A truck passes under an electronic tollgate in Germany. Under EU proposals, road hauliers will be charged for harm caused to the environment

European Union member states will for the first time be able to charge road hauliers for harm caused to the environment, under “green transport” proposals to be announced on Tuesday.

Antonio Tajani, the newly appointed transport commissioner, told the Financial Times the initiative was needed to convince citizens that Brussels was serious about tackling pollution and to strengthen the transport sector’s contribution to business competitiveness.

The sector – principally road vehicles – accounts for about 28 per cent of EU carbon dioxide emissions, according to the European Commission, but under EU rules heavy freight vehicles are currently charged only for using road infrastructure.

The proposal, which is expected to receive the green light from the 27-member Commission at a meeting in Strasbourg on Tuesday, would relax these rules by allowing governments to include costs related to air and noise pollution as well as traffic congestion.

“We’re trying to establish a transport system that will be more sustainable, less polluting and faster, avoiding bottlenecks,” Mr Tajani said. “We’re facing an emergency. We can’t play a defensive game. We need to be on the attack. It’s the citizens who are asking us to play an attacking game.”

Representatives of the road haulage industry are unhappy about the proposal, saying it risks bleeding companies dry while they are battling with severe rises in petrol prices.

But environmentalists say the industry has got off lightly because the Commission has dropped the idea of allowing freight companies to be taxed for costs attributed to global warming.

Mr Tajani said: “This is not an initiative designed to harm those in the road freight transport business. It has no mandatory features. It’s not a new tax. Rather, it’s a positive initiative to reduce pollution.”

Hauliers currently pay only for use of roads, he said, while under the new proposal they would pay “a bit more” to cover the pollution they cause. “Ultimately it will reduce costs and it will be good for entrepreneurs,” said Mr Tajani.

The proposal must be approved by EU governments and the European Parliament to become law. With the parliament to wind up its affairs next March ahead of elections in June, doubts remain over how much progress will be made during the next eight months.

However, the principle of integrating the environmental costs of road freight transport into toll prices has been established in an EU directive of May 2006 that, like the new proposal, affects only goods vehicles that weigh more than 3.5 tonnes.

Discussions continue over whether the revenue should be earmarked for measures to cut environmental costs throughout the transport sector or just road usage.

Mr Tajani’s proposal is part of a broader plan to improve efficiency in transport, with measures to promote investment in maritime and inland waterways, develop port services and boost railway passenger and freight transport.

The Commission launched an initiative two weeks ago to cut carbon dioxide emissions in aviation by simplifying the EU’s airspace control systems and shortening passenger routes.

“We have a duty to make people understand that Europe is not only a great bureaucratic machine, not only red tape, but a service to citizens,” Mr Tajani said.

“If we don’t do that we risk outcomes like the Irish referendum,” he added, referring to June’s vote against the Lisbon treaty.

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