You might expect a Green Party to lead the fight against coal plants, as coal is the fossil fuel that produces the most carbon emissions. However, that is not the case in Austria where the Green Party in government is trying to reactivate a coal plant against stiff opposition in parliament.  

Austrian Greens find themselves in a difficult situation as the Green-Conservative coalition government is increasingly unpopular and they now face significant opposition on the environmental front, where they should be in their strongest position.  

Like other European countries, Austria is scrambling to replace Russian natural gas that is being cut off in response to western sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine. The problem is compounded by a dry summer that has led to low hydroelectric power output.  Part of the planned response includes a return to coal.

In June, state-controlled electricity producer Verbund AG was ordered by the government to revitalize its final coal-fired plant for emergency purposes if Russia was to halt its natural gas supplies during the winter season. However, the measure was stalled when the government failed to get the two-thirds support of parliament that it needed to implement the plan.  

Opposition was led by the Social Democrats, who object to any costs from switching fuels being passed on to consumers. “Those that have made billions in the current energy crisis should pay,” said Joerg Leichtfried, the deputy speaker of the Social Democrats.

The coal plant in question, the Mellach Station, provided heat and electricity to Graz, the second largest city in Austria. After it was closed two years ago, it became a research center to find ways to safely feed hydrogen fuel onto the Graz power grid. When it was shut down, Austria became only the second nation in Europe to eliminate coal from its electrical grid.  If revived, the plant would be able to supply up to 260,000 Austrian households with electricity and heat in an emergency. 

Austria has ambitious goals for climate reduction, planning to be carbon neutral by 2040, ten years ahead of the European Union and five years before neighboring Germany.  However, the country has had no overarching climate plan in place since previous legislation lapsed in 2020 and the 2040 target is seen by many as a distant dream.  At the current pace of carbon reduction, the Austrian Institute of Economic Research does not expect Austria to become carbon neutral until 2065 or 2070. 

Reaching this target would be the top priority for most Greens, but the Green Party of Austria seems more focused on meeting immediate energy needs.  In a surprising move, Austria’s Energy Minister, and Green Party member, Lenore Gewessler, called the opposition to the bill that would allow the revival of the Mellach Station, “completely irresponsible”.  She adds that the Social Democrats would be responsible if “flats of families and children remain cold” this winter.  

This position may reflect a poor showing in the polls. The governing coalition is trying desperately to shore up support, as recent polls suggest that only 21 percent of voters would vote Conservative and 11 percent would stay with the Greens. Although the next Austrian election is not until 2024, a significant rise in the cost of electricity, or fuel shortages during a cold winter, could make it impossible for them to recover.

David Arnott

David Arnott of Toronto, recent graduate of Political Science from McGill University.

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