The United Nations aviation body has formed a high-level group to fight climate change but failed during its meeting in Montreal to set specific targets for emissions cuts, sparking anger in the European Union.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) adopted an "aggressive" strategy to mitigate the impact of aviation on the environment, ICAO officials said.
"The level and importance of ICAO's achievement over the years in aviation safety will now be replicated with regard to aviation's impact on climate change," Jeffrey Shane, president of the ICAO's 36th assembly and US undersecretary of transportation, told reporters at the end of the meeting.
"I've never seen the word 'aggressive' in an ICAO resolution before. It's a sea change for the ICAO."
The new high-level group of senior officials from member countries will be mandated to come up with solutions to reduce emissions and the carbon footprint of the aviation industry, Shane said.
The European Union, which accuses the UN body of failing to live up to its obligations under the Kyoto accords, was unimpressed.
"A European compromise suggestion to set up an urgent, high-level ICAO process to fix meaningful targets to reduce aviation emissions was watered down and will only look at possible aspiration goals," the European Commission said in a statement Friday.
The EU declared itself ready to defy the world over airline greenhouse-gas emissions and to institute a unilateral emissions-trading scheme, requiring all airlines to buy special permits to offset the impact of their emissions.
The decision has the potential to spark a major legal row between the United States and Europe, experts said.
Over the last two weeks, the ICAO, which includes the world's civil aviation authorities, has been debating measures aimed at reducing the airline industry's contribution to climate change.
At the ICAO's regular, three-yearly meeting in Montreal, an expert committee proposed that any country wishing to include the airline industry in emissions-trading schemes should first sign agreements with all other countries whose airlines fly into its airspace.
But the proposal outraged the EU and environmental groups, who said it would make impractical attempts to make airlines pay for their emissions.
"After a shameful decade of obstruction and inaction, ICAO must now be stripped of its environmental responsibilities. The EU has recognised that it must now take the lead in cutting emissions from the most polluting form of transport on the planet," Joao Vieira of the Brussels-based environmental group Transport and Environment (T&E) told DPA.
European states decided to register a "formal reservation" on the point - effectively saying that they would ignore any ICAO proposal that fails to meet their demands.
Emissions-trading schemes are designed to encourage industries to reduce their impact on the world's climate by charging them for the greenhouse gases they produce.
Shane said that ICAO member countries do not oppose the idea of emissions trading but dispute the EU's right to unilaterally impose a scheme even on aircraft flying outside EU territory.
The aviation industry should not be turned into a "cash cow" to pay for inefficient and polluting European industries such as power plants, Shane said.
He also warned that the proposed scheme might actually interfere with attempts to cut jet aircraft emissions.
"There are no hybrid aircraft, aircraft do not run on batteries, airlines will have a consistent carbon footprint for a while," Shane said. "The capital we might hope would go into more efficient technology will be spent buying permits for the same old airplanes."
Late last year, the EU launched plans to bring the airline industry into its emissions-trading scheme. The proposals could be finalised by the end of 2007, officials say.