Meeting in Luxembourg, the 27 EU environment ministers requested the European Commission to present further analyses of the consequences for individual member states of moving beyond the EU's existing 20% CO2 reduction goal for 2020.
The Commission's 2050 roadmap for a low-carbon economy, scheduled for publication next year, "should also inform this analysis of policy options up to 2020," they said.
The debate surrounding upgrading the European Union's target has divided EU member states, as some say that 20% simply represents business as usual as emissions have already fallen by 17% in the downturn. Meanwhile, others say higher goals are a liability in terms of competitiveness unless other major economies adopt similar targets.
Maybe more surprising is that the same contrast is now evident among businesses as well.
Ahead of the meeting, BusinessEurope, which represents EU employers, sent a letter to the Belgian EU Presidency arguing that increasing the EU's emissions reduction target would be "premature and even counterproductive".
But at the same time, 29 major companies issued a joint declaration urging the EU to up its target on emissions cuts to 30% from 1990 levels by 2020, sparking comments that BusinessEurope should not speak for the whole business community when it comes to environmental matters.
The declaration, led by the Climate Group, the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership and WWF Climate Savers Programme, was sent to all EU institutions to call for more ambitious climate targets.
The businesses, including BNP Paribas, GE Energy, Marks and Spencer, Nike and Vodafone argued that a higher emissions reduction target would not only bring the benefits of lower emissions but also "spur innovation and investment thus creating millions of new jobs in a low carbon economy".
"BusinessEurope no longer reflects the voice that these companies want to convey on climate change," said Sandrine Dixson-Decleve, director of the Prince of Wales's EU Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change and director of the Brussels Office of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.
She argued that while some of the companies are members of the association, they do it for representation on other key issues such as trade, competition and innovation.
"BusinessEurope claims to represent European companies, but is in fact the lobbying front group for a handful of oil and chemical industries holding back European competitiveness," claimed Greenpeace EU climate policy director Joris den Blanken. He added that smart companies want to break free of business as usual and put the EU on top of the global green technology race.
"BusinessEurope fully supports the objectives of the EU's climate and energy package," a representative of the association said in an email to EurActiv. "An important element of this package is to work towards the conclusion of a comprehensive international climate change agreement. Climate change can only be tackled globally," he said, justifying the association's stance.
Carbon border tariffs
The business association, however, refuted attempts to impose border adjustment measures as a way to safeguard Europe's carbon-intensive industries from competition from countries with less stringent climate legislation. It argued that given the EU's dependency on open markets, such unilateral measures would not resolve competitiveness concerns.
"Only if import restrictions were taken by main trading partners (e.g. the USA) would the EU have to consider appropriate reactions," the business lobby said in a statement.
The European Commission and several member states have raised concerns that carbon border taxes would jeopardise the EU's chances of getting other countries to agree on a new climate treaty and potentially expose the Union to a dispute in the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been the driving force behind the campaign for requiring importers of goods manufactured outside Europe to buy pollution permits from the EU's emissions trading scheme (EU ETS). He has the support of European steel industry association Eurofer.
But with the major European business lobby distancing itself from such measures, the proponents of border tariffs will have a more difficult time arguing that they will serve European industries.