Discovering subnational paths to climate change integration: an Austrian way

von Alice Meier, 16.12.2021

Climate change is a global problem and a worldwide perceived urgency which requires prompt responses and actions at different levels of government. As Federica Cittadino observed, subnational governments play a central - yet understudied - role in the integration of climate change in sectoral policies.

Austria is committed to a very ambitious green agenda: achieving climate neutrality by 2040. Needless to say, the contribution by the subnational entities (Länder) is and will be indispensable! From an Austrian perspective, the Länder hold symmetrical constitutionally-entrenched exclusive or shared responsibilities with the Bund in fields that are significant for the achievement of the internationally set climate goals. What is more, subnational governments have the necessary expertise, leadership and proximity to enhance climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts at subnational and local level. Finally, the Länder at times have acted as frontrunners in the fight against climate change, anticipating initiatives at national and even at international level.1

Against this backdrop, in the framework of the project "Climate change integration in the multilevel governance of Italy and Austria", the first steps in our research revealed that climate change integration unfolds differently in the selected study cases, despite presenting certain common tendencies. In particular, sixteen interviewees, amongst these key public officers of the administration, sectoral experts and members of civil society in Tyrol and Vorarlberg, highlighted the pitfalls and success factors of mainstreaming climate change in the policy fields of transport, energy and water, and spatial planning at Länder level. Sectoral asymmetries, also related to the underlying Austrian federalist structure, different solutions to common problems, but also shared approaches represent the key results of the preliminary research findings.

The interviewees in both Länder emphasized the existence of a common reference strategy for sectoral climate change integration (the newly updated and reinforced Sustainability and Climate Strategy in Tyrol and the Energieautonomie + 2030 in Vorarlberg). However, there is a shared concern with regard to its implementation.

The political leadership at Land level was identified as the propulsive force in the fight against climate change. Indeed, the political backing shapes actions by the administration and directly impacts coordination at territorial level. In turn, the commitment to mainstreaming of the sectoral administrative leadership determines the effectiveness of the actions and hence drives the real change. In Tyrol, the acknowledgment of the urgency of the problem recently culminated in the constitutional anchoring of effective and sustainable climate protection goals (LGBl. Nr. 133/2019). 

In Vorarlberg, climate-awareness in policy-making originated from the energy sector, with the adoption of the first energy autonomy program in 2009 and the early constitutional entrenchment of climate protection goals (LGBl.Nr. 16/2008). Recently the calls for actions by policy-makers led the Land parliament (Landtag) to declare the state of climate emergency in 2019 and to commit to the development of a preventive "climate-check" on Vorarlberg’s laws, ordinances and subsidies.

Horizontal coordination between departments, peripheral agents, and political representatives both at the policy development and implementation stage was defined as crucial for the success of climate change integration at subnational level. Yet, the administration would lack the necessary structure to deal with such an overlapping and cross-cutting issue. Both Länder, Tyrol and Vorarlberg, adopted ad hoc solutions to overcome this coordination challenge; however, there would still be room for improvement.

The significance of the EU legislation and policy with respect to climate change integration was unanimously recognized. Further, sectoral and cross-cutting intergovernmental mechanisms of coordination between the Bund and the Länder were identified as essential frameworks for the exchange of knowledge, the development of shared approaches in overlapping competencies and for discussions on the funding of measures.

Informal cooperation is the most effective setting for coordination. Nevertheless, climate change mainstreaming was deemed to require an institutionalized framework to guide synergies at different levels of government and, at subnational level, between departments and stakeholders, normally only concerned with their institutional tasks.

The involvement of stakeholders and of the population in the development and the implementation stage of the policy cycle was considered instrumental for the acceptance of and adherence to sectoral measures. The interviewees highlighted criticalities and benefits of sectoral and overall participatory processes, stressing the importance of meaningful feedback and structured preparation. Whilst the culture of participation was regarded as currently still under development in Tyrol, the interviews revealed an established engagement in participatory practices in Vorarlberg, but with some room for improvement.

The respondents further unveiled the coexistence of voluntary-based and binding information mechanisms provided for by sectoral laws. Information- and knowledge-building measures initiated by both Länder, targeting different groups and stakeholders outside the administration, are regarded as vital integration measures, in order to both raise awareness in the general public and disseminate climate-relevant information. Improvements in the communication measures are expected to be generated by a more focused use of social media and marketing campaigns.

Subsidies and funding of specific relevant initiatives and projects on climate change were defined as primary measures to pursue the fight against climate change, influencing societal behavior through financial incentives. The interviewees generally confirmed a development in the expenditure policy at subnational level towards an enhancement of available funding of climate-relevant initiatives.

Despite the increasing proliferation in both Länder and in all sectors of soft-law instruments, such as umbrella and sectoral policies, strategic planning and other measures targeting behavioral change, the latter are perceived as ultimately not persuasive for the fulfilment of the ambitious climate targets and for the achievement of the essential change in mindset in subnational communities. Indeed, the interviewees shared the perception that the tendential lack of binding measures for sectoral integration at Land or national level, linked with direct sanctions and enforceability mechanisms, appreciably impacts the advancement of the fight against climate change in a negative way.

Bottom line? Change is clearly visible, as climate change has influenced policy-making at subnational level in Austria, by enhancing coordination between different actors and leading policy-makers to seek for ways to both effectively inform and involve citizens and relevant stakeholders in decision-making and implementation. Regardless, the road is still long!

The initial blog is available at:

1 For example, Vorarlberg adopted its first energy autonomy program in 2009 - i.e. six years ahead of the Paris Agreement (2015).

Informationen zu Alice Meier

Alice MeierAlice Meier is researcher at the Institute for Public Law, State and Administrative Theory at the University of Innsbruck. Her research focuses on the legal aspects of climate change in multi-level governance systems, comparative law and federalism. Since October 2021 she is qualified to practice law in Italy.

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