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April 2 (Reuters) - The European Commission urged the bloc's Parliament to exempt international flights from paying for their carbon emissions on Wednesday, retreating from its own proposal on the eve of a binding vote amid pressure from national governments.
In a late night debate in the Brussels parliamentary chamber, Europe's climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard told members to back a weakened compromise rather than her own agency's proposal to regulate the portion of international flights over EU territory.
"Without doubt the Commission would of course have preferred and fought for a higher level of ambition.... it would've been better for Europe's self respect and reputation and even more important, for the climate. But we are where we are," said Hedegaard.
In 2012 the European Union started charging all airlines for emissions for the full duration of their flights into and out of the bloc via its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) but, after complaints from major economies including the United States and China, confined application to domestic EU flights only for one year to give the United Nations time to craft a global alternative.
Last September, nearly 190 nations at U.N. aviation body ICAO agreed to design a worldwide scheme to limit aviation emissions by 2016 but rejected letting Europe apply its own plans in the meantime.
Just weeks after the ICAO meeting, the European Commission insisted Europe was within its rights to regulate within its own airspace and proposed extending the regulation to also cover the portion of international flights over EU territory.
EU member states came out against the plan, fearing it will re-ignite tensions with major trading partners and hamper progress toward the global aviation emissions deal.
The EU Parliament has been more divided, with some lawmakers urging Europe not to bow to international pressure and to help hold ICAO to its pledge to ready the global agreement.
The centre-right European People's Party, the biggest parliamentary grouping with around a third of the 766 seats, wants to keep international flights exempt while the second-placed Socialists and third-ranked Liberals were split ahead of the vote.
Hedegaard urged Parliament to back a weakened compromise backed by the national governments to continue to limit the regulation to domestic flights until 2016, which she said would preserve some coverage of the sector and give regulatory certainty to all airlines just weeks ahead of a key deadline.
Member states and Parliament need to agree by the end of the month otherwise the full global scope of the law is automatically re-applied, potentially forcing carriers to pay for all flights using EU airports at current market rates of around 5 euros per tonne of carbon dioxide. (Reporting by Ben Garside in London; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)