On Monday 23 May, the Green Party candidate, and former Interior Minister, Alexander Van der Bellen, beat Freedom Party hopeful Norbert Hofer in the Austrian Presidential election by a margin of 31 000 votes, gaining 50.3% of the popular ballot versus 49.7%, from a total of 4.64 million cast, ending one of the closest election races in years. He becomes the second European Head of State with a Green Party background following Latvia’s Raimonds Vējonis who was elected in 2015. Besides the worrying amount of right wing sentiment in Austria following Mr Hofer’s surprise run, and the even more worrying total number of votes recieved, Austria can now boast one of the most progressive Heads of States in Europe, with a firm focus on the green economy and sustainable investment. But with such a slim majority, can President Van der Bellen unite a divided country, and push through the green agenda which Austria and Europe so vitally needs?
The Presidential role is not one of absolute power, it is a largely ceremonial position which helps unify, lead and direct elected members of the Austrian Parliament – however they do have large powers to appoint Ministers and Justices, as well as dissolve Parliament if they see fit. In light of this, President Bellen has run, and will be considered, as an independent with no political affiliation. However, having led the Green Party from 1997 to 2008, and having been funded by them throughout his Presidential run, the policies of his tenure will be driven by his backers and past affiliation.
The Austrian Green Party have stood on a ticket of:
- 100% renewable energy in Austria and Europe;
- Accelerated reduction of coal, oil and gas use;
- A ban on nuclear energy in Austria and a phase out across the EU; and
- Sustainable resource use across all sectors and industries.
Although these goals are shared by Green Party teams across Europe, Van der Bellen has proven to be a moderate in terms of policy orientation. Believing that compromise, discussion, and gradual steps are the best way to achieve these overarching aims – this means working alongside groups who have previously been shunned and vilified by his more radical colleagues. This is imperative as he seeks to unify and work with a fellow political parties who feel his slim majority is hardly an endorsement for the “green agenda” which he may like to set-out.
Austria’s Current Roadmap
On Monday 23, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) released a new report (Climate Change and Clean Energy) on Europe’s energy system, ranking member states perceived strength in meeting 2020 objectives across seven variable metrics. Austria was in 15th place, coming in the lower half of the overall composite score.
However, in certain respects, Austria is leading the pack. One of the metrics of analysis focuses on clean energy per-capita. In this score Austria was 3rd with a score of 2.15 kW of energy developed per person – following Sweden (2.78 kW per-capita) and Luxembourg (2.73 kW). In another metric, the share of renewables in gross energy consumption, Austria was placed 4th behind Sweden, Latvia and Finland. In 2013 (the year of which the data was taken), Austria was only 3% behind its 2020 target of 34% renewable energy produced. Ensuring its place amongst the leaders when assessed on progress and its potential to meet future objectives laid out in the 2030 objectives and recent Paris Agreement.
Austria is in a strong position on energy and climate policy heading towards 2020 and President Bellen comes in at a period of needed reflection as new objectives and challenges are assessed. The vast supply of hydropower and move to solar, wind and bioenergy has supported the current transition. But some weaknesses and concerns remain. GHG emissions have risen by 6% from 1990 levels although mandated to reduce them by 13%. Energy security and supply is still focused on oil and although the security of supply is diverse, there remains a slight risk due to increased uncertainty in Eastern Europe. Market competition is also weak and further cross border integration (likely to be fast-tracked with the Energy Union) would not only enhance access to renewable energy supplies, but could also bring down consumer costs, and instigate a demand side market where smart innovation could be a key driver for economic growth.
President Van der Bellen has an opportunity to kick-start Austria’s green economy and help lead the incoming Energy Union through market competition and an emphasis on cross-border interconnectors with neighbouring states. This would (in practice) open up the renewable energy industry in Austria to new investment from overseas, benefiting not only Austrian security of supply, but EU infrastructure and market assimilation.