* Economics trumps environment in crisis
* Modest steps still achieved in Europe
* EU leading push to sign up to new Kyoto Protocol deal
BRUSSELS, Dec 1 (Reuters) - European Union negotiators leading the push to keep U.N. climate talks on track are fighting a sense of despondency as the struggle to save the euro has pushed the one to save the planet down the priority list.
In the United States, seen as the biggest single obstacle to a new global climate deal, academic opinion says an "iron law" means economics trumps the environment in times of crisis.
"When policies focused on economic growth confront politics focused on emissions reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time," said Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado and author of a book The Climate Fix.
In the U.S. Congress, attempts to pass environment law have stalled as the issue has turned into a flashpoint between U.S. President Barack Obama's Democrats and the Republicans.
In Europe too, the "iron law" has sapped political will.
Since the heady days of 2007 when the European Union agreed a set of ambitious targets, imposing on the bloc deeper cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than under the Kyoto Protocol, the mood has shifted radically.
At the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen expectations that a new global deal on cutting CO2 emissions was about to be sealed ended in failure. Recession deepened the sense of doom and global attention returned to the bottom line.
As the EU team prepares for next week's ministerial stage of the talks in Durban, South Africa, many who attended past summits are staying at home to fight financial fires.
"We're just hoping to get back to the climate when the sovereign debt crisis is solved," said one political aide who is not leaving Brussels. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said he had nightmares after the stress of the negotiations in Copenhagen.
Journalists are also staying away in droves. For Copenhagen, media interest reached a peak of more than 3,200. Less than half that number has registered to attend the Durban talks, according to provisional figures from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard has toured the world to drum up support for the bloc's position that it is open to signing up to a new global deal provided it has backing from the bigger CO2 emitters.
China is the world's biggest emitter with 25 percent of the global total in 2010, according to figures from energy company BP, followed by the United States with 19 percent.
Asked about the risk that the Kyoto Protocol is abandoned, Hedegaard said: "I would call it a risk as long as you do not have anything to put in place instead, so that is the challenge."
A first stage of the protocol binds developed nations to cutting emissions by a minimum of 5 percent below 1990 levels in 2008-2012.
Hedegaard insists a new global deal, with legally binding measures for all emitters, is the way to halt global warming.
"Let's be clear: the EU supports the Kyoto Protocol. But a second Kyoto period with only the EU representing 11 percent of global emissions is clearly not enough for the climate," she has said.
Hedegaard, who as Danish climate and energy minister played a central role in the Copenhagen talks, speaks from experience when she says legal targets are key.
Of the three 2020 targets the EU pledged in 2007, two are binding - to cut carbon by 20 percent by 2020 and to increase the share of renewable energy by 20 percent - and it is on track to meet them. The third target to improve energy efficiency, through measures such as insulation, by 20 percent is not compulsory and so far the EU is only expected to half meet it.
Campaign groups blame the reluctance of big energy companies, desperate to shore up their profits, to help reduce consumption. As debate rages, a proposed energy efficiency directive has attracted 1,800 amendments.
For Jo Leinen, the German Social Democrat chairman of the European Parliament's environment committee, it is imperative not to let the economic crisis become "an excuse" for inaction.
In November, he celebrated a modest victory towards his goal of raising the EU's binding carbon cut to 30 percent when a parliamentary committee passed a motion paving the way for a "climate protection target" of more than 20 percent. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)