While the climate crisis is worsening day by day, countries continue to build harmful infrastructure like highways. They increase the amount of traffic that is emitting CO2, seal millions of km2 of soil and often cut through intact nature, migration corridors and even nature reserve. The detrimental effects are long-known, but still mostly ignored in decision making. On one hand, the world´s leaders do not leave out any opportunity to make new climate pledges. On the other hand, new roads, airports and coal power plants are built around the world.
This situation applied to Austria for the last years. After the conservative and the green party formed a government in 2019, Austria has committed to become climate neutral in 2040. Many countries have made similar commitments during the climate summit in 2015 or since. Nevertheless, most countries are on a trajectory to miss their commitments by far.
Austria has closed its last coal plant in 2020 and mostly relies on hydropower (60%) thanks to its topology with the Alps covering two thirds of its territory. In terms of traffic, the situation looks very different, though. Car traffic has increased by 11% since 2010 and in 2020, 42 km2 of land were converted into settlements, industrial areas and infrastructure. 42% of that area was totally sealed. This is far away from the goal of 9 km2 annually that the government set for 2030.
Highways must undergo climate check
Leonore Gewessler, the minister for climate since 2019, has finally tackled this issue. Earlier this year, she announced that all planned highway construction projects will undergo a ‘climate check’. While emissions have fallen in most sectors since 1990, emissions of the traffic sector have risen by 75% since then. And Austria already has one of the densest road networks in the world. So, from now on, each new construction of new highway sections will go undergo this climate check and only go ahead, if it is not too detrimental for climate and biodiversity.
More roads mean more cars, more cars lead to more traffic
On the first December, Gewessler announced the outcome of the check of current projects. And showed that she is serious about this. She cancelled two out of three projects including the ‘Lobau’ highway, a planned new stretch of highway that is supposed to remove traffic from the inner city of Vienna. It would also increase traffic significantly, emit a lot of CO2 during the construction process and build a tunnel underneath a national park area. After years of legal and public struggle by conservationist to stop this project, this is a big step in the right direction.
Highway construction is one of the most pressing issues for wild and pristine nature across the world. While we continuously hear pledges and statements by decision makers that the climate and biodiversity crisis must be stopped, they continue to destroy nature to make space for cars. Let´s hope that other countries will follow the example of Austria and finally prioritize all of our livelihoods and future over convenience for car drivers.
It seems like that not even in Austria everyone has realized that, though. As soon as the decision was announced, the mayor of Vienna has announced that he will legally challenge it…