NOT FOR the first time, environmentalists are wringing their hands over the fate of the earth. The GEO-2000 report compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme and published on September 15 is up for discussion at an international convention in Bonn this month - and it will make gloomy reading. Those attending the meeting will acknowledge that action to reverse the damaging trends of the last 40 years may already be too little and too late. Some are sowing the seeds of change, exemplified by ’carless’ days in cities across France and Italy, but in many cases the action needed is politically unpalatable.

This is no better illustrated than in Switzerland, where the electorate voted in February 1994 to ban heavy lorries carrying transit freight from 2004. The government at the time opposed the motion, and its successor is wrestling to free itself from the commitment as it tries to ratify a long-delayed trade treaty with the European Union. It called an extraordinary parliamentary session last month to try and resolve matters, but merely succeeded in provoking an outcry in which the environmental lobby threatened to call another referendum to overturn the government’s decision.

The government’s latest proposal was to delay the lorry ban until after completion of the AlpTransit base tunnels, possibly to 2013. In return, it would increase subsidies to SBB by SFr3·3bn over the period to 2007 to allow them to carry more lorries on piggyback and intermodal services. The idea was described as ’catastrophic and unacceptable’ by German Eyer of the Alps Initiative, the organisation behind the lorry ban. Arguments continued to rage last month despite the government’s hope of reaching a compromise by mid-October that would allow the treaty to be ratified.

The Swiss stance has not enjoyed much support from EU countries, but there are now signs that Austria may give its neighbour some backing. Transport Minister Caspar Einem recently outlined proposals for a lorry transit tax based on weight and distance travelled. If support can be garnered in Austria and elsewhere, there would be some chance of influencing European transport policy, although we have yet to see the colours of newly-appointed German Transport Minister Reinhardt Klimmt and European Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio. Europe’s environmental future could be their responsibility.