Hannes Richter

U.S. Environmental Technology Experts’ Visit to Austria

Hannes Richter


Experiences From the First George C. Marshall U.S. - Austrian Visitor’s Program

The first George C. Marshall Austria - U.S. Visitors Program was held in Austria from October 7 - 14 with a focus on “Environmental Technology,” and it was judged to be a great success. First announced during a meeting between Federal Chancellor Schüssel and U.S. President Bush at the Vienna EU-U.S. Summit held in June 2006, the program’s goal is to invite ten to twelve representatives from the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress and selected universities to visit Austria for one week.

This year the program focused on “Environmental Technology,” an area where Austria can provide expertise and innovative know-how. A substantially rich and comprehensive program was prepared and coordinated by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in cooperation with the responsible ministries, the Parliament, the City of Vienna, the regional government of Lower Austria and the Austrian Economic Chamber.  Apart from offering Austrian and American experts and entrepreneurs the opportunity of exchanging information in the area of Environmental Technology, it allowed for establishing important contacts and developing networks within the professional community. Success of the Visitor’s Program, which will be continued next year, could result in two concrete projects: an agreement regarding environmental cooperation with the government of California and follow-up conferences between Austrian and Californian policy makers, businesses, research institutions and universities.  The other follow-up activity includes cooperation between Austrian and US urban watershed restoration experts planned for fall 2008 in Washington, D.C.

In an Interview with Austrian Information, Dale Medearis, Senior Environmental Planner with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and participant in the first U.S.-Austria Visitor’s Program, shared with us his experiences and impressions:
The first “George C. Marshall Visitor’s Program in Austria under the theme of ‘Environmental Technology’ was a great success according to numerous participants, and will be continued in the coming year. What were your impressions and what experiences did you take with you?
Clearly, on the basis of the trip, there are many topics, policies and innovations which Austria and the United States can exchange with mutually beneficial results.  Americans can benefit from the work Austria has done with renewable fuels and public private partnerships with respect to solar photovoltaic and solar thermal energy. It would be useful for Americans to understand the environmental impact processes that Austrians undertake for harvesting renewable fuels, such as biomass.  Americans would be interested in learning how the harvesting and the environmental impact performed in Austria and what lessons are to be offered for similar efforts in U.S. states and regions?  It would also be useful for both countries to develop research initiatives that study climate issues and air emissions of biomass plants - particularly particulate matter.  American would be interested in understanding more about the technologies that can be developed and applied to promote sustainable use of biomass without affecting air quality and public health.  

There are also lessons that Austria offers vis-à-vis waste incineration.  High rates of recycling, national-level waste management legislation and controls appear to merge with thoughtful incineration practices and energy practices.  “Fernwaerme” or district heating, is something that is not practiced often in the U.S.  It appears that there are many lessons for Austria to share with the U.S. in this respect as well.  “Green” buildings, “Niedrigenergiehaueser,” (low-energy houses) and “Passivbau” (passive houses) are areas in which there are great opportunities for shared cooperation and exchanges of lessons between Austria and the United States.  Finally, urban watershed restoration is another area in which the U.S. and Austria can cooperate.  Perhaps formation of partnerships between US and Austrian interstate and international river authorities is a possibility.   

You have been active for some time in the field of environmental policy and technology and are aware of Austrian and European efforts in this area. In recent years, the U.S. and Europe have made an increased effort to create mutual strategies, particularly in the fight against the effects of climate change. How do you think future transatlantic cooperation will develop over the next few years in regard to questions concerning the environment?
I am convinced that while, in general, conflicting perspectives, confrontational tones and divergent views on climate change and energy often define the transatlantic relationship at the national level, at the sub-national level, a dynamic and positive set of relations is evolving between European and American cities and regions.  This relationship is characterized by generally productive results, practical and applied exchanges.  In the absence of federal-level leadership on climate change and sustainable energy from Washington, creative policy entrepreneurs and practitioners in California and Northern Virginia have launched their own local renewable energy, energy conservation and climate initiatives with relatively ambitious goals.  Moreover, these state, regional and local efforts are strengthened and informed by the pioneering energy and climate work occurring in European countries such as Austria.  These policy makers and practitioners in both countries work together to find, understand and apply innovative transportation, “green” building, and C0²  assessment and mitigation strategies.  For example, California’s “Million Solar Roofs” initiative is modelled after Germany’s “100,000 solar roofs” initiative.  “Green” roofs policies and technologies from Stuttgart are being transferred and applied in Northern Virginia.  Transportation practices to promote mass-transit and limit auto-dependency are diffusing from Berlin to Arlington, and we see congestion pricing from Stockholm and London being applied in New York City.  Strengthening the exchange and application of innovative Austrian and U.S. energy, climate and environmental policies will depend on creating and strengthening more channels of learning- more research and communication about the performance and context of innovative Austrian environmental policies (for example information on the policy context and performance of Austrian “green” buildings, watershed restoration, air quality environmental impact assessment, renewable energy and waste management policies).  Local authorities in the U.S. are eager consumers of this information when it is made available to them.  The strengthening of exchange and application of innovative climate, energy and environmental policies between Austrian and U.S. cities and states is particularly relevant given that implementation of any serious climate and energy conservation efforts will invariably involve efforts at the sub-national level.  Moreover, approximately 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe (perhaps less in Austria) and the United States emanate from building, housing and transportation sectors - sectors which invariably must involve local and regional authorities.  

There have been individual U.S. states which have taken an interest in increased international cooperation with Europe in the environmental area. Are there any concrete, promising initiatives, and which possible follow-ups in the area of environmental technology resulted from the contacts made during the Visitors Program?  
Now, more than ever, there is a need to address the divide between international negotiations and sub-national practices by strengthening and enhancing relationships between European, and U.S. state, regional and local authorities.  Today, there is no doubt that global climate change is the premier global environmental challenge of our generation and for generations to come.  However, the lack of federal leadership on climate change and sustainable energy has compelled policy makers at the state, regional and local level to create a range of ambitious energy and climate programs.  This is particularly relevant in the Washington DC region.  With a population of 4.9 million, the region as a whole emits 65.6 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide.  Compare this with Sweden and its population of 9.0 million, which emits 52.6 million metric tons, or Denmark and its population of  5.4 million, which emits 51.1 million metric tons.  It would be useful for U.S. state, regional and local efforts, such as the “Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” the West Coast Governors Global Warming Initiative, the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, or “Cool Counties” initiatives to be informed about comparable Austrian lessons and examples.  

In addition, I would encourage formation of official partnerships between local authorities and states to support the exchange of mutually beneficial environmental policies, technologies, practitioners and ideas.  California has agreements on climate and the environment already with European nations such as Sweden and the UK.  Perhaps it might consider one with Austria in which formal exchanges and research on the environment, climate change and energy could be conducted.  Moreover, thought could be given to strengthening formal environmental exchanges between Austrian and Californian colleges and universities.