BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Wednesday shied away from more ambitious renewable energy goals as the bloc's sluggish economy appeared to dent its zeal in the global fight against climate change.
To the dismay of Germany, environmentalists and others, the European Commission stepped back from proposing tougher binding renewable energy targets for each of the 28 member nations. Instead, it seeks the introduction of a less ambitious pan-European goal of 27 percent by 2030.
There are fears the EU, long a trendsetter in climate change policies, might make it easier for the U.S., China and developing economies to dodge tougher action.
The proposal by the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, will shape the EU's energy and climate action policies over the coming years, but it still needs approval from EU governments and the European Parliament over the coming year.
On greenhouse gas emissions, the commission called for a reduction of 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels instead of its existing binding target that calls for a 20 percent reduction by 2020.
Overall though, Europe's financial crisis and protracted recession from which it is only slowly emerging has subdued its appetite for tough climate action.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso defended the package as striking the right balance between fighting climate change and making sure Europe won't fall behind economically, calling it "ambitious but realistic."
"Climate action is central for the future of our planet, while a truly European energy policy is key for our competitiveness," he said.
Germany, which is Europe's biggest economy, has vowed to replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources by 2022. Berlin had urged the commission beforehand to stick to binding national targets for energy generated from water, biomass, solar and wind instead of watering it down by introducing a pan-European goal.
Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said without the previous binding targets, Europe would never have made the progress it has, and "we should continue consistently along this road."
But many less economically well-off nations had pushed the commission in the other direction as they face higher energy prices, just as those are falling in competing economies like the U.S. thanks to its shale gas boom.
"When gas prices in the European Union are three or four times as high as in the United States, then this is a competitive disadvantage we can't accept and must act," Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said.
Currently, the EU's greenhouse gas emissions are down by 18 percent compared to 1990, while the bloc's output grew by 45 percent in the same time.
"We are showing to the rest of the world it is possible to have growth while reducing emissions," Barroso said.
Renewable energies currently contribute 12.7 percent of the bloc's final energy consumption. Its current 2020 target for a share of 20 percent includes binding goals for each nation, varying in ambition according to where they stand. Some countries like Germany and Spain already get more than 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
The commission's proposal also includes facilitating shale gas exploration, or fracking. The technology is still in infancy in Europe amid fears of the environmental and drinking water pollution it might cause.
The EU views itself as a leader in the fight against climate change. One of its main tools to keep emissions in check is its cap-and-trade system, the world's biggest, which forces utilities and big polluters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. But climate activists on Wednesday lambasted the EU for falling behind on some of its ambitious goals.
"The January sales are on and it looks like Europe's dirty energy companies have bagged a bargain," Greenpeace EU managing director Mahi Sideridou said. "The commission's plan for 2030 is a sell-out that would knock the wind out of a booming renewables industry."
The Climate Action Network, a coalition of more than 120 non-governmental organizations across Europe, also criticized the emission reduction targets as too timid. This proposal "could lock the EU into such a low level of climate action it would make keeping the EU's international pledge to stay below 2 degrees of global warming all but unattainable," it said.
"In order to keep its international climate pledges, the EU must adopt three ambitious, binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions, renewable energy and energy savings. Sadly, such ambition is lacking," said Wendel Trio of CAN Europe.
Frank Jordans and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed reporting.
Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz
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Original headline: EU relaxes renewables target, reaps criticism
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