforms as well as the free-spending economic stimulus plan promoted by Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain. But in the end, she endorsed them both.

" 'Yes' has been the motto of the day," she told reporters on leaving Brussels.

One reason, according to environmental activists, was that fine print in the pact provided for a host of loopholes benefiting big business in Germany as well as in Eastern Europe, particularly high electricity-consuming industries such as steel. Sanjeev Kumar of the World Wildlife Fund said the accord as it finally took shape has "several gaping holes" that give pollution-causing industries an out.

Sarkozy's environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said the loopholes were designed to protect European industries that might be at a competitive disadvantage if next year's Copenhagen conference fails to produce a worldwide commitment on the same level as the one undertaken Friday by Europe. His comment seemed aimed particularly at the United States and China, two nations that have been reluctant to allow steps against global warming hobble their manufacturing industries.

The economic stimulus plan drew unanimous support, despite Germany's fears that unchecked spending and accumulation of national debts could burden economic recovery in the long term. The accord on extra spending meant European governments would be exceeding debt limits they had imposed on themselves to guarantee economic health within the bloc.

But Sarkozy said European leaders decided the crisis was so severe that the constraints on debt had to be put aside temporarily for what he called "a short-term stimulus."

Responding to the German fears, however, the accord also stipulated that the restrictions on public debt would be respected again shortly. Extra spending, it said, would have to be carefully calculated to counter the crisis and not used as an excuse to finance other, politically popular projects.

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