Austria Sees Pollution Fall Despite Truck Traffic Rise

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 21, 2000 (ENS) - An ecopoints system set up to protect Austria's fragile Alpine valleys from increasing road freight traffic has reduced exhaust emissions by more than 55 percent in the last decade.

But a key clause designed to keep traffic levels down has not worked and will likely be abolished.

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Trucks like these from an international forwarding agency are affected by the ecopoints system. (Photo courtesy Kunstl)
Austria has the geographic misfortune to lie at the crossroads of Central Europe. Lying between Italy and Germany and on a major corridor to Eastern Europe, the country is heavily used by transit traffic in both north-south and east-west directions.

The geography of Austria's alpine areas encourages north-south travel along alpine valleys whose fragile ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to transport pollution.

It was these environmental concerns that led Austria to sign an agreement with the European Union in 1992 to reduce the emissions and noise generated by heavy goods vehicles crossing Austrian territory in transit.

The agreement stipulated emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) would be reduced by 60 percent by 2003. To encourage the use of cleaner, more efficient trucks an ecopoint system was established.

When Austria joined the European Union in 1995, each member nation received an ecopoint quota for distribution to its hauliers.

To control numbers of vehicles traveling across the country, Austria insisted that if the number of transit journeys in any one year was more than eight percent above the number made in the 1991 base year, the following year would see an extra 20 percent reduction in the number of ecopoints available.

Just such an increase in traffic happened last year, though NOx emissions actually fell by over 10 percent in the two years to 1999.

In an announcement today, the European Commission praised the overall success of the ecopoints system in cutting NOx emissions, but admitted that the clause to reduce traffic had been unsuccessful.

"The Commission recognizes that the restriction clause has had little impact on traffic levels, and has even been counterproductive, and proposes abolishing it," it said.

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European Commission vice president responsible for transport and energy, Loyola de Palacio. (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Loyola de Palacio, vice president responsible for transport and energy welcomed "the major incentive provided by the ecopoints system for the use of clean lorries."

"We must keep the system for a few more years in order to attain our objectives of reducing pollution and must prepare now for more rational transport to conserve the environment while ensuring freedom of movement," added de Palacio.

Adopting a report on the issue, the European Commission pointed out that the positive aspects of the ecopoints system do not apply to trucks circumventing Austria and creating pollution in neighboring countries.

"Targeting on lorries in transit therefore only partly resolves the problem," said the report.

The report added that penalties under the eight percent clause are disproportionate. In 1999, for example, the clause was exceeded by nearly 100,000 journeys, but a reduction of 150,000 journeys was imposed.

These discrepancies have infuriated European Union (EU) member states. This summer, many countries faced having their ecopoints allocation cut off half way through the year because the eight percent clause had been exceeded.

Loyola de Palacio defused the dispute by agreeing to distribute a reduced quota of ecopoint permits to sustain transit traffic until a final agreement was reached in late September.

Throughout, the Austrian government pressured by a powerful environmental lobby at home has argued strongly that other EU nations should stick to limits on heavy truck traffic. In June, more than 1,000 protesters blocked an Austrian highway to protest the traffic and pollution.

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Transitforum Austria Tirol has blockaded the Brenner Pass three times. (Photo courtesy Transitforum Austria Tirol)
Pollution from trucks and cars kills more than 20,000 people a year in Austria, France and Switzerland, according to a study released in September by researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

Today's report said EU member states should accept responsibility for cases of irregular transit, including ecopoint fraud, perpetrated by four percent of trucks in transit through Austria.

It recommended imposing penalties on member states in proportion to the number of ecopoints not paid by hauliers and said that a regulation on the subject is to be introduced.

The European Commission plans to carry out a detailed study to examine the role of railways in the transport of freight through Austria. It wants to make this cleaner mode of transport, which Austrian hauliers in particular still underuse, more attractive.