Last week, the European Parliament approved a directive that will make it possible for member states to charge haulers for air and noise pollution costs, in addition to motorway tolls. Revising “Eurovignette” road haulage tax rules will also ensure that revenue from these charges is used to improve the performance of transport systems and cut pollution.
In its efforts to cut greenhouse emissions by 60% by 2050, the European Union’s latest decision on charging heavy-weight road users for the damage they make to the environment may be a huge step forward. It is the first time countries within the EU have been given permission to charge some external costs for road haulage. Also, it is a clear sign of the EU’s willingness to take the “polluter pays” principle seriously.
The system will be distance-based: road users will need to pay only for the traction of road they use/the distance covered. This will allow countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia, and, from July 1, Poland, to include surcharges in their distance-based motorway tolls. As well as that, it will encourage countries like Hungary, Belgium or Spain to replace their existing schemes (in Hungary, a time-based one) with a fairer and harmonized one.
Experience shows that with the introduction of such systems, freight transport is becoming smarter and more efficient. Current poorly managed freight transport – unnecessary rides, traveling with empty containers or transporting products that the country of destination already has – is the number one reason for transport emissions. Besides aviation and shipping, road freight is the transport sub-sector with the fastest-growing greenhouse gas emissions. The sector already accounts for 85% of the EU’s transport emissions and 70% of its total oil consumption. These figures are likely to increase: studies forecast a growth of 50% in freight transport and 35% in passenger transport by 2020.
Distance-based lorry charging, however, prompts forwarding companies to improve efficiency via improved load factors, reduced empty driving, route optimization, or the avoidance of congested times.
The extent of the new noise and pollution tax must be calculated in line with other member states. On average, 3 to HUF 1 082o cents per vehicle/km may be added to charges for using transport infrastructure to cover the external costs of road haulage, starting with air and noise pollution. And 22 EU member states, including Hungary, have already charged haulers motorway tolls of an average 15-HUF 6 760o cents depending on the type of toll. 15% of overall revenue must be invested in the development of only trans-European transport (TEN-T) networks. The remaining amounts should be used to reduce damage to the environment and develop all transport systems sustainably.
To manage traffic flows more effectively without generating more revenue, charges may be varied by up to 175% in congested areas, with the highest charges applying during five rush hours, and lower rates at all other times. Trucks with the least-polluting engines will be exempt from air pollution charges until January 1, 2014 (EURO V emission class), and until January 1, 2018 for EURO VI. In sensitive and mountainous regions, the existing “mark-up” of up to 25% may continue to apply and may be added to the external costs charged for trucks in the heaviest pollution classes (EURO 0 to II). It may also be extended to the EURO III class from January 1, 2015.
The agreement is undoubtedly an important measure to tackle fast-growing sources of transport emission but it has its weak points. First, levying charges remains optional for countries. The plan may charge trucks for noise and air pollution, but forbids charges to cover the HUF 16 223 billion costs of climate change, congestion and accidents. (The exclusion of these items shows strength of lobby groups representing freight forwarders.) Furthermore, following pressure from Germany, a requirement in the existing directive for charges to apply to all trucks from 3.5 tons upwards from 2012 has been scrapped. This creates a loophole for trucks under 12 tons.
On the positive side, additional costs may drive much of freight forwarding from road to rail, a step also favored by Levegő Munkacsoport, an NGO.
“If enforced, this measure can significantly reduce harmful emission and noise,” András Lukács, head of the group, said.
A new proposal announced at the end of May shows the European Union’s commitment to tackle noise pollution. The European Commission has announced plans to tighten noise limits for cars, trucks and buses with a proposal expected within weeks and by September at the latest. According to the plan, the new noise limits would be introduced in two stages: car limits, which are currently set at 74 decibels, would be reduced to 72 decibels within two years and to 70 within four years. Lorry limits would have to be lowered by 1 decibel within two years and by a further 2 within four years.