BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European leaders handed concessions to heavy industry and former communist nations on Thursday to smooth the path to a December agreement on fighting climate change amid economic turmoil.
At a two-day summit overshadowed by tumbling stock markets and the threat of a punishing recession, leaders stuck to a tough December deadline and ambitious targets of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by a fifth by 2020.
But a group of east European countries led by Poland claimed victory in their drive to reduce their share of the burden of tackling climate change, which threatens to bring more chaotic weather and rising sea levels.
And Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dangled a veto threat to demand less burden on Italian industry, already plagued by a loss of competitiveness to emerging economies.
“We have regained real influence on the shape of the package,” said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
But leaders refused to accept critics’ demands they delay a climate deal, and the summit conclusions called for intensified work in coming weeks toward an agreement in December.
“We are happy that Poland and Italy have failed in their efforts to delay the EU climate and energy package,” said Luxembourg Green lawmaker Claude Turmes.
“The climate crisis runs as deep as the turmoil in the financial markets, but its dire consequences could affect far more people across the world,” he added.
But leaders had to agree to “respect each member state’s specific situation” to win Italy’s support for a deal by December, as well as backing from Poland’s coalition including Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
The economic crisis pushed climate change down the agenda of the summit, but some western European leaders argued that emissions cuts could go hand in hand with rebuilding economies.
European companies could lead the world by exporting technologies from a new low-carbon economy — such as electric cars and wind turbines — while green jobs could replace all those lost in old economy industries like steel, they said.
But environmentalists said that while EU leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy were busy making big promises to protect the environment in public, their ministers were busy creating loopholes in the plans to protect industries at home.
“Mr. Sarkozy and others are showing that they are unwilling to walk the walk when it comes to decisive action,” said Greenpeace spokesman Mark Breddy.
Poland’s Tusk said that agreeing a deal that was acceptable to poor ex-communist countries would help when it came to persuading the rest of the world to follow the EU’s lead.
“If the climate package is unbearable for the Polish economy, how can we convince a hundred poor countries it is alright for them,” he said. “The rich, especially in Europe, want to protect the climate, but the poor are afraid.”
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander, writing by Pete Harrison; editing by Paul Taylor