EU makes bold climate and renewables commitment

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European leaders have agreed to a legally binding objective to meet 20% of their energy needs with renewables such as wind power in a fresh drive to put the EU on track to a low-carbon economy by 2020.

EU heads of states and government meeting in Brussels on 8-9 March 2007 made a "firm independent commitment to achieve at least a 20% reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020" compared with 1990 levels.

The 27-nation bloc agreed to go even further and slash its emissions by an overall 30% "provided that other developed countries" such as the US "commit themselves to comparable emissions reductions".

The new targets are significantly higher than the 8% overall target the EU agreed to reach by year 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol – an objective that Europe is currently struggling to meet.

Environmental activists at Greenpeace hailed the EU's "resolve" in what the group described as "the biggest such decision since the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol".

The summit avoided collapse on Friday morning (9 March) when French President Jacques Chirac accepted a binding objective on renewable energies. Chirac wanted the renewables target somehow linked to "low-carbon energies" in a move aimed at getting official EU recognition for nuclear power as a clean energy source.

But he had to back down in the face of pressure from Britain and Germany and fierce opposition from countries opposed to nuclear power, such as Austria.

Under the wording agreed by all 27 member states, the EU endorsed "a binding target of a 20% share of renewable energies in overall EU energy consumption by 2020". It would then be up to each member state to decide on national targets for specific sectors – electricity, heating and cooling, etc.

Speaking at a press conference, Chirac said renewable energies "would only be part of the answer” to climate change, explaining that "this is why France had insisted to place renewables in the larger framework of low-carbon energies".

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear that the proposed French wording had in fact been rejected. Speaking at a press conference, she said: "We have been wrestling quite a bit for that, and it is also important that renewable energies are renewable energies and not something else."

A 10% minimum target on biofuels was also agreed but EU leaders stressed that the binding nature of this objective was "subject to production being sustainable" and to "second-generation biofuels becoming commercially available". 

The cautious wording came in response to warnings from environmental groups which pointed out that large-scale development of energy crops such as palm oil and sugar cane - so-called first generation biofuels - hold potentially harmful environmental side-effects.

The European Commission was invited to come forward with formal proposals later in the year to translate member states' political commitments into hard legislation.

Major discussions on this occasion will include burden-sharing or how the 20% targets on renewable energies and greenhouse gases will be divided up between member states.

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