by Johannes Wahlmüller, Global 2000 – Friends of the Earth Austria
Only Latvia, Finland and Sweden had higher shares of renewable energy in the EU. Furthermore, about 78% of the electricity consumption in Austria is already provided by renewable energy sources. The Austrian government is in favor of binding renewable targets at the European level and opposes the ambitions by the nuclear industry to receive more subsidies. But there is also a substantial dark side on the climate front. Austria failed to meet its Kyoto target: instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 13% compared with 1990 levels, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 2.5% by 2012. Therefore, Austria had to buy CO2 certificates amounting to 71.55 million tonnes of CO2. There are deep-rooted reasons for this in the country’s climate and energy policy of the last two decades.
Building blocks from the past
In Austria, the energy production from renewable energy sources is based on hydropower and biomass. Although it is a relatively small country, Austria is the 4th largest producer of hydropower in Europe. The core development of Austria’s hydropower was completed twenty years ago. Today, there is little potential left for hydro. The same is true for biomass, therefore the potential for „traditional” renewable energy sources is already used up to a large extent.
On the other hand, the Austrian government has not been particularly open to new renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. The share of renewable energy in the electricity sector therefore decreased every year for many years while the share of fossil energy increased. In 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, the Austrian "Ökostromgesetz“ (similar to the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) in Germany) was substantially reformed in a way that enabled more wind and solar power onto the grid. However, this reform came too late to become effective during the Kyoto-period, which ended in 2012, but can still be regarded as a relaunch of an Austrian energy transition in the electricity sector. By 2020, Austria will likely reach a share of 80% of electricity coming from renewable energy sources, which could put Austria in a front runner position again. During the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris, Chancellor Faymann and the Environmental Minister, Mr. Rupprechter, declared that by 2030, 100% of electricity shall be supplied from renewable energy sources. However, Faymann stepped down as chancellor in May 2016 without having enshrined this ambitious goal into formal legislation.
Pioneers and lack of political support
While the electricity sector plays a major role in the country’s energy transition, there are other important playing fields in the climate and energy policy that deserve attention, for example: the building sector. Buildings contribute to about one third of the Austrian final energy demand. Austria has a pioneering role with the highest density of passive houses in Europe. In the heating sector, emissions have been reduced by 34% compared with 1990 levels, and the potential for further reductions is vast.
The main drivers of this success have been subsidies incentivizing building renovations, and higher energy efficiency requirements by many Austrian states, that are responsible for regulations in the building sector. However, the last strategy agreed between the central government and the federal states to increase energy efficiency in buildings dates back to 2008, and the last step to increase efficiency requirements for building renovations was made in 2010. Furthermore, the government cut subsidies for building retrofits in 2015 by half. Therefore, the renovation rate of about 1% each year remains alarmingly low. This means that Austria would need about 100 years to renovate its entire building stock. While architects already construct the first „Plus-Energy buildings” that produce more energy than they consume over the year, more political support for energy efficiency in the building sector is desperately needed in order to build on the success stories of the past.
While the efficiency in the building sector increases slowly, the share of fossil heating systems remains high: of 3.7 million households, about 1.5 million are still heated with gas, oil, or coal. Furthermore, 616,000 households are connected to district heating systems, 55% of which is powered by fossil fuels. A lot needs to be done to put the energy transition in Austria back on track. Unfortunately, the Austrian policy-makers are alarmingly passive, while the cheap oil prices make progress even more difficult.
Furthermore, the transportation sector is still one of the biggest challenges in Austria. By 2014 greenhouse gas emissions increased by a remarkable 57.6% from 1990 levels in this sector. While policy-makers fail to deliver proposals for real emission cuts, the Austrian economic institute WIFO calculated that environmentally harmful subsidies of 3.8 to 4.7 billion EUR paid for fossil fuels in Austria. About 2 to 2.2 billion EUR of environmentally harmful subsidies are identified in the transportation sector. Mainly tax cuts, e.g. for diesel, are responsible for this high share. Therefore, incentives for a change in the modal split remain low. A real decarbonization strategy for the transportation sector is missing.
Big challenges ahead
In general, Austria has a pioneering role in many aspects, but policy-makers do not act as decisively as they should. While a poll conducted in 2014, 79% of Austrians supported a rapid phase-out of fossil energy, there is still no long-term government strategy to phase out fossil fuels in Austria. This is a major gap, as there are strong economic arguments for taking action. About 64% of the energy needed in Austria has to be imported. The import bill for fossil energy has reached 11.4 billion EUR a year in 2014.
As a consequence, a lot remains to be done if Austria wants to turn back into a real frontrunner in the energy transition. Political action and the implementation of an ambitious decarbonization strategy must be the key drivers for this change.