Citizens' Assembly in Austria makes proposals on climate policy

05. July 2022

What do we have to do today to live in a climate-friendly future tomorrow? 100 randomly selected citizens from all regions of Austria and from all parts of society dealt with this question from January to June 2022. Together they formed the Climate Assembly. As a kind of "mini-Austria", they developed measures to actively shape the country's climate future.

Over six weekends, the participants of the Climate Assembly developed answers to central questions about the future: How do we want to get around? Where do we get our energy from? How do we have to feed ourselves to protect the planet? With the Climate Assembly, a reflection of the population was to make proposals for climate policy measures to politicians. The assembly participants were supported by experts from various disciplines who contributed the current state of research. The goal is a climate-friendly Austria - and thus net zero - by 2040.

93 proposals

The 93 proposals of the Climate Assembly presented on 4 July 2022 include the enshrinement of a fundamental right to climate protection, a land sealing ban, the abolition of fossil energy subsidies, the creation of a non-partisan climate commission, greenhouse gas tariffs for food from third countries and higher taxes for climate-damaging vehicles.

The Climate Assembly was able to unanimously agree on the expansion of public transport, the introduction of a paraffin tax or chargeable returns in online trade. The report of the Climate Assembly also contains the demand for speed limits: "In order to reduce climate-damaging emissions in the transport sector, the following speed limits should apply: 90 km/h on federal and rural roads, 50 km/h in towns and cities on main roads and 30 km/h on secondary roads".

Ban the destruction of new goods

In the area of consumption and production, the assembly proposes to ban the destruction of new goods in online trade. Furthermore, the reparability of products should be made obligatory. Overall, products that are harmful to the climate should be pushed into the background as far as possible - and their advertising should be severely restricted and even banned in the case of particularly harmful products. Another proposal is that those who plan climate-friendly projects should be rewarded, for example with more favourable credit conditions.

Food should be taxed on the basis of environmental impact. This would make climate-friendly products more attractive. The assembly participants are also in favour of a ban on destroying food. The products should be passed on to social markets or - if they are no longer edible - end up in biogas plants. Quantity discounts, which in the opinion of the panel encourage food waste, should be banned.

The citizens have also formulated a number of measures in the area of housing: An immediate offensive should enable the renovation of all existing buildings "quickly and unbureaucratically". Overall, renovations are to be promoted more strongly than new buildings in order to curb soil erosion. In order to reduce the amount of sealed land, the responsibility for spatial planning is to be shifted to the state level. Other major points in the chapter are a vacancy levy and compulsory reporting from 2024 as well as the compulsory installation of solar systems on large and communal buildings.

Process very enriching

When presenting the results, the participants described the Citizens' Assembly process as very enriching. Initially, the mood was one of frustration and speechlessness in view of the dramatic situation. "Why don't we act, even though the knowledge is on the table?" was a question that arose among many participants at the beginning. Both in terms of the dramatic effects of climate change and in terms of possible solutions.

But confidence soon prevailed. Even on sensitive, controversial issues, the very different participants were able to agree on a common proposal for a solution. After all, making Austria climate-neutral by 2040 can only be achieved if everyone pulls together, according to the members of the panel. "The result shows that the citizens are willing to go much further than the politicians believe. Because they know it is necessary," says Georg Kaser, climate researcher and co-head of the scientific advisory board of the Climate Assembly.

The recommendations were handed over to Climate Protection Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) and Economy Minister Martin Kocher (ÖVP).

Environment Ministry responds to recommendations

On 29 November 2022, the Ministry of the Environment responded to the recommendations of the climate assembly with a 130-page paper. Point by point, it explains whether and how the respective wish could be implemented and whose responsibility this would be. It is emphasised that this should only be seen as a first step. Further work will be done within the framework of the ongoing preparation of an updated National Energy and Climate Plan.

One of the main demands of the climate assembly was the introduction of a basic right to climate protection. The Ministry of the Environment is rather pessimistic about this. According to a legal opinion and the constitutional service in the Federal Chancellery, this would be possible, but the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament would be lacking. The reorganisation of spatial planning competences away from the municipalities is also likely to fail due to this hurdle.

What has already been achieved

However, reference is also made to what has already been achieved, such as the carbon price, the promotion of public transport or the renovation offensive in the housing sector within the framework of environmental promotion. With regard to the long outstanding climate protection law, where the conservative ÖVP in particular is putting the brakes on, the answer remains vague: "The details of the law are currently still in political negotiation," it says. At least, however, it is announced that the non-partisan climate commission also desired by the climate assembly could become a reality, namely through the scientific advisory board envisaged there.

The Ministry sees the desire for reparability of products in the Ecodesign Directive, which is being negotiated at the EU level, as being well on the way. The government also wants to implement the ban on destroying new goods, as well as a contact point for the circular economy. A ban on advertising for climate-damaging products, on the other hand, is not planned and must be checked for compatibility with competition law. Another rejection: "A legal ban on new vehicles with combustion engines as early as 2027 is not possible under European law from today's point of view," says the Environment Ministry.

Cross-section of society

The Climate Assembly consisted of 100 people who have had their main residence in Austria for at least five years. They were all at least 16 years old and represented a cross-section of society in terms of gender, age, level of education, income and place of residence. The youngest person in the Climate Council was 17 years old, the oldest 79. Furthermore, care was taken to ensure that not only people who are particularly committed to the climate issue are represented in the Climate Assembly - but a cross-section of the entire population.

The people were randomly selected by Statistics Austria. In September 2021, the selected people had received an information letter and thus the opportunity to register for the Climate Assembly. After evaluating a questionnaire, Statistics Austria finally selected 100 participants and 20 reserve persons from all registered persons.

To ensure that different perspectives were taken into account in the climate debate, an advisory board with representatives of various associations and institutions also accompanied the Climate Assembly, including the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions, the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture and the Federation of Austrian Industries.

Citizen's Assembly result of a popular initiative

The Climate Assembly was born out of a popular initiative on climate action in June 2020, which was supported by almost 400,000 people. One of the core demands: to let the Austrian population have an active say in climate protection measures. In March 2021, the National Council had asked the federal government to implement the demands of the climate initiative - the Climate Assembly was born.

After the climate assembly, participants founded the "Association of the Austrian Climate Assembly of Citizens" to continue to work together on climate protection.

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