Green Austria: Smoke and Mirrors?

Vienna’s waste-management is a model, but is fundamental change needed to meet Kyoto targets?

Top Stories | Vienna Review | April 2013

The Wiener Fernwärme (district heating), designed by Hundertwasser, is a proud monument of successful waste management (Photo: Fernwärme Wien)

Meeting the 2020 Kyoto Protocol targets has been a struggle for many countries. Some have scaled back their original commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; others have withdrawn entirely. In emerging markets, most notably China, emissions are on the rise. In China a new coal-fired power station is being built every few days.

In Austria, Vienna has vaunted the goal of the "zero carbon city" with a series of recent energy-saving waste management initiatives. It sounds admirable, seems to work, and has attracted international attention. But it is the beginning, rather than the end, of a much longer story.


R20: sustainably proud

The first major gathering of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s NGO R20 Regions of Climate Action, held in Vienna on 31 January, brought together 600 celebrity heavyweights from academia, industry, and government. Political heavyweights included the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann, and former California Governor, film star, and icon of green politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Introducing the two-day clean energy conference under the grand title "Implementing the Sustainable Energy Future" at the Aula der Wissenschaften (, Ulli Sima, city minister for the environment, declared that "zero emissions has long been a reality for Vienna’s waste management." It was not a matter of "great expectations". From 1999 to 2009, Vienna’s climate protection programme, KLiP I had reached its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3.1 million tonnes, four years ahead of schedule.

The city is also justly proud of the fact that in 2010 the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT) awarded Vienna the "World City Closest to Sustainable Waste Management". Vienna immediately launched KLiP II, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 21per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. This would put total emissions at only 2.9 tonnes per capita – less than half of 2009 levels.

Converting rubbish to heat

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions was in part made possible by recycling waste. MA48 estimates that 550,000 tonnes of CO2 a year is saved thanks to recycling programmes, every year collecting more than 350,000 tonnes of recyclables and reducing the drain on raw materials.

The city converts much of its waste to heat. District heating (Fernwärme) has been the backbone of Vienna’s urban energy production since the first incinerator, the Flötzersteig, opened 40 years ago. Today, Vienna has one of the largest district heating grids in Europe, with over 1,000 km of pipelines, supplying some 32 per cent of Vienna’s total heating needs by incinerating rubbish. The Hundertwasser-designed Spittelau incineration plant is even a tourist attraction of sorts, and a familiar and well-loved part of the city’s skyline.

All this has had a positive impact on the Viennese economy. Between 1999 and 2011, the city invested over €20 billion in these schemes, and received a return on investment of €18.7 billion. In short, taxpayers have paid next to nothing to "go green", and about 59,000 jobs have been created in the waste management sector.

In ­addition, since 2009, a ban on landfilling with residual waste has had an effect nationwide. One benefit has been to encourage the development and implementation of sustainable energy-recovering technologies, another to reduce emissions of methane, the second most harmful greenhouse gas. Formed by microbes during the breakdown of organic material, methane makes up an estimated 60 per cent of gases produced by landfills.

In the big picture – Austria lags behind

Yet at the end of 2010, Austria, along with Italy and Luxembourg, had yet to achieve its Kyoto target for reducing greenhouse gases, according to the European Environmental Agency (EEA). And if additional measures are not taken, according to the Austrian Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt), there could, thanks to the current economic crisis, actually be an increase in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

In short, it you look past the PR, and the unquestionable success of Vienna’s way with waste, Austria as a whole is much less of the model green nation that it seems – indeed it is falling behind some of its EU neighbours.

One way these deficits are currently being equalised is though the purchase of carbon credits, also know as "flexible mechanisms." This largely discredited EU Emissions Trading Scheme is based on the "cap and trade" principle, where each country has a set emission allowance, and carbon credits are bought and sold between countries.

This is conceptually similar to the idea of buying carbon offsets for a flight. But as in the air, you are still producing a "carbon footprint". The money you contribute (in theory) is intended to "cancel it out" by contributing to schemes for reducing emissions elsewhere.

Beyond recycling

Fans of Austria’s green initiatives might be surprised to learn that the country is likely to be among the highest purchasers of carbon credit units – behind Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, according to the EEA. It is estimated that Austria will need to spend €611 million to buy the CO2 credits it needs to compensate for its 5 per cent increase in emissions over recent years.

So where does Austria actually stand in meeting Kyoto targets? The answer is not black and white, but it is also certainly not as green as the politicians like to maintain.

While Austria has made notable strides in creative waste management, significant hurdles remain. But as the European Environmental Agency makes clear, a sustained political commitment will be needed to encourage energy-efficient technologies and "green jobs" in all sectors.

No one pretends this is simple or without pain. But coupled with the carbon credits, the PR, however seductive, can only disguise Austria’s failure – so far – to take this fundamental step, a sine qua non, if it is to meet the 2020 targets to which it is committed.

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