This European country may have the most ambitious green agenda yet. Here’s how it plans to go carbon neutral

June 21, 2020, 9:30 AM UTC

Life in the green heart of a nation with one of Europe’s most ambitious climate targets is about to get even greener, according to the woman responsible for making it happen.

The centerpiece of Leonore Gewessler’s plan is a radical revamp of Austria’s public transportation networks, giving residents nationwide access to buses, trains and subways for a flat yearly fee that works out at €3 ($3.38) a day, encouraging citizens to leave their cars at home. Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, is drafting new laws that’ll redistribute billions of euros toward more ecologically-friendly activities in the euro area’s sixth biggest economy.

“That’s the project that is very dear to my heart,” said Gewessler in her first interview in her ministry since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Road traffic remains a “key concern” for Austria to meet its goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2040—a decade earlier than the target set by the European Union.

The 42-year-old former environmental activist turned Green Party politician is tasked with leading a so-called “super ministry” under the government ruled by Austria’s conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Gewessler said her broad mandate over climate, energy and transport policies gives her a “systemic view” of the changes needed to keep global warming in check.

“We want to make being climate-friendly cheaper by putting a price on carbon dioxide,” she said. “It’s a way of making the tax system a lever for climate neutrality.”

Austria’s minister for climate, energy and transportation policy, Leonore Gewessler during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government on January 7, 2020 in Vienna, Austria. Wire photography: Martin Juen—SEPA.Media /Getty Images
Martin Juen—SEPA.Media /Getty Images

Austria plans to reboot its tax code by 2022 and has appointed a task force led by Gewessler and conservative Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel to evaluate the best way to put a price on ecologically-destructive activities. The tax group was established a week before Austria locked down to stop the coronavirus. Now, Gewessler used the government’s 50 billion-euro aid and stimulus program to accelerate and expand green investment projects such as the new public transportation passes.

“It’s a huge economic chance because that’s where our future competitiveness is, green products and green processes,” she said. “That’s why I went into politics, because I want to use these chances.”

New laws will be in place by next year that will give Austria’s  8.9 million people incentives to adopt cleaner heating and power sources. The use of heating oil will be eliminated nationwide by 2035 and homeowners are being offered a 5,000-euro “Out of Oil Bonus” to adopt greener alternatives, Gewessler said.

Solar power is a key element of Austria’s plan to boost electricity generation to 100% renewable in 2030, from about 80% today. That will mean installing photovoltaic panels on an additional 1 million rooftops.

Gewessler grew up in a rural community in the so-called Green Heart of Austria, where most people need cars to get around.

“There was a bus but the offer was only so-so,” she said. “If you wanted to go to the city cinema in the evening it was difficult to get back home at night.”

Gewessler said that extending public transportation networks nationwide, by making connections more frequent and comfortable, as well as less expensive, will be key in determining whether Austrian can turn itself into a “front runner” in the race against climate change.

“We have to provide mobility to people in Austria that’s comfortable, efficient, affordable and eco-friendly,” she said.