European Union environment ministers agreed Tuesday on an ambitious effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 1990 levels, a goal likely to lead to mandatory limits for cars.
The ministers said the target could be pushed to 30% if other industrialized countries sign on to a global effort.
German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that during the talks, many European colleagues spoke of a moral duty toward future generations.
The target, which must be approved at an EU summit next month to become official, is a crucial first step in a global warming strategy that must be in place by the time the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The protocol requires 35 industrialized nations to collectively cut carbon dioxide and other harmful gases by 5% from 1990 levels.
The EU ministers called for United Nations-led talks to conclude by 2009 to set a new climate change goal for the period after Kyoto expires. They said the next agreement should include the United States -- which rejected Kyoto -- and less-developed polluting countries such as India, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.
President Bush has kept the United States -- by far the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed by scientists for global warming -- out of the Kyoto treaty, saying it would harm the U.S. economy.
The Bush administration has said it is committed instead to advancing and investing in new technologies to combat global warming. It has set a goal of reducing "greenhouse gas intensity," which measures the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output, by 18% by 2012.
A U.N. climate official praised the new European target as a milestone in efforts to bring down emissions from industrialized countries by 60% to 80% by mid-century, which scientists say is necessary to curb Earth's potentially disastrous rising temperatures.
The decision is "quite dramatic," said John Hay, spokesman for the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn. "But it cannot be a stand-alone target." If other nations don't follow suit, he said, "it won't have the desired effect."
Gabriel, who led the talks, said all countries agreed they needed to act urgently just to hold temperature increases below 3.7 degrees by the end of the century.
EU officials said they would now work on the details of how their target would be reached.
Discussions also advanced on imposing limits on carbon emissions by new cars and encouraging more reliance on wind, solar and possibly nuclear energy rather than on carbon-rich fossil fuels.
"There's an urgent need for improvement in the passenger cars category. Voluntary agreements won't be complied with. We must push for binding standards," Gabriel told the meeting. The ministers will debate the issue in June.