Support to motorways and highways: roads to nowhere?

As highlighted in our new report “The ‘EU Climate Bank’ – Greenwashing or a banking revolution?” and in last week’s blogpost on aviation, the EIB’s approach to transport requires a massive revamp if the bank is going to uphold its climate commitments. This blogpost looks into the EIB’s problematic investments in motorways and highways and the consequences this has on the climate, biodiversity and people living nearby.

The EIB has been massively supporting motorway, highways and other road infrastructures. Just between 2016 to 2019, the EIB spent € 10.65 billion for the expansion of roads, highways and motorways.

The EIB financed numerous motorways via Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) under the Investment Plan for Europe – the flagship initiative of the previous European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker – despite the additionality of such projects and their climate credits being more than questionable. For instance, we identified 4 motorways in Germany (A3, A6, A10 and A24) and 3 motorways in the Netherlands (A679, A980 and A16) financed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) under PPP schemes by the end of 2018 – It is difficult to argue that Germany and Netherlands, two of the most wealthy EU Member States, needed such financial support from the EFSI.

Despite wanting to become the “EU Climate Bank”, the EIB is nevertheless planning to continue supporting new motorways and highways.

Several civil society organizations have been calling on the EIB to put a ban on such investments as these do not contribute to local mobility and compete with less carbon-intensive transport modes such as trains. Road transportation is also a major contributor of CO2 emissions. In 2017, road transport was responsible for almost 72% of the total GHG emissions from transport at the EU level

Furthermore, the EU already has an extremely dense network of motorways and highways, many of which create severe problems of ecosystem fragmentation and even disruptions in environmentally protected areas – the Natura 2000 areas. Several of the EIB financed projects have contributed to the destruction of European biodiversity. While this blogpost focuses on the EIB’s recent loan to the Strasbourg bypass, other harmful projects have also been documented by CEE Bankwatch Network and other civil society organisations, including the Struma motorway in Bulgaria and the S7 motorway in Poland.

The Strasbourg Bypass: Pollution, contestation and a threat to critically endangered species

A recent controversial project funded by the EIB is the Strasbourg bypass (Grand Contournement Ouest de Strasbourg– A355), a 24 kilometre motorway by-passing the city of Strasbourg, France. Despite being contested for 20 years by elected officials, farmers, citizens and civil society organizations, the project nevertheless went through and is currently under construction. This was largely enabled by a € 229 million loan from the EIB signed in April 2018.

The EIB claims that the construction of the bypass would help to significantly reduce the level of congestion on the existing motorway north of Strasbourg, thereby contributing to faster travel times for road users and a decrease in pollution.

In practice, however, this solution is unlikely to be efficient, with highly detrimental consequences for biodiversity, public health and the climate. Local groups have pointed out that the bypass will not provide an effective response to the congestion problem. The current traffic problem is mainly caused by vehicles that enter and leave Strasbourg. The motorway will not be of any use for these people since the project by definition bypasses the city. The objective of the project is rather to have the road primarily used by trucks. However, according to a study conducted by the CGEDD (Conseil général de l’environnement et du développement durable), this would only have a very limited impact on traffic reduction, with an estimated decrease of only 6 to 14%.

While the benefits of this project are questionable, its harmful impacts on the environment and biodiversity are likely to be important. These impacts have been criticised by local opponents and many public studies, including the Environmental Authority, the Agency for Biodiversity, the local water commission and the National Council for the Protection of Nature. The construction of the highway will come at the expense of 300 hectares of agricultural land. It will also strongly disturb or destroy unique ecosystems, including forests and wetlands, that are home to 450 plant and 120 animal species. It furthermore risks causing the disappearance of many protected species, such as the Great Hamster of Alsace, classified among the most threatened mammals in France. The environmental offsets proposed to mitigate the loss of agricultural land and biodiversity have been described as inadequate by the public inquiry commission responsible for studying the case.

The Strasbourg highway is putting the Hamsters of Alsace at risk of extinction, despite it being listed as a protected species under the EU Habitats Directive (Photo: Bigstock/ coboflupi).

Opponents also dispute the argument concerning the fight against air pollution, arguing that it will only be displaced in the municipalities bordering the new highway. The project is likely to increase air and noise pollution for these communities, without decreasing it on the existing A35 highway. The decision authorizing the project was taken on the basis of an old impact study from 2006. Even if a recent update was done, the anticipated impact on air pollution and climate impact is still based on outdated figures.

Who then benefits from this project? As it appears, its main purpose is not to relieve congestion in Strasbourg, but rather to facilitate the movement of goods between northern Europe and the south. The lengthy concession for the project also means that the profits generated will end up in the pockets of the multinational French company Vinci for a period of 55 years, for a project with dubious added-value for the region it will cross as well as its citizens.

The Strasbourg bypass is a sad illustration of the lack of accountability in public participation: the project was rejected by several public authorities and two public inquiry commissions studying the case. This project is an archetype of what we must no longer do in terms of transport. It is part of a long and never-ending list of imposed projects that do not serve the general interest, increase the nuisance for local communities and always destroy more of our natural and common resources. 

The EIB simply cannot claim to be the “EU Climate Bank” if it keeps on investing in such damaging projects. It should instead help develop more sustainable transport modes that have higher positive impacts for citizens and their territories. 


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