Campaigners have dismissed plans to include airlines in a scheme to combat climate change as too weak to curb the impact on global warming of a massive growth in air travel.
Under the proposals, all European flights will be covered by the EU's emissions trading scheme from 2011, with all journeys to and from Europe's airports being included the following year.
Green groups argue that only a special scheme for aviation will curb the huge increase in air travel.
The scheme would issue airlines with permits to pollute based on their average emissions between 2004 and 2006. Any airline that reduced emissions would be able to sell its remaining allowance while others would be forced to buy an additional quota.
According to the campaign group WWF, airlines could make windfall profits of £2.3bn because the plans would mean most permits being allocated to them rather than auctioned. This means that carriers could follow the example of power companies and pass on the market price of permits to consumers even if they received them free.
Yesterday's announcement, which still needs approval from EU governments and MEPs, came after a fierce debate over the extent to which foreign - particularly United States - airlines should be included. The European Commission predicted that, by 2020, the price of a typical return flight within the EU could rise by between €1.8 (£1.20) and €9.
Launching the initiative, the European environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said, by 2020, CO2 savings of as much as 46 per cent, or 183 million tons, could be achieved each year.
But that figure was disputed because it refers to the number of extra permits the aviation industry will have to buy - rather than the reduction in flying.
The European Federation for Transport and the Environment said that aviation emissions would be reduced by 3 per cent, based on a CO2 price in the trading scheme of €15 per ton.
Mr Dimas rejected claims that the scheme would be challenged by the US in the courts, arguing: "Our proposal is in accordance and compatible with international law. I expect that US airlines or other airlines will not challenge legally something that they know they are not going to win."
He described the plan as a "cost-effective solution that is good for the environment and treats all airlines equally". But Caroline Lucas, the Green MEP who drafted the European Parliament's position on aviation, said: "A two-staged approach, with one year of intra-EU flights only, is both environmentally damaging and legally unnecessary."
Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on climate change in the European Parliament, said: "The fact that many airline operators have been lobbying for inclusion in the scheme suggests that they regard this as a cynical exercise in diverting criticism rather than reducing emissions."
The British Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, called the decision "an important first milestone in the international community tackling aviation emissions". But the Conservatives'transport spokesman, Chris Grayling, described the decision as "the worst of both worlds" and called for a scheme that covered transport alone.
How does the scheme work?
Airlines will join the EU's existing emissions trading scheme which started in January 2005. Like 10,000 industrial polluters across Europe, air carriers will receive tradeable allowances to emit a certain level of CO2 per year from their flights. The number will be capped at the average level of emissions for 2004-6. Airlines will be able to buy permits on the open market from industries that have reduced their emissions, or sell theirs if they pollute less. While the system covers flights inside the EU from 2011, intercontinental journey to and from Europe will be covered from the following year.Reuse content