The European Environment Agency estimated emissions of six gases blamed for global warming declined 0.5 percent in 2002 in the then-15-nation bloc
Under the 1997 U.N. pact for combating climate change, known as the Kyoto Protocol (news - web sites), the EU is committed to cutting its emissions 8 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. So far emissions are down 2.9 percent.
"We do have quite a long way to go," EU spokeswoman Ewa Hedlund conceded.
But EU officials are hoping for a boost after an emissions trading arrangement begins in January, under which European companies that emit less carbon dioxide than allowed can sell unused allotments to those who overshoot the target.
That profit motive is expected to drive efforts and technology to bring "substantial cuts" in carbon dioxide emissions, which make up 80 percent of the EU's greenhouse gases.
"This should lead to an acceleration of progress toward the Kyoto target," Hedlund said.
The United States has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, arguing it would be harmful to its economy
Though the EEA didn't detail the precise cause and effect relationship, its survey did show a link between the economy and emissions.
Emissions that bumped up in 2000 and 2001 reversed course when economic growth across Europe fell precipitously and the biggest economy, Germany's, was mired in a recession that began late in 2001.
The slowdown in manufacturing, particularly the British and Italian steel industry, contributed to the decline, according to the EEA.
"There's still a pretty close correlation between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions," EEA spokesman Tony Carritt said. "The great challenge is to break that link by finding more efficient means of production."
The EEA said data was too preliminary to determine exactly how much of the 2002 decline was due to the slower economy.
Other factors cited include the warmer weather in many countries that year, which reduced the need to heat homes, as well as the adoption of specific emissions-cutting measures, such as the continuing shift from coal to clean-burning natural gas.
Last week, Europe's leading business lobby, UNICE, called on the EU to reconsider its position on Kyoto, arguing that European companies were being placed at a competitive disadvantage for little benefit.
Without U.S. and Russian participation, global emissions would drop by no more than 1 percent by 2012, UNICE president Juergen Strube said.
"Unilateral implementation of the Kyoto Protocol leads to a dead end, both environmentally and economically," he said.
Russian ratification is required for the treaty to take effect, but Moscow has been dragging its feet despite EU pressure.
In a speech Thursday, European Commission (news - web sites) President Romano Prodi blamed "a lack of political will and the divisions between the industrialized countries" for Kyoto's shortcomings.
He said all countries ? including developing countries exempted from Kyoto's targets ? had to cooperate to solve the problem of climate change.