How Austria plans to become carbon neutral by 2040

Austria's first Conservative-Green coalition government plans to become a European 'forerunner' in climate protection. But is it worth the gamble?

How Austria plans to become carbon neutral by 2040
ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz and the Greens' Werner Kogler. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

The two disparate parties have agreed to govern in what Greens leader Werner Kogler called a “gamble” after key election gains in September.

Their alliance means People's Party (ÖVP) leader Sebastian Kurz, 33, returns as chancellor after his previous coalition with the far-right broke apart last year owing to a corruption scandal.

It marks the first time the Greens enter government on a national level though the ÖVP holds on to controversial anti-immigration measures that have deeply divided Austrians.

“It's worth the gamble” to work with the conservatives, Kogler told reporters when presenting the government programme.

The carbon neutrality goal – meaning greenhouse gas emissions are balanced with measures that absorb or eliminate carbon – is ahead of Europe's 2050 ambition.

But the 300-page government programme also highlights security needs, the conservatives' main campaign platform.

“Migration will stay at the heart of my politics,” said Kurz, who has styled himself as a tough anti-immigration fighter, reiterating his view that the coalition's parties had “succeeded in uniting the best of both worlds”.

'Daring experiment'

European Council President Charles Michel said 2020 began with “great news from Austria”.

He tweeted: “25 years after its accession, Austria renews its commitment to the European project and is set to become a leader in the fight against climate change.”

Observers say Germany and other nations could follow suit for the unlikely marriage of conservatives and ecologists as politicans seek to cater to voters' increasingly populist sentiments as well as worries about climate change.

But many have also warned that the alliance stands on thin ice as particularly the Greens have made key compromises.

A column in the left-leaning Standard on Thursday described the coalition as a “daring experiment” and a “political adventure”. Tabloid Österreich billed the ÖVP as “powerful as never before”.

Kurz announced his party would head 10 ministries, including the interior, foreign, defence and finance.

The Greens will have charge of an enlarged environment ministry, as well as hold the justice, social affairs and sports and culture portfolios with Kogler, 58, nominated as Kurz's vice-chancellor.

In September polls, the Greens gained 13.9 percent of the vote in their best-ever result as the environment replaced immigration as top concern.

The ÖVP got 37.5 percent as disappointed voters of the scandal-tainted far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) flocked to Kurz's party.

It will now be up to the Greens' almost 280 delegates to give the final go-ahead to the agreement at a party congress on Saturday. The new government is then expected to be sworn in next week.

'50-50 survival chance'

Among a raft of proposals, the programme spells out that all energy should come from renewable resources by 2030 and for more to be invested in public transport.

Though renewable energies already account for about a third of Austria's consumption – almost double the EU average – the nation of 8.8 million people has been among few EU members that have seen their greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase between 1990 and 2017.

Regarding immigration and security, the coalition wants to introduce preventive detention and extend the headscarf ban for school girls – clauses which will be hard to swallow for some Greens.

Political analyst Johannes huber told AFP that the alliance had a “50-50 chance” of survival, depending on which topics came up in the next few years.

Standard daily columnist Eric Frey also wrote that Kurz and Kogler would need a “skillfulness as few politicians before them” should tricky issues arise, such as a surge in the number of asylum seekers, worsening climate change or an economic downturn.

Opposition leaders have already criticized the new coalition, with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) saying the Greens have failed to make a mark, while FPÖ leader Norbert Hofer said the programme contained “mainly hot air”.

But both the SPÖ and the FPÖ are weakened, with the Social Democrats suffering their worst-ever results in the September polls and the far-right tumbling after the Ibiza-gate graft scandal brought down their then-leader and vice-chancellor in May, causing the government to collapse.


Austrian presidential elections: Why 1.4 million people can’t vote

Due to Austria's strict rules on citizenship and growing number of international residents, the number of people that are not allowed to vote is increasing.

Austrian presidential elections: Why 1.4 million people can't vote

The election of Austria’s Federal President will take place later this year on October 9th and the upcoming vote is once again raising the topic of citizenship and voting rights in the country.

The Kurier reports that 18 percent of residents (or 1.4 million people) in Austria over the age of 16 do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens, with the highest concentration of ineligible people in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg. 

As a comparison, 20 years ago there were just 580,000 people without the right to vote in Austria.

FOR MEMBERS: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

Statistics Austria data evaluated by the APA shows that around 30 percent of the voting age population in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg are not entitled to vote. In Linz and Graz, it is around 25 percent.

However, there are some smaller communities in Austria where the number of people without the right to vote is even higher.

In Jungholz in Tyrol, 66 percent of the population are not eligible, followed by 51 percent in Mittelberg in Vorarlberg. Kittsee in Burgenland and Wolfsthal in Lower Austria also have high proportions of Slovakian residents who are not able to vote.

Who is eligible for citizenship in Austria?

Currently in Austria, if someone wants to take up citizenship via naturalisation they have to undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least 10 years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. But there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

READ MORE: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality.

In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from €1,100 to €1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The tricky topic of Austrian citizenship 

Most international residents in Austria do not pursue citizenship as it means revoking citizenship of their home country.

But the Kurier reports that political scientist Peter Filzmaier has warned there could be negative consequences if large sections of the Austrian population remain unable to vote.

Filzmaier said: “Since people are affected by the decisions of the political system in their place of residence, it could also be linked to their place of residence instead of citizenship.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

In May of this year, Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen also raised the topic of easing citizenship rules when he told an interviewer that the “hurdles” for Austrian citizenship are too high.

So far though, any discussions surrounding citizenship reform have been dismissed by the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).

Additionally, political scientist Flizmaier advises any further debate on the issue to take place outside of election time when there is less “emotion”.

READ ALSO: Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power.

The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.