EU nations announced an ambitious target to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020 in one of the boldest moves yet to contain global warming - a goal likely to lead to mandatory limits for cars and pollution permits for airlines.
But the goal - to cut emissions to 20 percent below their 1990 levels - could put a heavy burden on the European Union's newest members, and it was unclear how much of the load wealthier nations would shoulder.
Environment ministers said Tuesday that the target could be pushed up to 30 percent below the 1990 levels if other industrial countries sign on to a global effort.
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said many European colleagues had spoken of a moral duty toward future generations during the talks in Brussels.
"Those who took the floor said that their daughters asked them exactly what they did when they came to such meetings and did they come home with good results," Gabriel said.
"I think that's a pretty good incentive."
The target, which must be approved at an EU summit next month, is a critical first step in a global warming strategy that must be in place by the time the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The protocol requires 35 industrial nations to cut carbon dioxide and other harmful gases collectively by 5 percent from 1990 levels.
The EU ministers called for U.N.-led talks to finish by 2009 to fix a new climate change goal after Kyoto expires. The next agreement should include the United States - which rejected Kyoto - and other less developed polluting countries like India, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.
A U.N. climate official praised the new European target as "a milestone" in efforts to bring down emissions from industrial countries by 60 to 80 percent by mid-century, which scientists say is necessary to curb the Earth's potentially disastrous rising temperatures.
The decision is "quite dramatic," said John Hay, spokesman for the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn, Germany. "But it cannot be a stand-alone target." If other nations don't follow suit, he said, "it won't have the desired effect."
Gabriel, who led the talks, said all countries agreed they need to act urgently just to hold down temperature increases below 2 degrees centigrade (3.7 degrees Farentheit) by the end of the century.
EU officials said they would now work on the details of how their target would be shared out and reached.
The ministers gave their broad support to a plan that would bring airlines into the European trading scheme, in which industries that emit too much carbon dioxide must buy credits from energy-efficient industries that meet their own targets. That would include airlines operating flights to European airports, though the United States has warned that such rules could be illegal and it could have grounds to sue.
However, EU ministers voiced concern that emissions trading might push up the cost of flights to remote parts of Europe. Draft rules are due to be tabled later this year.
Discussions also were well advanced on imposing limits on carbon emissions by new cars and encouraging more reliance on wind, solar and possibly nuclear energy rather than on carbon-rich fossil fuels.
"There's an urgent need for improvement in the passenger cars category. Voluntary agreements won't be complied with. We must push for binding standards," Gabriel told the meeting. The ministers will debate the issue of cars fully in June.
Only when there is a global agreement can EU nations fix a final figure for how much carbon each nation must cut. Those discussions on the EU's internal targets could set a base year for reductions other than 1990, Gabriel said.
U.N. figures show Europe is on track to meet its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto scheme by 8 percent. But that figure was accepted by the EU when it only had 15 members, and its expansion eastward to embrace new members with less developed economies has complicated post-2012 plans.
Even old EU members like Finland, Spain and Denmark said they were concerned about the burden sharing.
Gabriel said the EU was facing a "historic decision" on climate change. He said Germany's parliament was ready to set the pace - with a cut of up to 40 percent.
"There will be some countries like Germany who will see a steeper reduction in greenhouse gases, and other countries, some of them no doubt in eastern Europe, that will have to achieve a lesser reduction in greenhouse gases because of the need to catch up economically," Gabriel said.
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said EU nations had come a long way since last March, when leaders gave only vague direction to environment officials, telling them to look at a cut in global carbon dioxide emissions of between 15 and 30 percent.
"Not even the word 'target' was there," he said.
Netherlands bureau chief Arthur Max contributed to this report.
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