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.

For members


Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

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

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. 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 length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

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.