If you look at the European transport agenda now, it is very different to how it looked in 1990. Then, the idea of tackling transport’s environmental impact was limited to a few small-scale ideas, such as cabotage, the process of allowing a lorry that carried goods from A to B being allowed to carry other goods from B to A rather than being forced to return empty. These days, internalising unpaid-for costs into the price of transport, setting financial incentives for car makers and standards for fuel producers, and a general acceptance that transport must contribute to climate protection are a central part of the EU landscape, even if there is still a lot of work to do on turning many of these aspirations into reality.
It is, of course, impossible to say how much would have changed anyway and how much is down to the work of NGOs. But it is fair to say that, without T&E’s presence and reputation for solid, research-based recommendations, the process would not be as far advanced as it is now. Inevitably, there are dozens of cases of national interests blocking the road to progress, so anyone criticising ‘the EU’ for not doing as much as it could should look careful to see exactly where the finger of blame should point to.
But those people who laboured over several months to get T&E off the ground in 1990 can be proud of the foundation stones they laid. They did the groundwork for an organisation that has grown into being remarkably effective in an environment where lobbying by big businesses and national representatives frequently overpowers the arguments that non-governmental organisations bring to the table.
But the journey mustn’t stop half-way. Thanks to the efforts of T&E and others, it is becoming widely recognised that looking after the environment makes economic sense. And with Europe’s economies still recovering slowly from the economic downturn of 2008-09, the crisis in state finances can act as a catalyst for effective measures to reduce the environmental damage caused by transport. T&E will work hard to get the message across that the age of the transport prestige mega-project is over, to be replaced by a focus on climate, environment, biodiversity, human health and education, together with a set of taxes and charges that supports a more efficient and less damaging transport system. In this context, it’s encouraging to see the moves in Portugal to cancel road infrastructure projects (page 4), no doubt inspired by the need to cut costs, but also reflecting the recognition that building infrastructure is yesterday’s, not tomorrow’s solution.
With much vital work still to do, it would be wrong of T&E to become complacent about what we have done in our first 20 years. But in the light of what we have achieved in our two decades to date, I think we’re entitled to a small celebration – and a big vote of thanks not only to the founding fathers who had the vision, the faith and the hard work to get T&E off the ground, but also to those brilliant and dedicated people who over the years have helped T&E develop into the highly effective organisation it is today.