Europe sets fuel-efficiency target for vans

BRUSSELS, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Europe set itself new fuel-efficiency targets for vans on Monday, aiming to cut fuel bills for small businesses and curb emissions of gases blamed for climate change.

Berlin initially resisted the measures, forcing a slight weakening of the strategy to make it easier for its big automakers Mercededs DAIGn.DE and Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE.

Environment ministers meeting in Brussels endorsed a deal to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vans by around 14 percent to an average of 175 grams per kilometre by 2017, an EU diplomatic source said.

That target was barely contested by auto-making nations, given rapid recent gains in efficiency by van makers -- 15 percent by Renault's RENA.PA Master van and 13 percent by Mercedes' new Sprinter van.

The European Commission, which drafts EU laws, had proposed a much tougher target for 2020 of 135 grams per kilometre, but that proved more contentious.

Ministers agreed on Monday to soften that goal to 147 grams, although some countries said they were disappointed at having to concede to Germany on a measure that would help small businesses cut their fuel bills throughout the EU.

“The EU’s competitiveness will not be strengthened if we weaken environmental policy,” said Swedish ambassador Jan Olsson. “Consumers and medium sized enterprises would benefit from vehicles that need less fuel.”

Germany’s environment minister said he thought a good compromise had been reached for all sides.

“It achieves substantial CO2 reductions, to my knowledge 27 percent,” Norbert Roettgen told EU ministers. “It is feasible, it is a technological challenge, but it keeps us in a leadership position.”

EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard welcomed the deal.

“It is an important step forward in curbing transport emissions,” she told ministers.

“Although less ambitious than our proposal, it will stimulate innovation... it will also generate fuel savings for consumers, mainly small and medium sized enterprises.”

Reporting by Pete Harrison and Ilona Wissenbach