2020 has only just begun, but it is already proving to be an interesting year. A new European Commission takes office and promises us a union that strives for more. Britain is finally going to Brexit. The USA are heading for an election. Tensions are growing between China and Hong Kong. Russia is remodelling its constitution. Governments are taking climate change more seriously. Meanwhile, Australia is feeling the consequences of climate change first hand, as over a third of the continent is literally on fire.
On the other side of the planet, the country most often confused with Australia, is making a serious effort to become the greenest country in Europe. Austria has a lot in common with the Nordic countries. For one, Austria, Sweden and Finland are great at winter sports, in particular skiing. They each have a long history of strong social democrat parties. The three also joined the European Union at the same time, in 1995, exactly 25 years ago. Four years ago, in 2016, Austria and Sweden were the only countries to have already achieved the EU’s 2020 renewable energy goal in transport (10%). A year later, Finland joined the two. For overall use of renewable energy sources, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Austria make up the top four of the EU. Mainstream media outlets have joyfully reported that as of December 2019 Finland is represented by the youngest prime minister in Europe, Sanna Marin. In truth the title is still held by Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is a year younger.
After a failed coalition with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, Kurz was reappointed as chancellor on January 7th, 2020. His new government was formed between a stronger People’s Party and a resurging Green Party as its junior partner. Their joint-programme promises to continue Austria’s path as Central Europe’s secret Nordic country. But is it feasible?
The promise of a bright future
At first glance the new government programme appears absolutely fantastic if you are looking for measures that will aid the green transition. The goal is to reach the EU’s 2050 emission goals by 2040 (Finland is aiming for 2035). Investment into R&D and public transport infrastructure (especially in rural areas), coupled with an affordable Austria-wide public transport ticket. At the same time, the flight-tax is revamped, to lower the burden on long-distance flights and increase the burden on short-distance (domestic EU) flights.
This is supposed to incentivise people to only fly when they are traveling to far away places and switch to trains for shorter distances. Of course, the problem with this is, that it will hit working and middle class people. Long-distance flights are already vastly more expensive and primarily taken by business people, who can afford the few euro extra. Casual tourists, who travel on a budget may rethink whether they want to take that flight. Will it significantly decrease flights? No. Those who can afford it will continue to fly. But it may just disincentivise young people from discovering Europe, as trains remain incredibly expensive in many EU member states. Much like Macron’s tax on fuel, the government’s way to fight climate change ends up making life more difficult for those without means.
However, the government also pledges not to borrow any more money and at the same time is going to lower taxes for all brackets by 5%, meaning everyone who pays taxes will feel a significant increase in what they earn, which may very well offset the relatively minor inconvenience of increased flight prices.
Money doesn’t grow on trees
If you have been reading my articles, you know I have been advocating both for smarter transportation networks and for lower taxes for a long time. So in principle, I find this programme quite agreeable. But one question still remains: Who is going to pay for all of this?
You cannot lower taxes, not borrow money and invest billions all at the same time. Money does not grow on trees, even if that seems like the title of the new government programme. I have only listed the green investments here, but there is more. Universities will receive more money and there will be new scholarships. Non-profits will get access to start-up investment, the police and counter-terror groups will also be heavily financed. The entire programme is filled with ideas, 90% of which are really good and sorely needed. But you can’t do everything in five years, especially if you don’t have the money.
It is likely the programme will only partially be implemented and the Greens will eventually move into opposition, when they realise their projects will not all be implemented. Alternatively, the government will find other ways to save money. For example, they could start saving on less prominent government projects and expenditures, primarily championed by the social democrats during the reign of the grand coalition. Hints of this are found in the still very broad programme. For example, the Viennese newspaper Wiener Zeitung, will stop being printed and will only continue to appear as an online magazine, significantly decreasing costs. Comparatively, it is a very small project. But if the government manages to gather many of these small projects and change or scrap them within a short time, they may just be able to pull of a large chunk of their programme. But realistically, they will not be able to implement all of their endeavours, as usual.
Unlike many Western democracies, Austria is used to empty promises. Every election, parties promise a bunch of grand gestures. We call them ‘Wahlzuckerl’ (election candies). They are traditionally ignored and accepted as nothing but hot air by the electorate and parties are never punished for it. Yet, this programme was created after the election, which begs the question: Is this government actually serious about this programme and its implementation? Do they have a plan? Or is it just the result of arduous negotiations between two very different political parties, who had to give each other things that are mutually exclusive to come to an agreement?
Cheat codes enabled
Austria also has a knack for cheating the system. For example, as of January 2020, Austria is the first EU country to ban keeping chicken in cages. They have also long banned imports of eggs laid by chicken held in cages. However, we still import about 1,8 million such eggs every day in Austria. How is that possible? Because the law only applies to raw eggs, not processed foods and other products that contain eggs.
The same way we cheat in animal welfare, we also cheat in energy. Austria is a huge producer of renewable energy and even exports its hydroelectricity, which makes up two-thirds of its own electricity needs. However, it still imports coal and petroleum from surrounding countries (and primarily Russia). In the 90s Austria was going to become energy independent, by supplanting its fossil fuels needs with nuclear power. The nuclear reactor Zwentendorf was built, but never activated, because the population decided against it with massive protests and a following referendum. In 2015 Austria went a step further by banning nuclear energy imports. Since then we claim to be 100% nuclear-free and strongly oppose our Czech neighbours’ nuclear power plants. However, in truth, we still import about 25% of our energy needs from those very Czech nuclear energy plants and from ‘nuclear-free’ Germany, which imports its nuclear power from France. We only pretend to be nuclear-free, by purchasing certificates of origin. But so long as there are nuclear reactors providing energy to Czechia and France, and we will continue to import it (which we have to according to EU law) we won’t be nuclear free.
The government programme does the same thing. But in fairness, all of Europe does it too. We pretend like we are environmentally friendly and doing a lot for the green transition, but in reality a lot of it is a numbers game and not about the real damage done to our environment. If there is one thing, other than its apparent lack of funds, I can criticise about Austria’s new green plan, it is its failure to understand or acknowledge that the environment is not going to be saved by offsetting some numbers, selling and purchasing certificates, but by changing the way we produce, transport and consume goods on a large scale.