UPDATE 3-EU's carbon market plunges 40 pct after backloading vote
* Committee vote not-binding, only a signal of opposition
* Prices fall to new record lows on panic selling
* Traders fear price crash to zero
BRUSSELS/LONDON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - European Union carbon prices slid 40 percent to a record low after politicians opposed plans to support the market, raising concerns prices could hit zero and dealing a fresh blow to Europe's ambitions to lead the fight against carbon emissions.
Prices in the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) on Thursday dropped to 2.81 euros a tonne after a vote in the European Parliament's energy and industry committee opposing a scheme known as "backloading" to support prices by extracting allowances from the market and reinjecting them later.
In volatile trade, they later climbed back above 4 euros.
The $148 billion scheme is core to Europe's efforts to prompt utilities and industry to go green but carbon prices are far too low to provide that incentive. Analysts say carbon prices need to be at least 20 euros to make utilities switch to lower carbon energy generation.
Launched in 2005, the scheme is now in its third trading phase and is legislated to run until at least 2020, which means it cannot be dismantled even if prices crash to zero.
Thursday's vote is part of a long EU process. Although not binding it is the latest sign of the difficulty the EU is having in reaching agreement on how to intervene in the carbon market.
A vote in the environment committee, expected next month, as well as another in a committee of representatives of member states, are far more decisive.
Many doubt the Commission's proposal will be passed, meaning more ambitious reform plans might not happen for years, leaving the market limping along and Europe's ambitions to lead the world fight against rising carbon emissions severely dented.
So far, coal-intensive Poland is opposed, Britain wants a more ambitious plan and Germany, the bloc's most influential member, is undecided.
PRICE OF FAILURE
If the plan fails, the bloc's Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard warned the EU-wide market could become irrelevant, all 27 member states would develop separate carbon schemes and EU energy and environment policy would unravel.
"If you get a very low carbon price, or maybe no carbon price, then the alternative is a patchwork of 27 different systems. We risk having a nationalising of energy and climate policies," Hedegaard said this week.
Eurosceptics and those who oppose regulation, such as energy-intensive industries, might celebrate, but others want a coherent EU-wide policy and ultimately a global carbon price - along the lines of the global oil market.
"Many in the business community have been clear on this issue for over a decade - it's all about putting a price on carbon," David Hone, climate change advisor for Royal Dutch Shell said.
"Policy-makers need to focus on the single clear goal of a carbon price in the energy system, rather than multiple energy mix targets. This is what business really needs."
But since the European carbon market launched in 2005, it has been beset by problems, including tax fraud, and an over-allocation of permits that generated huge windfall profits for polluters.
Prices crashed to near zero in 2007 from a 32 euro-peak in April 2006 because of the over-allocation of permits. But traders today dismiss that collapse, blaming it on early errors in the experimental phase of the market.
It spurred Commission reforms and less generous allocation of allowances, helping prices to reach almost 30 euros in 2008 - a level many market participants do not expect again this decade.
Traders said the latest drama in the carbon market was swift and overdone.
"Liquidity vanished for a moment and that caused the freefall (in prices)," one carbon trader at a utility said.
Many speculative traders set their stop-loss positions at 5 euros and when carbon prices fell below that level, it triggered automatic sales without buyers.
"The news itself did not justify such a freefall, it was mostly due to this technicality," the trader added.
"Until there is a clear will to give legislative support to this market we cannot expect participants to keep believing in it," another emissions trader said.
Analysts say the ETS will limp along, even if at levels so low as to provide no incentive for a lower carbon energy mix, as it would be as complicated to dismantle it as it is to reform.
"At worst, it will spend a number of years being unexciting until that time policymakers actually commit to making significant emissions reductions," Barclays analyst Trevor Sikorski said.
(additional reporting by Marton Kruppa and Ben Garside; editing by Keiron Henderson)