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What Vienna’s experience can teach us about achieving climate transition

Europe Letter: Austrian capital’s solar power plans could fuel almost all Irish data centres

All eyes will turn to Glasgow this week as world leaders gather for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in a bid to create international unity in curbing carbon emissions to stave off catastrophic levels of climate change.

The European Union has already committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 – meaning it would on balance emit no more of the warming gas than is absorbed – with the ambitious interim target of cutting emissions by 55 per cent in the next 10 years.

The money is available: borrowing is currently cheap, and some €750 billion in grants and loans, plus a sizeable chunk of the overall EU budget, are being pushed out to member states in the coming three years with the instruction to use as much as possible in enacting the transition.

The challenge is now how to turn those targets into practical steps. And politicians are getting nervous. They fear they will face a public backlash if they propose concrete changes to how industries work and people live their lives.


What we have learned in Vienna is you have to talk with all the community and you have to find partners to do the first steps, pilot projects, so that people and companies can see how we can manage the change

But some parts of Europe are frontrunners in already implementing such changes, and have lessons to share on how it can be done.

Vienna has managed to almost eliminate coal as a fuel for home heating and cut the use of oil by 70 per cent since 1995. It plans to install 800 megawatts of solar energy by 2030 – enough to fuel Ireland’s current flock of data centres almost entirely.

Overall, the city’s use of energy has declined since 2005 despite strong population growth, helped by initiatives to increase efficiency and insulate homes. It now has the lowest energy consumption in Austria per inhabitant, and its greenhouse gas emissions per capital have dropped about 14 per cent since 2005.


The city has adopted an aim to reach climate neutrality by 2040. To achieve this goal, the municipal authorities are focusing on a mundane but key part of our environment: buildings, a sector responsible for 20 per cent of carbon emissions.

The Austrian capital declared a total phase-out of the use of fossil fuels in buildings this summer, starting with three “climate protection areas” in which only buildings that use renewable energy can be newly built.

The focus on buildings is because this is a policy area over which the local authorities have control, unlike electricity plants or tax levels on fuels, which are generally a national affair. Bernd Vogl, head of the city’s energy planning department, explains that the transition is founded on district or microgrid electricity, and decentralised energy systems that have a variety of contributing energy sources, including solar, biomass heating and heat pumps.

Heat pumps are particularly “cheap and easy to do”, Vogl said. “They use the heat of the earth. You can heat and cool the building: in summer you can cool it, and in winter you can heat it, and you can store the heat from the summer for the winter season.”

He describes the decarbonisation of buildings as a slow and complex policy area. Buildings can be idiosyncratic, requiring bespoke solutions, and it’s slow to replace heating systems that usually last for up to 30 years. In contrast, the cars on the road are generally changed each 10-15 years, something that indicates the switch to electric cars could be rapid.

Electric cars demonstrate how national action is also needed to decarbonise a city. While the city’s growing fleet of electric cars do not emit exhaust directly, in order to be fully green the electricity grid they charge from needs to be based on clean energy, something that requires national-level change.

Gas heating

A current major challenge is how to address the still considerable number of homes in the city that use gas for heating.

“We have over 400,000 gas boilers in flats in Vienna. If you start a discussion on we want to get rid of natural gas, a lot of people ask themselves: how can I manage this?” Vogl said.

In Vogl’s experience, in order to win people’s support for transition you need to offer two things: a solution to the problem and support, including cash, to achieve it.

“What we have learned in Vienna is you have to talk with all the community and you have to find partners to do the first steps, pilot projects, so that people and companies can see how we can manage the change,” Vogl said.

“It’s all about seeing that it’s possible,” he added. “I always work on finding first movers. Work with the first movers, give them money, help them and then you can showcase something.”