By Alister Doyle and Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - Top European companies urged governments on Thursday to set a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero well before 2100, saying that going green can bring profits rather than costs.
Business leaders from global and European alliances of companies including Unilever, Total and Saint-Gobain also called for a global price on carbon emissions and a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.
"We want a global climate deal that achieves net zero emissions - make it happen," they said in a statement directed at almost 200 governments which are due to agree a deal to slow global warming at a summit in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.
Net zero emissions would mean drastic cuts and imply any remaining emissions would be offset, for instance, by planting trees to soak up carbon dioxide or with yet-to-be-developed technologies to extract carbon from the air.
They said global emissions should peak around 2020 and reach net zero "well before the end of the century".
Organizers of the conference, part of efforts to build momentum for a global deal after past failures, said the statement was backed by 25 business networks representing more than 6.5 million firms in more than 130 countries.
Still, the Business and Climate Summit mainly attracted top European CEOs, whereas large U.S and Asian companies were notably absent. The statement said businesses believed that a goal of net emissions was "achievable and compatible with continued economic growth."
Cuts in emissions can help avert more droughts, floods and rising seas and have big benefits such as lowering air pollution that causes millions of deaths, especially in big emerging nations such as China and India.
"Business as usual is no longer possible," said Pierre-Andre de Chalendar, CEO of French building materials group Saint Gobain.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has urged more business involvement to help limit emissions, called the conference "an important milestone" on the way to the Paris summit.
Still, governments are sharply divided about whether to set a goal of net zero emissions at Paris. A report by the U.N. panel of climate scientists last year said net zero emissions by about 2070 would give a good chance of avoiding ever-more damaging warming.
"Three years ago you couldn't get 50 CEOs to a conference on climate change," said Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever. He said Climate change was an economic threat - a drought in Brazil, for instance, can cut hydro-electric output, shutting down industry.
He said he favored a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Such cuts are a radical shift from rises in almost all recent years.
Even Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi said OPEC's top producer was investing in solar power as it anticipates lower global reliance on fossil fuels.
"In Saudi Arabia, we recognize that eventually ... we are not going to need fossil fuels. I don't know when, in 2040, 2050 maybe," he said.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jessica Chen; Editing by David Holmes and Ahmed Aboulenein)