Global tensions are rapidly rising against the European Union’s emissions trading system (ETS) and are threatening the economic recovery of Europe, say the region’s top airline managers, who are calling on the European Commission to “put aside posturing and show true leadership.”

The comments come from Association of European Airlines’ (AEA’s) members, who met with European Commission Vice President Siim Kallas on Thursday to highlight their concerns about ETS. The meeting came ahead of a gathering of political leaders in Brussels to discuss the Eurozone economic crisis, which is expected to worsen.

“Europe has decided to teach the rest of the world a lesson in the environment. We are not against the system, and we all understand the environmental challenge, but we cannot accept that it distorts competition,” said Bernard Gustin, CEO of Brussels Airlines and AEA’s chairman.

Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airlines Group, added, “I expressed to him [Kallas] the frustration and anger that exists in the industry by what people believe is an arrogant approach by the Commission” in the application of the EU’s rules to all airlines and all countries. “We previously cautioned [EC] President [Jose Manuel] Barosso that this approach risked creating a trade war at a time when Europe was desperate for growth. Europe cannot afford a trade war at a time like this,” he said, adding “We recognize that climate change needs to be addressed, but this is a global issue and it requires a global solution.”

According to Walsh, ETS could even undermine the economic development of Europe. “We believe the European Commission needs to move quickly to diffuse the tensions that exist. These tensions are rising rapidly on a daily basis and the EU needs to show leadership, taking concrete steps towards a global solution that the airline industry has called for, for many years,” said IAG’s top executive.

Pointing to the failure by China and India to comply with ETS, Walsh noted, “This goes beyond airlines. These are two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and we are talking about a potential for seriously impacting trade” between the EU and these two countries.

“We have got to be careful at a time like this. All of us are looking to political leaders to address this; it is crazy to risk a trade war.”