No other country believes itself to be so in touch with nature. Is Austria living a lie?

by Alexander Fanta & Benjamin Wolf


Green Austria
One centrifuge of the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant stands idle, as it has for 38 years. // © APA Picturedesk/Jeff Mangione

Austria’s sole nuclear power plant is without any doubt the safest in the world. While some of Austria’s neighbors struggle with their aging Soviet-era reactors, the plant at Zwentendorf on the banks of the Danube has, in the four decades of its existence, never had an accident or malfunction, and it has never leaked any radiation.

It has also never been switched on.

For most Austrians, Zwentendorf is a hallmark of their country’s energy policy, the legacy of a battle that has shaped the political landscape. It is a testament to how much the environmental movement has achieved. And it is a symbol of how green Austria is – or rather, how green it would like to be.

Today, Austria has a constitutional ban on nuclear energy and is an EU leader in generating electricity from renewable sources. Supermarkets are filled with more organic produce than almost anywhere else, and Austrians take pride in their unique level of eco-consciousness.


Dark moods

Yet environmental activists and researchers are gloomy. They say that Austria is lying to itself about how green it really is, and that people are ignorant about today‘s biggest challenge: climate change.

“I believe that we are asleep, and I don’t think we have much time to catch up,” says Helga Kromp-Kolb, 67, one of Austria’s most respected climate scientists. She is adamant in her warnings about the consequences of inaction.

“In the Alpine regions, climate change is faster than in the plain. In that respect we are hit harder,” explains Kromp-Kolb. While global temperatures have risen by 0.9 degrees Celsius since international record keeping began in 1880, in Austria they have risen by 2 degrees. A dangerous development, not least for Austria’s winter tourism industry.

“The biggest challenge of our times is certainly climate change,” agrees Juliana Okropiridse, 23, an activist for the Austrian environmental organization Global 2000.

Okropiridse says that industrialized countries have a responsibility to redress the damage they have already caused to the world’s ecosystem and thus to millions of people around the planet: “It’s not about generosity; it’s simply our moral duty. This awareness is still very much missing in Austria and the rest of the Global North.”

All the small things

Most Austrians in touch with nature and proud of their eco-friendly lifestyles, would strongly disagree.

“Nature is the place where I can relax, where I can reflect and cherish the small things in life, like listening to a rustling creek or birds chirping,” says Vienna resident Antonia Praun, 25.

Nine in ten Austrians believe that environmental protection is a top priority, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey, and more  people are worried about climate change than about armed conflict or the spread of nuclear weapons.

Austrians are much more likely than other Europeans to buy local products, use “green” transport or reduce unnecessary packaging and waste. These are well-established habits, developed in the ’70s and ’80s, and the heated political battles between the government and environmental activists are part of the national lore.

The rejection of nuclear power, for example, has become very much part of the Austrian identity and is now beyond debate. Four in five Austrians oppose Atomstrom, and 76 percent even say they are willing to accept higher prices as long as Austria remains nuclear-free.

A battle for the soul

The story of nuclear energy in Austria is one of a battle between ambition and conscience. Austria’s booming economy of the 1970s demanded cheap energy. The government of socialist Bruno Kreisky ordered the construction of the nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf to fulfill, in his words, “the demands of the future.” It was supposed to be a symbol of progress.

“Back then, for many people, Austria seemed like an ideal world,” recalls Peter Weish, a professor at Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU). “People thought that things were getting better every year, with nicer fridges and holidays to Italy. Then suddenly came Zwentendorf. It was an evident danger, breaking into the stillness.”

At that time, Weish was a research scientist at the atomic energy research facility at Seibersdorf. His findings turned him against nuclear power and got him branded as a grouser. Still, others joined in. Soon, a budding environmental movement infused by left-wing counterculture skillfully alerted the public to the dangers of nuclear power. Is it really safe? What happens with the waste? What happens in the case of an accident?

“We showed people that the many promises of industry experts were just so much hot air, that they should be treated with caution, and what unbelievable influence money wields,” Weish says.

Keeping the atom from splitting

In 1978, when construction at the Zwentendorf plant was completed, resistance mounted. Kreisky, in a bid to silence its critics, ordered a referendum on nuclear power in Austria, to settle the question once and for all.

Even though the entire establishment and the media fiercely advocated nuclear energy, its opponents snatched a victory by a small margin on November 5, 1978. “Never in my life did I kiss and hug as many bearded communists,” Weish laughingly remembers.

Today, the nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf is a historical site, used as a film set, backdrop for musical festivals, and a destination for school field trips. Its reactor remains permanently offline.

green Austria
The birthplace of Austria’s Green party, the wetlands of the Hainburger Au are now a national park. // © Österreichische Werbung/Popp Hackner

Deep roots, green shoots

Since the referendum, a strong anti–nuclear consensus has taken hold, and it even affects Austria’s foreign policy. Its contributions to Euratom, an agency that promotes nuclear safety in Europe, are an enduring bone of contention. The Austrian government meanwhile frequently squabbles with its Czech neighbor about the nuclear plant Temelin, near the border, and has even mounted a legal challenge against the EU’s failure to prevent the United Kingdom from building the new nuclear power plant Hinkley Point C.

Following the Zwentendorf vote, Austria’s environmental movement has  enjoyed a string of successes. Months of protests in the Danube marshes in late 1984 killed plans for a hydropower plant at Hainburg that, activists feared, would have destroyed the sensitive wildlife ecosystem. These protests led to the formation of the Green Party, which went on to win its first seats in parliament in 1986. It has been there ever since.

The problems that the Greens found so pressing in the 1980s have mostly been solved. Toxic industry emissions  were successfully curbed; forests dying from acid rains were restored to vitality, recounts Karl Kienzl, the deputy head of the Umweltbundesamt, the Austrian Federal Environmental Agency. Worries about a country drowning in waste were transformed by recycling and processing. “Thirty years ago we had a problem, and now? Now we have a waste industry, an economic sector with 40,000 jobs,” Kienzl says.

The intimate relationship with nature has also shaped Austrian culture, music and literature.  The national anthem praises the country’s mountains, rivers and fields above all. The Viennese can justifiably claim to have invented the Sommerfrische, the practice of getting out of overcrowded cities to relish nature along the waterfront and in the forests of the Salzkammergut.

Writers have chimed in as well. In his popular book Waldheimat (1877), Peter Rosegger praised the sylvan hills of his childhood home in Upper Styria. For Vienna, Ödön von Horvath’s play Tales from the Vienna Woods allude to the forest as place of the collective unconscious.

From leader to laggard

The advances of the 1980s, however, have done little to help the present-day fight against climate change, experts say. Important but politically unpopular decisions like curbing emissions  have been put off by successive governments, notes Kromp-Kolb. “Since 1990 nothing much really happened at the federal level.”

People simply are not being honest about how bad the situation is, says the climate scientist. “I believe the Austrians are lying to themselves, and the politicians are strongly encouraging them.”

The truth is indeed an inconvenient one. And Austria is falling behind other EU countries. While Germany pursues its Energiewende and has succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 23 percent since 1990, Austria emits 13.7 percent more than a quarter century ago, according to recent UN figures.

Much greater effort and decisive political action are needed to reach even the most immediate goal – curbing climate gas emissions by 13 percent from 1990 levels until 2020, says Hans Bruyninckx. The Executive Director at the European Environment Agency recently warned that Austria is on course to be one of only four EU member countries to miss the joint targets.

Although much of Austria’s electricity already comes from renewable sources, the country may not be pushing decisively enough for further expansion, allowing emissions from transport and industry to skyrocket. There are few subsidies for switching to cleaner technology, Kromp-Kolb says. “There is no consistency in Austrian policy.”


Growing pains

In the meantime, the effects of climate change are dramatic. Austria’s alpine glaciers are retreating at an ever-increasing pace, and some species in the fragile high-altitude environment are already facing extinction. Freak weather incidents, like this April’s heavy snowfall in south Styria, destroying 95 percent of the wine harvest, will become more frequent.

“We are moving closer and closer to circumstances we can no longer control, to the point when it will be too late,” Kromp-Kolb warns.

Those warning have long called for drastic action. “It‘s not about being a bit better, a bit more efficient – we need a true transformation of our economy and society,” says Kienzl of the Umweltbundesamt.

Such a transformation might well mean changing Austrians’ way of life. Almost half of the population currently commutes to work by car from their single-family non-urban homes.

Attitudes do change, Kromp-Kolb notes, but people should be less insistent on -living in big spaces and using their car. “One just has to be more flexible,” the climate scientist urges.

To the chagrin of environmental campaigners, the state encourages climate-damaging behavior by subsidizing new single-family homes and doling out a generous commuter allowance. Austria spends about €4 billion annually for subsidies harmful to the environment, according to an estimate by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO).

This cannot go on, says Kromp-Kolb “We really have to change things radically – just as they have in Norway, where the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels will be banned after 2025.”

Bad habits die hard

So far, the data does not suggest a change in behavior. Since 1990, when Austria and others first pledged to reduce their carbon footprint, energy use has skyrocketed. Electricity consumption jumped by over a quarter since 1990, to over 215,000 terajoule in 2014. Meanwhile, the number of cars has risen, from 3 million to over 4.7 million.

Some Austrians complain that there is a lack of initiatives to help people go green.

“I would love to replace my oil heating from the 1970s with an environmentally friendly one, like pellets,” asserts Justine Holland, an elementary school principal from Thal bei Graz. “If they offered some subsidies, we would jump on it, as we did for insulating the outer walls of the house. In this field, they could definitely do more.”

What the future brings

The government says it is optimistic about the path ahead. “We certainly are on the right track,” environment minister Andrä Rupprechter told Metropole. The minister points to the high percentage of renewables in electricity generation and expressed confidence in reaching international emission targets by 2020. Subsidies like those for company cars have recently been adapted to make them more environmentally friendly, Rupprechter says. Others, like those to install new oil heating, are paid by the private sector.

The minister does concede, however, that Austria will have to make changes and learn to live completely without fossil fuels for good at some point. “It is undisputed that a complete switch to renewable sources of energy is necessary to successfully implement the historic Paris climate accord (signed earlier this year).”

As in 1978, when Austrians voted against nuclear energy, today the country once again stands at a crossroads. With more drastic climate change on the horizon, the mountains and plains of Austria could be changed permanently.

Will people act to preserve their country’s unique heritage?

“It’s quite certain we all could do a lot more,” says Alexander Wolf, 37 year-old special needs teacher at a primary school . “All over the world, we are consciously heading towards the abyss. While making wonderful plans and promises, we pat each other on the shoulder and sway with the music.”

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