Austria’s Climate Politics: Taking the Heat

The Struggle to Meet the Kyoto Standards Means Challenging Our Love of the Car

The spin-doctors had certainly earned their wages this time. There was no missing Austrian environment minister Josef Pröll’s Apr. 10 bike ride from the University of Vienna to the Urania, aimed at promoting the green virtues of pedal power.

From ahead, it looked like the  approach  of  a multi-wheeled avalanche. Setting a cracking pace at the front was the minister himself, rather snappily dressed for the occasion in a loose fitting black business suit and red tie, the look finished off by a scalp-gripping helmet. Beside Pröll, and adding his considerable moral support to the occasion, was the wiry Georg Totschnig, a former Tour de France stage-winner, and behind him an enthusiastic pack of be-saddled journalists, determined to make the most of their day out in the bright April sun.

With one hand on the handlebars and the other on their cameras, daring photographers tried to outflank the leading pair to get a good frontal view, while at the rear a colourful band of protestors, some of them riding penny-farthing bicycles, loudly complaining that it was all a meaningless PR gag. And seeing Pröll and his noisy entourage approach on the city’s narrow paths, cyclists coming from the opposite direction, in shock and awe in equal measure, dismounted rapidly or took evasive action onto the road.

The aim of the whole circus was to encourage Austrians to help reduce the country’s rising CO2 emissions levels by leaving their cars at home. This is both a grave concern and a considerable embarrassment for Austria, which is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol plan to reduce greenhouse gases; and it will surely require more than a photo opportunity to turn the trend around.

Pröll staged his ride as part of a national climate summit held at the Hofburg on Apr. 16, involving the government, opposition members, climate experts and NGOs. Austria couldn’t save the world’s climate on its own, of course, Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer acknowledged at the start of the meeting, but it must make its contribution. And the government is well aware that things aren’t going to change until Austria’s dependence on the automobile is challenged.

On the very day environment minister Pröll was pedalling in front of the cameras, new figures revealed that a record 4.2 million cars are now registered in Austria, one for every two citizens, and ten times the number of vehicles on the road in 1960.  During the Hofburg summit, Pröll called fuel-guzzling traffic the “Climate Killer Number 1” in Austria.

Such talk has left car drivers feeling under siege, an uneasiness only enhanced by recent speculation about a special tax for commuters. Chancellor Gusenbauer has tried to allay their fears, assuring drivers that his government has no desire to lead an anti-automobile crusade, but rather plans to offer commuters more attractive alternatives by investing in the interurban railway (S-Bahn) and more bus lines. Nonetheless, Austrians who say they are dependent on their cars feel they are being made scapegoats for a larger problem.

Alois M., who drives 50 minutes from a rural hamlet in the hilly Mostviertel region to his job in the Lower Austrian town of St.Pölten, doesn’t see why he should be targeted:

“I already pay massive taxes for fuel and for use of the roads. What more do they want from me? And I have to use the car because public transport is inefficient and overcrowded. Besides it only reaches parts of the country and is inflexible, so I’d have to drive to get to a station anyhow. Sometimes I wonder whether the politicians have ever been to the countryside.”


Reducing Co2 emissions is almost by definition restrictive, and so governmental climate policy is bound to step on somebody’s feet, however, particularly the well protected feet of powerful lobbies. That’s why the environmental lobby Greenpeace is disappointed with the government’s failure to take Austrian industry to task.

In a review of the European emissions trading scheme (a market-based approach to the problem of curbing industrial carbon dioxide emissions by a system of credits), the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, demanded that Austrian industry reduce emissions more swiftly. Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer jumped to the industry’s defence, telling Barosso he believed the Commission review may have been too harsh.

Yet European policy makers freely admit that the system has been a failed experiment marked out by a crass over-allocation of credits. The Austrian government’s defence of big industry’s “right to pollute” seems out of kilter with a genuine desire to reduce CO2. It also rankles with Austrian drivers told to leave their cars at home and with the travellers told recently by Josef Pröll to restrict their annual holiday flights.

Erwin Maier of Greenpeace accused Gusenbauer of presenting the interests of individual firms as synonymous with the interests of the average Austrians. Efforts to develop greener industrial technology, the idea behind the carbon trading system, would create far more jobs and revenue for Austria than the restrictions would endanger, Maier said.

It’s the power of the industrial lobby that has led Greenpeace to propose a national referendum, to give the reforms an electoral mandate. They have proposed a package of CO2 taxes to go before the public in the autumn, as a matter of ‘take it or leave it.’

But what if the population votes against the measures? Maier shrugged his squarely-built shoulders: “I think they’d vote yes,” he insisted. “What choice do we have? Traditional party politics has failed us on this issue.”

Whether the referendum ever seen the light of day is doubtful. During the Apr. 16 summit, Pröll dismissed the idea out of hand.

Greenpeace were not the only delegates to leave the Hofburg summit disappointed. Other NGO’s complained that they had heard a lot of talk but few concrete action plans. Still, they can look forward to next year: Chancellor Gusenbauer wants the summit to become an annual event, aimed at bringing in new ideas for combating global warming.

Soon, however, ideas alone might not be enough.

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