The EU's current target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 will not be enough to drive green innovation and keep Europe in the race for clean technologies, argued UK Energy and Climate Change Minister Chris Huhne, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen and French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.
Writing in the Financial Times, the ministers of the EU's three most influential member states united for the first time to make the case for a unilateral move to a 30% target.
"If we stick to a 20% cut, Europe is likely to lose the race to compete in the low-carbon world to countries such as China, Japan or the US, all of which are looking to create a more attractive environment for low-carbon investment," the ministers wrote.
They argued that higher ambition would create a "real incentive for innovation and action in the international context".
"That is why we believe the move to 30% is right for Europe," they said.
The move marks a significant change in Germany's position, which has backed the EU's official position that a move to 30% should only take place if other industrialised countries make similar commitments in UN negotiations over a new climate treaty.
In May, the German and French industry ministers ruled out increasing the EU's climate ambitions to safeguard Europe's businesses (EurActiv 26/05/10).
France, however, had sent out mixed signals as Minister Borloo said at a June meeting of EU environment ministers that other countries had already taken comparable steps and the conditions required for raising the target had thus largely been met (EurActiv 14/06/10).
The UK, on the other hand, is a long-standing proponent of a 30% target.
A European Commission communication in May calculated that due to the recession, a 30% reduction would now cost only €11 billion more than what national capitals signed up to two years ago when they set the 20% target (EurActiv 27/05/10).
However, Connie Hedegaard, European commissioner for climate action, said that the move would not make sense now as the conditions were not right yet.
Europe's big business is vehemently opposed to increasing climate targets, arguing that doing so would put EU industry at a competitive disadvantage.
"It would send the wrong signal to European industry in times of economic crisis," said Jürgen R. Thumann, BusinessEurope's president.
But not all corporate leaders follow BusinessEurope's line. The Climate Group, a coalition of governments and some of the world's most influential businesses, has backed the switch to 30%.
"The UK and other forward-looking governments are right in their conviction that moving to 30% is not just important for the environment; it is essential for the long-term health of European business," said Mark Kenber, international policy director at the Climate Group.
The three ministers' backing could re-open the debate about a unilateral move when the EU is discussing in autumn its strategy for the Cancún climate talks taking place at the end of the year.