IN FIFTEEN years' time, it will be possible to drive anywhere in Europe, even the remotest parts, on a sleek network of new motorways - but you may not want to venture outside the house, given the clouds of pollution and the risk of skin cancer.
That is the view environmentalists take of the European Community's plans for transport. As EC transport ministers meet in the leafy Hertfordshire countryside, such apocalyptic prospects must seem distant. But as they prepare the agenda for the British presidency of the EC, the relationship between environment and transport will weigh heavily in their discussions.
Today, the ministers will consider a Commission green paper, issued in February by Karel Van Miert, the EC's transport commissioner, setting out policy for the next five years. The green paper is all about 'sustainable mobility', trying to square the EC's transport need with the environment.
Too often, environmentalists say, the road lobby wins. Chris Bowers of the European Federation for Transport and the Environment said: 'We had two major criticisms of the green paper. It does not define what is sustainable for the environment. And there are no targets.'
He fears that the green paper may simply give the go-ahead for a massive expansion of road transport. Last month, the Commission also put together a series of papers on filling in the the missing links in the Community's transport system. This would give the EC much wider powers over the growth of transport infrastructure. It proposed a 37,000 km motorway network by 2005, an increase of about 50 per cent.
With this were proposals for shifting freight from road to rail and waterways. 'If we don't change our policy, then by 2010 we will have to deal with a 42 per cent increase in road haulage,' said Mr Van Miert. 'That is just not conceivable.'
The commission's green paper also says private car traffic is set to grow by 45 per cent by 2010, but that stemming the environmental impact is mainly a problem for national governments.
Mr Van Miert is not the environmentalists' favourite commissioner. 'He is known to have watered down many of the environmental aspects of the green paper before it was published,' said Mr Bowers.
It is doubtful if John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, who is chairing the talks, will encourage the EC towards greater leadership on the environment. Britain's main priority is to push ahead with liberalisation of air, road and maritime transport.
Last month, Carlo Ripa di Meana, the EC environment commissioner, unveiled plans to shift cars out of urban areas. It was a question of making the transition from 'the car dream to the dream city - the car- less city' he said. He was even ready to live without his own Alfa Romeo, he added. Sadly, the EC decided it could live without Mr Ripa di Meana, and he is now back home in Rome. The EC environment portfolio is temporarily under the wing of another commissioner - Mr Van Miert.
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