Christmas came early this year for the dirty, dirty airline industry.

airplane

Following months of tension and threats, today the European Union announced it intends to postpone for a year a law aimed at curbing carbon emissions from airplanes. The law would have required all airlines that fly to or from E.U. countries to participate in a cap-and-trade system, granting each a certain level of CO2 output per year. If an airline exceeded that amount, it would have to buy carbon allowances or pay fines, starting in April of 2013. The law was an attempt to deal with fast-growing airline pollution; air travel is now responsible for about 3 percent of global CO2 emissions.

But the U.S., China, and India protested vehemently and claimed the issue should be dealt with on a global scale (because, you know, other international climate efforts have been so successful). From The New York Times:

Connie Hedegaard, the E.U. climate commissioner, said she had asked the Union’s 27 governments to “stop the clock” on the system for one year …

Ms. Hedegaard said her recommendation followed a meeting Friday at the I.C.A.O. [the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization] at which member states decided to set up a policy group to agree on a global, market-based system for regulating airline emissions.

In reality, Ms. Hedegaard’s decision was a long-awaited retreat by the Union in the face of concerted international opposition, including the refusal to participate in the system by China Eastern, Air India and other airlines, and efforts by U.S. lawmakers to prevent American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and others from making payments.

In order to “stop the clock,” the E.U. actually still has to change the law, but the European Parliament is expected to play along. So, what comes next? From The Guardian:

Hedegaard pointed in particular to the agreement by ICAO to set up a high-level policy group to consider options for a market-based mechanism, such as carbon trading, to cut emissions. She said: “Finally we have a chance to get an international regulation on emissions from aviation. This is a long sought for opportunity that we must use. This is progress. But actually to get there, a lot of tough negotiations lie ahead of us.”

So now the U.S. and other critics will have a chance to show whether they really meant it when they said they wanted to set up a global system. From The Times again:

Ms. Hedegaard said [the postponement] would give the negotiators at the International Civil Aviation Organization the chance to reach a global agreement by next October. But she warned that failure to reach such an agreement would mean the European system would be applied in full again after 2013.

“Let me be very clear,” she said. “If this exercise does not deliver — and I hope it does — then needless to say we are back to where we are today.”

Wait, by “today,” does she mean the day the E.U. decided to cave to critics and let climate change march on unabated? Or the alternate-reality today in which the E.U. moves forward despite griping from the U.S. and others? May the new year bring Hedegaard some courage — and for the airlines, maybe a new heart.