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Is Austria doing enough to protect children from the climate crisis?

A group of children is taking Austria to court over its climate protection laws, claiming they 'fail to protect them' against the climate crisis. But what do the laws actually do?

A wind turbine rises above field in Burgenland.
Austria is trying to move to using mainly renewable energy, such as wind energy, but it 'won't happen overnight' according to the Chancellor. (Photo by Joe KLAMAR / AFP)

Twelve minors filed a legal challenge with Austria’s top court, accusing the government of failing to revise an “inadequate” climate protection law, saying it was not sufficiently protecting their constitutional rights.

The Austrian lawsuit, the first of its kind in the nation, claims a law dating from 2011 – the Climate Protection Law –  is not ensuring that children are shielded from the consequences of global warming.

“We have a climate protection law that does not deserve its name and is unconstitutional because it violates the rights of children,” said attorney Michaela Krömer, who is representing the group.

So, what is Austria actually doing to protect children from the climate crisis?

As it turns out, not a lot.

Austria’s Climate Protection Law

In 2011, Austria passed the Climate Protection Act, setting emission ceilings for six sectors and regulating “the development and implementation of effective climate protection measures”. 

Much of the criticism of the act stems from the fact that the law did not set reduction targets, only ceilings, and even those came with no accountability measures. “A law which lacks greenhouse gas reduction targets, clear responsibilities and an accountability mechanism clearly infringe these constitutional rights [of the children],” said Krömer.

READ ALSO: How will climate change impact Austria?

Moreover, the law brought a program of measures from 2013  up to 2020, which has not been updated since. As a result, the year 2020 is also the most recent year for which quality-assured inventory data on emissions are available, according to the government.

Even when the law was valid, from 2015 to 2020, there was a trend of increase in emissions in the sectors analysed. According to the Climate Ministry, this was due, among other things, to “low prices for fossil energy, good economic development and the lack of implementation of new, effective climate protection measures.

A petition signed by former federal minister Rudi Anschober, among other Austrian organisations and prominent people, asks for better measures for a climate-friendly energy supply in the country.

Among the demands are: “Present a climate protection plan now and adopt a binding climate protection law that will enable us to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. We demand concrete programs of measures to achieve the climate targets.”

Karl Schellmann, from WWF, also recently told Austrian media that a new climate protection law must come into force in Austria “as soon as possible”. Despite announcements of goals such as carbon neutrality by 2040, greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased in the country since 1990.

BACKGROUND: How Austria plans to become carbon neutral by 2040

“Without climate protection legislation, we are flying blind. We have no target, no responsibilities, no control. Citizens have no way to take action against inaction”, Christian Kdolsky from the Climate People’s Initiative said.

jamtal glacier, austria

A photo taken on July 20, 2022 shows the Jamtal Glacier (Jamtalferner) near Galtuer, Tyrol, Austria. The glacier has been losing about one metre from its surface annually, but this year it has already lost more than a metre. (Photo by KERSTIN JOENSSON / AFP)

EU targets

With no federal targets, accountability mechanisms and goals, Austria is set to miss out on EU climate commitments, risking fines of up to € 9.2 billion.

And the European Union has taken notice.

A recent report by the European Union Commission states that Austria is not on track to meet its 2040 carbon-neutral targets.

“So far, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are not on a trajectory compatible with Austria’s binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in sectors outside the EU Emissions Trading System by 36 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005”, the report claims.

The Brussels authority stated that even when accounting for additional measures, the country still risks falling short of its goal by nine percentage points.

READ ALSO: Who are the climate protesters disrupting traffic in Vienna – and why?

One of the significant challenges for Austria is reducing transport-related emissions, as the country serves as an important transit point for transalpine road freight, the EU says.

According to the report, lengthy permitting procedures and underinvestment in the electricity grid are also critical challenges to reaching renewable energy targets.

The commission mentioned that “investment in renewable energy is hampered by complex spatial planning and permitting procedures”.

Government reaction

Climate and Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler, of the Green party — the junior partner in Austria’s conservative-led coalition government — praised the “great commitment of young people to climate protection” when asked about the recent lawsuit brought on by the children.

“In our constitutional state, of course, everyone can always turn to the courts when it comes to the question of enforcing their rights,” she said in a statement.

“However, I see it as my responsibility to ensure that this is not necessary. And that’s exactly why I’m campaigning for a quick decision on the climate protection law.

“Of course, if I were solely responsible, we would already have one, but in a democracy, you need a majority for that.”

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Climate activists to stop Vienna traffic every morning for weeks

Austria's capital Vienna will see "at least" three weeks of climate protests by the environmental protest group Last Generation. Here's what you need to know.

Climate activists to stop Vienna traffic every morning for weeks

Last Generation activists plan to disrupt early morning traffic at critical points in Vienna, starting on Tuesday, for at least three weeks in their third wave of action. The group has announced that this will be their most significant action to date.

Typically, the blockades involve protesters sticking themselves to roads in order to create disruption to traffic. The core group has approximately 200 people who have undergone relevant training in how to attach themselves to the road.

However, on Tuesday morning, the protest was contained to a march around the Ringstrasse in the first district of Vienna, with activists walking accompanied by police. They carried signs with messages such as “100km/h is enough,” “no new drilling,” and “Parents for the future.”

On a Twitter post showing the action in the Viennese streets, the group wrote: “We have no choice: the government is putting our public safety at risk. Spain and regions worldwide are drying up. Food prices will go up. A social collapse will be the result. And the simplest immediate measures have still not been implemented.”

Last Generation has been blocking early morning traffic in Austrian cities for months to draw attention to the climate crisis’s consequences and urge government officials to take action. The group is calling for a ban on new oil and gas drilling and a 100 km/h speed limit on highways, among other demands.

READ ALSO: Is Austria doing enough to protect children from the climate crisis?

They plan “at least” three weeks of protest in the Austrian capital this time, but the exact time (though marches and blockades usually happen in the early morning) and location are kept secret to avoid previous mobilisation by the police, according to the group.

Who are the climate protesters?

Last Generation is a climate activist group that sees itself as the last generation with the opportunity to prevent severe consequences of climate change.

They refer to themselves as a “nonviolent resistance movement” and often employ roadblocks that involve members glueing themselves to roads in order to disrupt traffic, a tactic referred to as a “sticky wave” or “Klebe-Welle” – they are known in Austria as the “klimakleber”.

READ MORE: Who are the climate protesters disrupting traffic in Vienna – and why?

Their blockades in January led to 52 arrests and over 200 police reports as traffic was disrupted in city centres. Similar protests have occurred in other cities, such as Linz, Klagenfurt, Innsbruck, and Graz, since the beginning of the year.

The group made headlines in November when they threw black liquid on a Klimt painting at the Leopold Museum in Vienna.