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EU climate talks pushed back by Brexit turmoil, dispute over long-term goals

The heads of state of European Union member countries are expected to push back a serious discussion over increasing climate targets when they convene this week, dashing hopes that leaders could back a proposal by the European Commission to commit to reaching carbon neutrality by midcentury in the face of widespread climate protests.

Member state leaders are meeting for a summit in Brussels on March 21 and 22 but will likely be preoccupied by negotiations over Britain's departure from the EU. Facing a Brexit deadline of just over a week, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the EU to delay the country's departure from the bloc by three months. European Council President Donald Tusk said he will use the summit to try and win over member state leaders to agree to a Brexit extension, provided Britain's parliament approves a previously negotiated withdrawal agreement that it has so far rejected twice.

Although they face growing calls from youth protesters to up their climate ambition, members of the European Council are emphasizing "the importance of the EU submitting an ambitious long-term strategy by 2020 striving for climate neutrality in line with the Paris Agreement" according to a draft summit statement cited by website Euractiv.

According to the site, confidential documents prepared for the summit also expose a rift between member states. Countries including France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Denmark are reportedly in favor of the 2050 net-zero carbon goal, while Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic oppose any reference to the 2050 time frame and also refuse to specifically link EU climate action with the 1.5 degree C objective.

The EU has committed to cut its emissions by 40% by 2030 but the European Commission, the bloc's executive, set off a debate over longer term targets last year by proposing pathways to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Reaching that goal would include using carbon sinks and negative emissions technology like biomass associated with carbon capture and storage, as well as more energy efficiency and renewables, according to the commission.

The European Parliament in March approved a nonbinding resolution that the EU should cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and also called on member states to agree to pursue the carbon-neutrality goal. Although the vote shows how the current parliament could react to a formal legal proposal from the European Commission on the issue, lawmakers will break for new elections in April.

The EU's current policies would only reduce emissions by around 60% by 2050, the commission has said. But reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 is crucial to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The EU has committed to try restricting temperature increases to around that mark as a signatory of the Paris climate accord, which aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels.

The council's draft summit statement includes a call to intensify work on a long-term climate strategy "ahead of a further discussion in the European Council later in the year" and also underlines that any climate policy will take into account the competitiveness of European industry, Euractiv reported.

Climate policy has gained prominence in recent months as thousands of students protested in capitals across Europe, calling on governments to take action over global warming. The EU expects to submit an updated climate strategy to the United Nations in early 2020.