One country alone - Poland - blocked progress on the Energy Roadmap 2050, which ministers had hoped would provide certainty and direction for the continent's climate policy.
The Roadmap calls for a 40% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, a 60% cut by 2040 and an 80% cut by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.
After a meeting of EU environment ministers in Luxembourg yesterday, UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne described the mood by saying: "It is a dark day for Europe's leading role in tackling climate change."
Janusz Lewandowski, the Polish commissioner in charge of the EU's Euro130bn budget, even expressed scepticism over the science of climate change and the future of emissions policy.
"We already have overambitious agreements on CO2 emission reduction," he told a newspaper "There is a notion that the thesis that coal energy is the main cause of global warming is highly questionable. Moreover, more and more often there is a question mark put over the whole [issue of] global warming as such."
Poland gets 90% of its electricity from coal.
Lewandowski said the CO2 targets "are too ambitious for the Polish economy Polish politicians have to persuade that there cannot be a quick jump away from coal. For Poland it would be a disaster."
"It is unclear where we go from here," said a Commission spokesperson. "The Council's work programme for the next six months will be established by Poland. Today's result was unexpected."
Worryingly, Poland is to take charge of the revolving presidency of the EU from 1 July. Jason Anderson of the WWF said Poland's move showed a "shocking disregard for climate protection and economic revitalisation".
"It's terrifying that the man in charge of Europe's budget is someone you might expect to see in Sarah Palin's Republican party," added Greenpeace advisor Ruth Davis.
There was success in one area, however, on Tuesday.
The impasse over a new directive on energy efficiency for business proposed by energy commissioner Gnther Oettinger was resolved.
There had been fears that the energy savings generated would cause a surplus of carbon permits in the EU's emissions trading scheme and drive down their value. Climate and Environment Commissioner Connie Hedegaard had proposed setting aside some permits, but some businesses had opposed this on cost grounds.
The compromise allows adjustments in the supply of permits to be made instead, including setting some aside.
MEPs are also set to vote in the European Parliament on cutting carbon emissions tomorrow.
However, 23 Conservative MEPs are reported to be threatening to vote against David Cameron's ambitious policy of increasing the target from 20% reductions by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, to 30%. This is in the coalition agreement, and supported by other EU member states.
EU environment ministers also failed yesterday to endorse action proposed by the Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to protect biodiversity on cost grounds.
Some, including Italy and Denmark, even expressed reservations on the targets until more clarity is provided on what exactly is to be done and how it is to be funded.
Some cited the failure in Europe to meet its 2010 biodiversity targets as being due to the same lack of detail on the costing of precise actions, and didn't want the same thing to happen with the 2020 targets.
The UK, Austria, and Denmark proposed that funding could come through the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but this wasn't unilaterally approved,
So, while adopting the conclusions of the EU 2020 biodiversity strategy, ministers felt they could not endorse 20 concrete measures that would support the six headline targets proposed within it.
Instead, the Council's conclusions stress "the need to further discuss the actions in order to ensure the effective and coherent implementation of the strategy".
Potočnik had argued that his proposals were "the minimum we need to do if we are to reach the EU 2020 headline targets adopted by EU heads of state and government. There is not much margin in the proposed strategy", adding that the Council did not have the luxury of time.
But after the meeting he put a brave face on its decision, commenting that "While the Commission would have preferred a greater level of ambition from Member States, particularly in the short term, I am satisfied that today痴 conclusions send an appropriate message regarding the level of seriousness with which the EU treats the issue of biodiversity loss.
"The importance of integrating biodiversity into sectoral policies, the ongoing reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, and the discussions on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework has been recognised by Ministers."
Xavier Pastor, executive director of maritime campaign group Oceana, said the EU must structurally reform its fisheries policies if it is to halt biodiversity loss and restore the health of its oceans. "The biodiversity strategy was supposed to pave the way for an ecologically sustainable reform of the CFP, but today the Council adopted hollow conclusions".
Back in the UK, however, a pilot scheme is to start in 2012 that will test the radical new idea of biodiversity offsetting, or mitigation banks.
Developed by the Environment Bank Ltd. in collaboration with UK痴 Environment Agency, small, voluntary projects on the Suffolk and Essex coasts will generate conservation credits which developers will be able to purchase in order to offset any development impact they have in the area.
The scheme will be administered largely by local governments, with Natural England providing support to pilot areas.