By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's cabinet will on Wednesday agree plans to cut CO2 emissions by up to 78 million tonnes by 2020, pushing operators to shut some coal-fired plants, to help Europe's biggest economy meet ambitious targets to fight climate change.
The package, which also includes an energy efficiency program, is essential if Chancellor Angel Merkel is to avoid the embarrassment of missing her government's goal of a 40 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, compared to 1990 levels.
"The government is sticking to its national goal," the economy and energy ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. "It is clear that further measures are necessary to achieve the climate coal of 40 percent by 2020. All relevant sectors must achieve reductions."
The conservative Merkel has made Germany's shift toward renewable energy and away from nuclear and fossil fuels a top domestic priority, a move accelerated by Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 although launched under her Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schroeder in 2000.
The closely watched experiment has hit traditional energy firms, as shown by utility E.ON's radical decision this week to spin off its power plants, both nuclear and coal-fired, to focus on renewables and electricity grids.
About 190 governments began meetings in Lima, Peru on Monday to lay the groundwork for a U.N. deal to slow climate change.
Germany's goals are bolder than the overall European Union plan for a 40 percent emissions reduction by 2030. But after initially making big strides in cuts thanks to the modernization of East German industry after reunification in 1990, CO2 emissions are now on the rise again.
The most contested step in the package will be compelling operators of coal plants to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 22 million tonnes, equivalent to shutting about eight coal plants.
Coal accounts for about a third of Germany's CO2 emissions.
The BDI industry association has said Merkel's plans, first reported by Reuters last month, will hurt Germany's export-oriented industry and cost jobs. The output gap would be offset by imports from mostly coal-fired plants in neighboring states, it said. But green activists say the plans don't go far enough.
Although about 25 percent of power generated in Germany comes from renewables, around 45 percent still comes from coal.
The package, which will require several different laws to go through parliament, envisages savings of 25-30 million tonnes of CO2 emissions through a national energy efficiency plan to modernize buildings and improve insulation.
(Additional reporting by Markus Wacket; Editing by Mark Heinrich)