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Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 20:55 GMT 21:55 UK
Environmental gridlock
Traffic congestion
European congestion produces greenhouse gases
By BBC News Online's John Egan

The widespread fuel protests of recent days have sent two stark messages to governments across Europe.

Firstly, their economies are almost entirely dependent on oil for car and lorry transport.

And secondly, politicians trying to tackle the problem of climate change should fear the wrath of the motorists' lobby.

While politicians like to blame the massive rise in world oil prices for this latest fuel crisis, taxation is the real reason why petrol and diesel are so expensive.

Fuel prices are deliberately high as a means of fighting the very complex issue of global climate change.

Greenhouse gases

Campaigners like Friends of the Earth (FoE) say global warming is the single biggest environmental threat facing the planet.

If we're going to reduce emission levels then we need to encourage smaller and more fuel efficient cars

Professor Stephen Glaister, Imperial College
FoE say increasingly erratic weather patterns are caused by rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Many governments agree; they have introduced fuel duties and transport policies specifically designed to reduce the levels of carbon dioxide emissions

But while most people agree that global warming is bad and greenhouse gases should be reduced, they do not like having to pay for reduced emissions though increased fuel prices.

Integrated transport

In the UK, the problem is accentuated by the lack of an integrated transport policy.

For the majority of people, public transport, starved of investment for decades, is not a viable option.

Even in cities where public transport does exist, commuters complain of the quality and punctuality of service.

Rising living standards has led to an explosion in car ownership throughout Europe. In the UK 70% of households now have a car.

The number of two and three car households is also growing fast.

Congestion charges

While increasing fuel taxes does have a small impact on the level of traffic, Stephen Glaister, Professor of Transport and Infrastructure at Imperial College, London believes there is a better way of reducing greenhouse gases from cars.

Lorry blockade
Fuel blockades have shown the power of the motorists lobby
"A fundamental social change in our society is the desire for greater mobility," he says.

"Cars are much cheaper and efficient in real terms than they were 30 years ago. If we're going to reduce emission levels then we need to encourage smaller and more fuel efficient cars."

Congestion charging is another policy that Professor Glaister supports.

He believes charging would allow big cities to face up to their traffic problems.

"Congestion charging gives people the incentive to use their cars sensibly.

"If the tax collected is used locally it can give people the chance to use some of the revenue for the improvement of local infrastructure." he says.

Bad timing

The rebellion over fuel prices comes at a very bad time for European governments.

Ministers meeting in Lyon this week, in advance of a key UN environmental conference in November, are trying to settle the outstanding arguments on how to implement cuts in greenhouse gas emissions agreed at Kyoto three years ago.

The [UK] government must reduce our reliance on oil by putting greater emphasis on cleaner engines, public transport, cycling and walking

Stephen Joseph, Transport 2000
The European Union is trying to persuade the United States to take more action at home to prevent global warming.

Professor Paul Ekins of Keele University is concerned that the fuel blockades may force European governments to reduce fuel duties.

"If raising the prices of environmentally damaging activities is not available to European politicians, its going to be much more difficult for them to deliver on their promises.

"This could have a very negative impact on the future of the Kyoto climate change convention." he says.

Government U-turn?

Friends of the Earth are also worried that the political damage the UK government has sustained may force it to alter its long term transport policies.

Roger Higman of FoE believes that reducing fuel duties because of these protests would be counter-productive.

He says: "The government needs to understand that the solutions favoured by the motor lobby will please people in the short-term but fail in the longer term.

"The only way the environmental and economic problems posed by road transport can be solved is by reducing our dependence on the car."

For Stephen Joseph of the Transport 2000 lobby group, the fuel price crisis has exposed the "frightening vulnerability " of society to mass direct action protests.

"The government must reduce our reliance on oil for transport. This mean putting greater emphasis on cleaner, more fuel efficient engines, public transport , cycling and walking." says Joseph.

But perhaps the harshest lesson that politicians have learned from the recent fuel blockades is that they wake the sleeping dragon of the motorists lobby at their peril.

The BBC's Tim Hirsh reports
The citizens' revolt across Europe could threaten global efforts to combat climate change.
Mike Woodin of the Green Party
"People want high standards of environmental protection."



See also:

14 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
15 Sep 00 | Europe
12 Sep 00 | Europe
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