Portuguese obsessed with cars

PORTUGAL IS using too many cars and importing too much petrol for a country of its size, according to the European Union.

The European Commission Director General of the Environment says the phenomenon is extremely negative for the economy and has grave consequences on the environment and the health of its citizens, Chris Graeme reports.

Figures released by the National Statistics Institute last Friday reveal that the trade balance deficit rose by 15.9 per cent in the first five months of 2005, compared with the same period in 2004. The main reason for the deficit was Portugal’s increased dependency on imported petroleum fuels and products, including petrol that soared by 37.4 per cent compared with last year. The European Commission Director General of the Environment has revealed that, in 2002, Portugal had 558 light vehicles (cars, vans and motorcycles) per 1,000 inhabitants. Only Luxemburg (643) and Italy (590) own more vehicles per 1,000 head of population.

Portugal is also in the front line of European Union countries with the greatest dependency on petrol in goods transportation. Out of 25 countries, it is in sixth position with 93.1 per cent of all goods carried via road. Only Malta and Cyprus – both islands with limited rail infrastructure – had a 100 per cent or near 100 per cent take up of goods by road. Greece was not far behind at 98 per cent, Ireland 97 per cent, and Spain 94 per cent.

To fuel this massive road convoy, Portugal is the fourth country in the EU to be most dependent on petrol – 59 per cent of all energy consumed goes on vehicles. The quantity of lead derived from burning fuel escaping into the atmosphere represents 34 per cent of the total lead derivatives pumped into the air from all energy sources.

One of the consequences of Portugal’s obsession with the motorised vehicle is the release of suspended particles or smog (PM10) into the air, mainly caused by the combustion of coal, fuel oils and petrol from both industry and cars. These particles lodge in the respiratory airways and bronchial tubes, causing asthma and reducing the body’s ability to fight infection.

Helder Spinola, of Portuguese environment group Quercus, says the only solution to reduce pollution is for people to cut back on using their cars and for industry to think about using the rail infrastructure. Increasing both vehicle tax and parking charges in urban areas would also be an effective way of controlling the use of the motorcar.