Austria Cancels Highway Projects to Reduce Climate Risk

A minister says highways are 'full of cement, full of destruction.'

Start of tunnel

Asfinag Motorway and Expressway Financing Company

In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker proudly announced a highway expansion earlier this month. "Thanks to Rebuild Illinois, we're unlocking the federal funding necessary to take this from a four to a six-lane highway - enhancing safety, creating jobs, improving the reliability of the freight network, and supporting the economic development potential of the region," said Pritzker.

In Ontario, Canada, the conservative government is ramming two highways into the area around Toronto, even though most of it is supposed to be greenbelt protected from development and despite the fact that there is an underutilized toll highway that a previous conservative government sold for a mess of pottage so it could say it balanced the budget. Environmental Defence calls Highway 413 "a redundant and unnecessary mega highway that would pave over farm, forests, wetlands and a portion of the Greenbelt and cost taxpayers billions" and warns that "it will also add over 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 when cutting emissions is more urgent than ever."

Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner says, “Let me be clear: Highway 413 is a climate and financial disaster. It needs to be canceled... Instead of pumping billions into more highways and urban sprawl, let’s invest in livable and affordable communities connected by transit that protect nature and crush climate pollution.”

Leonore Gewessler being sworn in as Minister for Infrastructure
Leonore Gewessler being sworn in as Minister for Infrastructure.

Martin Juen/ Getty Images

It seems that notwithstanding a climate crisis, governments everywhere are still building highways. Except for Austria, where the Green Party is part of the government and highway projects are actually getting canceled. According to a translation of Der Spiegel, Leonore Gewessler, Austrian climate protection minister, said: "I don't want us to say in 20 years' time: We have buried billions in tax money and concreted our future."

She is quoted in France24, saying in a press conference that "the fight against the climate crisis is our historic duty... More roads mean more cars, more traffic," adding she did not want to leave children a future "full of cement, full of destruction." She noted also that "climate-damaging CO2 gets into the atmosphere not only through vehicles but also through construction."

It is unusual for politicians to acknowledge the carbon footprints from the construction of the highways or, in this case, a very big tunnel underneath a nature reserve near Vienna. But the minister says: “The expansion of the road network always leads to more traffic. More traffic leads to more emissions, more noise - and more traffic jams... In addition, tunneling is an extremely CO2-intensive form of construction."

The mayor of Vienna is not happy, claiming the tunnel wouldn't hurt the national park and was "essential to ease traffic and connect the capital's outskirts."

This is in a city that has the best transit infrastructure that I have seen anywhere—a city where they push subways and streetcars out to new developments and where they have wonderful bike networks that can get you anywhere. Groups have been protesting the tunnel. Werner Schandl, one of the organizers, tells News in 24:

“We expect a sustainable, future-oriented mobility policy based on the massive expansion of public transport in the Danube city and in Floridsdorf. In the 21st century, the transport policy of the 1970s, which was based on individual motorized transport, has long since ceased to be justified. “

This particular project has been controversial for years, and we may not have heard the last of it. But all of the reasons used here for killing the Lobau tunnel apply anywhere in the world: Building highways and adding lanes doesn't do anything but attract more cars and create more carbon emissions. Nothing has changed since Lewis Mumford noted in 1955 that “adding car lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity."

Highways are made of concrete, causing massive upfront carbon emissions during their construction. University of Toronto professor Shoshanna Saxe found tunnels for rail generate 27 times as much carbon emissions as surface rail—the numbers for car tunnels are likely similar.

We are getting awfully close to our carbon ceiling that will bust us through 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) and every foot of highway we pave brings us closer still. As Gewessler notes, they are "full of cement, full of destruction." We have to stop this now.