Hannes Richter

Austria - the Green Heart of Europe

Hannes Richter

by Hans Kordik

In May 2010, Vienna was ranked first out of more than 220 cities participating in “Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey.” It was the second year in a row that the Austrian capital topped the international city ranking. The survey rated 39 criteria like safety, education, hygiene, health care, culture, recreation and political-economic stability. But above all, the survey identifies cities with the best eco-ranking based on water availability and drinkability, waste management, quality of sewage systems, air pollution, and public transportation.

As the 10th largest city by population in the European Union, it is hardly surprising that Vienna has repeatedly been ranked first based on its environmental attributes. Not only the city of Vienna, but the whole country of Austria is considered to be the environmental flagship of Europe. The title of the “Green Heart of Europe” might appear provocative at first, but Austria demonstrably constitutes Europe’s environmental hallmark; the Austrian people have high expectations for a clean and healthy environment, and Austria exhibits a strong political dedication and commitment to promoting the principle of sustainable development. Above all, Austria has implemented an eco-social market economy across all of its political sectors.

Sustainable Agriculture Equals Success

Based on Austrian consumer expectations and existing climatic and topographical conditions (70% of Austria’s countryside is covered by mountains), which limit its opportunities of diversifying the agricultural sector, Austria’s agricultural policy has been successful in promoting ‘environmentally friendly’ methods of farming. After fifteen years as a member of the European Union, Austria is considered to be the front-runner among EU member states: it exhibits the highest participation rate (94% of the farming land is managed by 90% of Austrian farmers) in agri-environmental programs.

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Austrian grasslands in the summer. BMLFUW/AMA-Bioarchiv/Wiesenhofer

These are based on goals such as that of foregoing yield-intensifying techniques using chemical fertilizers, chemical-synthetic plant protection products, or growth promoters. The pinnacle of the environmentally friendly method of agriculture is organic farming. Austria is considered to be Europe’s “organic country No. 1.” Based on the principles of the famous Austrian researcher and anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner, the first organic farm dates back to 1927.

Today, Austria is Europe’s “organic champion” with the highest share of organic farming (19.4% of the agricultural area and 16.2% of the farms in Austria). As might be the case with any environmentally friendly form of agriculture (by reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides, by increasing use of organic substances, and by expanding crop rotation and promoting animal welfare) it is conceivable that biotechnology has no place in Austrian agriculture.

Austria does not believe that genetic engineering can provide any benefits and therefore rejects it. Most of the Austrian consumers oppose the use of biotechnology in their food. Up to now, Austria has managed to forgo the production of genetically engineered food, thereby preserving sustainable methods of Austrian agriculture and food. In addition, the preventive use of antibiotics, hormones or other growth-promoting substances, as well as radiation, are prohibited, and the strict implementation of the so-called ‘Food-Act’ constitutes an effective control mechanism.

Back to the Roots of Sustainable Forest Management

Sustainable development has a long history in Austria. In fact, as early as over 200 years ago, the principle of sustainable development in Austria was introduced by the forestry scientist Georg Ludwig Hartig. With the intention of including forests in the taxation system, Hartig promoted the sustainable use of forests by issuing a recommendation to the young generation to use as much wood as possible, while preserving enough of it for future generations.

This principle, which is still in use today, meant that for every tree logged, another tree was to be planted. Today, 48% of the Austrian countryside is covered by forests and the average annual increase in forest acreage over the last 50 years has exceeded 12,000 acres. This high level of forestation gives Austria the foundation for its high quality of water. Given Austria’s abundance of mountains and forests, 100% of its drinking water originates from spring or ground water sources. But above all, the growing forests promote Austria’s woody biomass technologies for generating electricity and heat with the help of renewable energy resources.

Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Measures on the Rise

Just like the US, Austria has defined energy independence as one of its primary goals. As a net-importer of energy, Austria promotes the use of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures. Just a few weeks ago, the Austrian annual energy report of 2009 was released, which indicated that 30.1% of Austrian energy consumption was derived from renewable energy sources. Austria has no nuclear power plants since this form of energy is not considered sustainable.

As a result of the European Union’s “Climate and Energy Package of 2008,” Austria is obliged to generate a total of 34% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. Next to promoting renewable energy sources like wind, hydro, and solar power, Austria’s fastest growing renewable energy source for the generation of electricity and heat is woody biomass. The goal of a renewable energy share of 34% can thus be easily reached by promoting these clean energy sources and the “Passive Houses” policy.

These Austrian low-energy homes are becoming continuously more efficient and are even generating their own energy (i.e. by using solar panels, geothermal energy or biomass). Austria exhibits the highest percapita share of these green buildings in the world. Former US President Bill Clinton once said that skyscrapers are not built from the sky down.

In terms of energy independence, Austria illustrates this bottom-up approach very well, as self-sufficient regions are already emerging in different parts of the country. The most prominent example of this silent revolution is Guessing, a region in the southeast of Austria, close to the Hungarian border. Until 1990, the region of Guessing with some 27.000 inhabitants had been one of Austria’s poorest regions and 70% of its people had to commute to other regions for work.

Within 10 years, Guessing managed to become energy– independent. Nowadays, it derives 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources. Since 1990, it has also created 50 companies, and thus created more than 1,000 new jobs. In addition, the excess energy yields an annual turnover of over $20 Million for the region. At the same time, far more than 30 energy-independent regions are emerging in Austria.

Austria is Europe’s Waste Management Country No.1

The leading principle of Austrian waste management includes the prevention of waste, but also the approach of reusing (i.e. waste to energy) and recycling waste. With less than 3.7% of the total waste in Austria neither being reused for energy nor recycled, Austria has been the EU’s front-runner as far as efficient and successful waste management is concerned.

One of the most successful stories in Austria’s development as an environmentally friendly country has been the approach of using waste to generate electricity and heat. This approach has been found to be the ideal solution for regional waste management.

Austria still faces many Environmental Challenges

As a result of the European Union’s “Climate and Energy Package of 2008,” Austria is obliged to reduce its emissions by 16% by the year 2020.

However, Austria is facing difficulties mitigating its GHG (green house gas) emissions. This is due to the fact that among other factors, traffic has significantly increased since the fall of the Iron Curtain. In fact, between 1990 and 2008, car-based traffic has increased by 30%, and the number of trucks in transit through Austria has increased by a total of 132%. In addition, as a consequence of the common practice of “tank tourism,” trucks and cars from bordering countries come to Austria to buy fuel due to its lower gas prices, while using the gas in their countries of origin.

This phenomenon significantly distorts the algorithm for calculating annual GHG emissions, since this method relies on the assumption that gas that is purchased in a given country will also be used there. Whereas most sectors in the Austrian economy indicate that emissions can be reduced further (i.e. Austrian waste management was able to reduce emissions by 50% in 18 years), it is the transportation sector (+55%) and partially also the industry (+6%) which have experienced the highest emissions increase in Austria.

Hans Kordik is the Counselor for Agriculture and Environmental Affairs at the Embassy of Austria, Washington, D.C.