Austria’s EU presidency met some important environmental goals. Its environmental policies at home, however, do not always stand the test.
On July 1, 2018, Austria assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) for the third time, with environmental policies figuring high on the agenda.
Before the start of the presidency, Elisabeth Köstinger, Austria’s federal minister for sustainability and tourism, stressed at the Austrian Parliament in March that “numerous projects and legislative proposals” had to be tackled and finalized during the presidency, including in the areas of environmental, energy, climate, agriculture, fisheries and cohesion policies.
With Austria having taken over the leadership in many of the negotiations during its six-months’ tenure, it is now time to take a look back at how effective and successful this role has been.
THE CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE
Climate change must be top priority, stresses Adam Pawloff of Greenpeace Austria. “[This] is the biggest challenge that humankind has faced in its history,” he says. Pawloff is a quiet-spoken man, focused and at ease with numbers. “The survival of humanity on planet Earth is at stake,” he says. “Not in the short-term, but certainly within the next 100 to 300 years.”
The EU, he says, has a “historic” responsibility. “The majority of greenhouse gas emissions that have been emitted in the past 150 years have all come from Europe. While other industrial nations have also contributed, Europe established its economic prosperity on this basis.”
With the Austrian EU presidency coinciding with the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Austria’s Köstinger represented the EU in Poland. “The conference in Katowice exceeded all expectations,” says Köstinger. “With the exception of rules for a common carbon market – an issue which will continue to be negotiated in 2019 – members were able to agree unanimously on a comprehensive, robust rule book, supported by all states, for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice.”
This rule book includes efforts to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming, and sets out how governments will report and verify them.
Pawloff supports the rule book as a “reasonable result” and applauds bringing “all states around the same table.” But he had hoped for more, “to go one step further and to have states commit to significantly strengthen their plans to protect the climate.”
He is not alone: Meeting in October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the relevant questions of science, warned that there are only 12 years left to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius – the level believed necessary to contain the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and rise in sea levels, thus ultimately affecting human security.
“The problem,” Pawloff explains, “is that at current level of commitment, the world is on a course for a dangerous 3.5 degree celsius.”
During its tenure, Austria also guided negotiations on a reduction of carbon emissions for cars (37,5%) and trucks (30%) in the EU by the year 2030.
To do this, “manufacturers have to sell many vehicles – for example, electric cars – that produce no emissions at all,” Köstinger says. The negotiations, she believes, “show how broad coalitions can achieve common goals to protect our climate.”
On the whole, people came away encouraged. The result showed “good progress,” says Johannes Wahlmüller from GLOBAL 2000, an environmental organization, calling it “a classical compromise.” While far more is necessary in order to reach the goals under the Paris Climate Agreement, this represented “what was politically feasible at the moment.”
He is less positive about Austria’s own policies. “On the national level, we are lacking substantial climate policies,” he says. “Austria is resting on its laurels from when the country used to invest a lot in hydropower. Today’s lack of innovation leads to increasing greenhouse gas emissions in Austria, when, in fact Europe’s overall emissions are declining.”
In fact, the Austrian government’s own 2018 monitoring report cited increased greenhouse gas emissions of 1.3% in 2016 over 1990. The government nevertheless continues to work on its climate and energy strategy – called #mission2030 – which not only aims at further reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also at generating 100% of Austrian electricity via renewable energies by 2030.
In other areas, the news is better. With a decision last December, Austria became one of a small group of pioneering countries to eliminate all single-use plastic bags by 2020.
“Austria is the third EU country to have decided on a complete ban,” reports Köstinger, promoting reusable bags instead. “In this way, we will save between 5,000 and 7,000 tons of plastic waste every year.”
“This decision deserves a lot of praise, because it exceeds EU objectives,” says Nunu Kaller from Greenpeace Austria. “This is a very ambitious goal and we are now waiting to see how it will be concretely implemented.”
Austria also negotiated the so-called single-use plastic directive on a European level, based on proposals from the European Commission. The new rules target the ten single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and in the seas – such items as Q-tips, plastic cutlery, and drinking straws.
“This agreement was a very important achievement of our EU presidency,” says Köstinger with evident pride. “We now have to focus on implementation.”
Overall, Austria used its EU presidency to negotiate a number of important compromises in environmental policy, representing what was politically feasible at the moment.
“But ecologically,” Pawloff concludes, “this is just not enough.”