Climate Failure

Failure to meet Kyoto targets and a new Climate Protection Act leave Austria’s Greens in a tither

Opinion | Jessica Spiegel | November 2011

Continuing its dismal record as an environmental champion, Austria has failed once again to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. According to the Umweltbundesamt (Federal Environmental Agency), Austria’s 2012 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels will most likely not even be met by 2020. If current trends continue, 2020 emissions will actually be more, rather than less – by as much as 16%.

The Greens are all in a tither. In mid-October, the parliament’s Environmental Committee began debate on a proposed Climate Protection Act, which aims to ensure compliance with climate change targets set by the Kyoto Protocol and the EU. Dubbed the Klima-Schmutz-Gesetz (Dirty Climate Law) by the Green’s chairman of the Environmental Committee, Christiane Brunner, the industry-friendly law devised by Nikolaus Berlakovich (OeVP) seems to offer no concrete solutions to Austria’s failure to live up to its self-proclaimed title as an environmental protector. Instead, it lays out plans for more bureaucracy in the form of a National Climate Change Committee, a Climate Advisory Board and, worst of all, a cosmetic strategy to buy certificates that will allow Austria to continue polluting rather than actually reduce emissions.

Austria’s miserable environmental performance is nothing new. In 1997, when Austria first signed onto the Protocol, it set the lofty aim of reducing emissions by 13% compared to 1990 levels by 2012, actually exceeding the EU average. By 2004, emissions were skyrocketing to 17%, and by 2007 it was last only to Spain in climate achievements among EU countries. By 2008 it had increased emissions by 23%. By 2009, Austria was the worst performing major European country.

And while Austria has flaunted itself as an environmental trendsetter, behind closed doors it has acted very differently: Ursula Plassnik was the only foreign minister to vote against post-Kyoto reductions at EU meetings during her opportunity as foreign minister, and as chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel pushed for studies on the Protocol’s potentially negative impact on employment and economic growth – making the bold claim that EU states should not judge their environmental policy on each other’s records but rather on the U.S. and China, the world’s two main environmental villains. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Vienna during the Bush years, published by WikiLeaks, proudly announces Austria’s potential as a U.S. "ally" in environmental policy, if it weren’t for its pesky resistance to GMO foods and nuclear energy.

Austria’s slide to Europe’s weakest environmental link seems to have happened rather quickly. In 2005, it was still a leader in fine particulate matter emissions and a range of other pollution reductions. The downward spiral could be blamed on the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition during Jörg Haider’s reign, but may have its roots even earlier. The SPÖ/ÖVP coalition from 1987–2000 led the dismantling of the Austria Academy of Sciences’ renowned Institut für Umweltwissenschaften (Institute of Environmental Sciences) because of its criticisms of Federal environmental policies. Industry-friendly politics during the 2000s further resulted in the abolition of the Ministry of the Environment as an individual unit, leaving environmental affairs in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture – inviting conflicts of interest with agribusiness.

Instead of working towards long-term solutions to climate change – more investment in clean energy, building efficiency standards and discouraging driving with higher fuel taxes and tolls – Austria has instead spent nearly €1 billion on certificates to offset its CO2 emissions, essentially purchasing polluting "rights" and doling out money to clean energy projects in developing countries.

In all likelihood, Austria will meet its Kyoto targets by buying up more of these "flexible mechanisms". This is a plaster on a gaping wound, and not a legitimate answer to a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change. And as long as the major global players like the U.S. and China continue on their path as excessive polluters, the world needs Europe – Austria included – to act as a role model.

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