By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Coal-reliant Poland on Friday vetoed European Union efforts to move further towards a low carbon economy, pitting itself against the rest of the 27-member bloc.
Denmark, holder of the rotating EU presidency, has placed the environment at the heart of its leadership, backed by the Commission and the business community on the need for clear direction on EU climate policy beyond an existing set of 2020 goals.
But Poland, which relies on carbon-intensive coal for more than 90 percent of its electricity, said it could not agree to any inclusion of milestones for future carbon reductions in an EU text debated at a meeting of environment ministers.
"Unfortunately, one delegation has blocked," Denmark's Climate and Energy Minister Martin Lidegaard told reporters. "It has been a tough day. It would have been better if 27 countries would have been on board, but 26 is very encouraging."
The text of an environmental council meeting does not have firm policy status within the EU's complex decision-making process, but it is a signal, which is weakened if consensus cannot be achieved.
Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the backing of almost the entire bloc was enough to allow the Commission, the EU's executive arm, to keep working on further progress.
"Twenty-six member states want us to move ahead with the low carbon road-map," she told Reuters.
To help fill the policy vacuum after a firm goal of a 20 percent carbon cut by 2020 expires, the roadmap lays out a route towards a long-term aim to reduce the bloc's carbon emissions by 80 percent by the middle of the century.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
Already in June last year, Poland blocked environment council conclusions because they mentioned a milestone of a 25 percent emissions cut for 2020. Then as now, Poland was the only one of the 27 EU member states to object.
To try to persuade it to sign up this time, Denmark dropped the 25 percent milestone, but draft council conclusions still referred to a 40 percent reduction by 2030, a 60 percent cut by 2040 and an 80 percent cut by 2050.
Whereas Poland opposed increased ambition, other EU nations have objected to what they see as a step in the wrong direction, with the dropping of the 25 percent marker for 2020.
Britain is among those wanting an early increase in ambition.
"The outcome shows how we must redouble our efforts in explaining to Poland that shifting to a low-carbon economy is part of long term growth in Europe," Britain's Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said in a statement.
"There'll be no pause in the UK's efforts to push for a 30 percent emissions target for 2020, providing the much needed certainty that business needs to invest in the green technologies of the future."
Although Poland refused to sign up to the text on the low carbon road-map, it endorsed language it had also threatened to block on December's climate change deal in Durban.
Even at the international climate talks in Durban, Poland was isolated from other EU nations in its refusal to agree a plan to reduce a surplus of Kyoto carbon permits, known as Assigned Amount Units (AAUs), which it wants to hold on to because it can sell them on international markets.
Other EU nations have said the huge surplus of permits to pollute could threaten the environmental integrity of the Kyoto process, encouraging purchase of cheap permits to carry on emitting carbon, rather than action to lower emissions.
"Poland vetoed the road-map conclusions, but those on post-Kyoto are approved after the lines on AAUs were remodelled to be safe for us," a Polish government source said on Friday.
Hedegaard said the AAU debate still needed to be resolved, but welcomed Poland's decision to back the Durban text as agreed in December.
"It would have been pretty ironic if they had blocked Durban," she told Reuters, referring to Poland's leadership of the EU's Durban delegation.
Environmental groups and the European Parliament, which has been pushing for environmental ambition, said Poland was missing a huge opportunity in its resistance to a low carbon future.
"Poland is not only slowing down their own country, but also the aspirations and opportunities for sustainable growth in the other 26 Member States," Jo Leinen, a German Social Democrat said in a statement.
"Poland is adding to its image of an outdated economy and is holding back progress for the entire continent," Greenpeace EU climate policy director Joris den Blanken said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Charlie Dunmore and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Editing by David Gregorio)