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Kick-Off of the George C. Marshall Austrian-US Visitors Program

First US Environmental Technology Experts’ Visit to Austria
bridges vol. 16, December 2007 / Feature Article

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The delegation poses in their hardhats at the Spittelau Waste Incineration Plant in Wien.

From October 7th to 14th of this year, the George C. Marshall Austrian-US Visitors Program was held for the first time in Austria. The establishment of such a program was originally announced during a meeting between then-Austrian Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and US President George W. Bush at the Vienna EU-US Summit in June 2006.

Each year from now on, a delegation from the US Senate, the House of Representatives, and various federal and state-level agencies and universities will be invited to visit Austria. They will participate in a weeklong series of presentations, briefings, and meetings that highlight Austrian innovations in industry and technology, while improving mutual understanding through communications on both a personal and a professional level.

The Marshall Visit 2007 focused on "Environmental Technology," an area in which Austria is among the leaders worldwide and

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The delegation at the Biodiesel Refinery at Lobau Harbor.

is able to provide best practice models, expertise, and innovative know-how. The comprehensive weeklong visitors' program was prepared and coordinated by the Ministry for European and International Affairs in cooperation with the responsible federal ministries, the Austrian Parliament, the City of Vienna, the regional government of Lower Austria, and the Austrian Economic Chamber. The heavy schedule included not only numerous meetings with experts on sustainability and environmental technologies, but also visits to facilities such as Biodiesel Vienna in Lobau, to Europe's largest passive house office building in St. Pölten, Lower Austria, and to the waste incinerator of the Fernwärme Wien in Spittelau.  

Apart from offering Austrian and American experts and entrepreneurs a unique personal platform for exchanging information and best practice models in the area of environmental technologies, the visit also helped to build useful contacts and develop networks within the professional community. Currently, two concrete projects are being pursued: a "Memorandum of Understanding" regarding Environmental Technologies between Austria and the government of California, and a potential participation of the City of Vienna in a conference on the topic of restoration of river beds planned for spring 2008 in Washington, DC.

The following Q&A is based on an interview in which Austrian Information spoke with Dale Medearis, senior environmental planner with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and a participant in this year's visit.

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Two months have passed since you came back from the Marshall Visit to Austria. What are the impressions and experiences that you took with you from the trip?

Medearis: Clearly, on the basis of the trip, there are many topics, policies, and innovations which Austria and the United States can exchange with mutually beneficial results. Americans can benefit from the work Austria has done with renewable fuels and public private partnerships with respect to solar photovoltaic and solar thermal energy. It would be useful for Americans to understand the environmental impact processes that Austrians undertake for harvesting renewable fuels, such as biomass - how it is done in Austria and what lessons can be learned for similar efforts in US states and regions?  It would also be useful for both countries to develop research initiatives that study air emissions of biomass plants - particularly particulate matter.  What technologies can be developed and applied to promote sustainable use of biomass without affecting air quality and public health?  

Austria also offers valuable lessons vis-à-vis waste incineration. High rates of recycling and national-level waste management legislation and controls appear to merge with thoughtful incineration practices and energy practices. "Fernwärme" or district heating is something that is not often practiced in the US.  It appears that there are many lessons for Austria to share with the US in this respect as well. "Green" buildings, "Niedrigenergiehäuser" (low energy houses), and "Passivbau" (passive houses) are areas in which there are great opportunities for shared cooperation and exchanges of best practices and lessons between Austria and the United States. Finally, urban watershed restoration is another area in which the US and Austria can cooperate. Perhaps formation of partnerships between US and Austrian interstate and international river authorities is a possibility.   

How do you think future transatlantic cooperation will develop over the next few years in regard to environmental issues?  

Medearis: I am convinced that while, in general, conflicting perspectives, confrontational tones and divergent views on climate change and energy often define the transatlantic relationship at the national level, at the sub-national level, a dynamic and positive set of relations is evolving between European and American cities and regions.  This relationship is characterized by generally productive results, practical and applied exchanges.  In the absence of federal-level leadership on climate change and sustainable energy from Washington, creative policy entrepreneurs and practitioners in California and Northern Virginia have launched their own local renewable energy, energy conservation, and climate initiatives with relatively ambitious goals.  Moreover, these state, regional and local efforts are strengthened and informed by the pioneering energy and climate work occurring in European countries such as Austria. These policy makers and practitioners in both countries work together to find, understand, and apply innovative transportation, "green" building, and CO2 assessment and mitigation strategies. For example, California's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative is modelled after Germany's "100,000 solar roofs" initiative. "Green" roofs policies and technologies from Stuttgart are being transferred and applied in Northern Virginia. Transportation practices to promote mass transit and limit auto-dependency are diffusing from Berlin to Arlington, and we now see congestion pricing from Stockholm and London being applied in New York City. Strengthening the exchange and application of innovative Austrian and US energy, climate, and environmental policies will depend on creating and strengthening more channels of learning - more research and communication about the performance and context of innovative Austrian environmental policies (for example information on the policy context and performance of Austrian "green" buildings, watershed restoration, air quality environmental impact assessment, renewable energy, and waste management). Local authorities in the US are eager consumers of this information when it is made available to them. The strengthening of exchange and application of innovative climate, energy, and environmental policies between Austrian and US cities and states is particularly relevant, given that implementation of any serious climate and energy conservation efforts will invariably involve efforts at the subnational level.  Moreover, approximately 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe (perhaps less in Austria) and the United States emanate from building, housing, and transportation sectors - sectors which invariably must involve local regional authorities.  

Individual US states show increased interest in international cooperation with Europe in environmental issues. Are there any current initiatives?

Medearis: Now, more than ever, there is a need to address the divide between international negotiations and subnational practices by strengthening and enhancing relationships between European, and US state, regional, and local authorities.  Today, there is no doubt that global climate change is the premier global environmental challenge of our generation and for generations to come.  However, the lack of federal leadership on climate change and sustainable energy has compelled policy makers at the state, regional, and local level to create a range of ambitious energy and climate programs. This is particularly relevant in the Washington, DC, region.  With a population of 4.9 million, the region as a whole emits 65.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Compare this with Sweden and its population of 9.0 million, which emits 52.6 million metric tons, or Denmark and its population of  5.4 million, which emits 51.1 million metric tons (Note: In Virginia, we expend over 43 percent of our energy on transportation; 32 percent on residential and commercial buildings, and 25 percent on industrial sources). It would be useful for US state, regional, and local efforts such as the "Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative," the West Coast Governors' Global Warming Initiative, the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, or "Cool Counties" initiatives to be informed about comparable Austrian lessons and examples. 

In addition, I would encourage formation of official partnerships between local authorities and states to support the exchange of mutually beneficial environmental policies, technologies, practitioners and ideas.  California has agreements on climate and the environment already with European nations such as Sweden and the UK.  Perhaps it might consider one with Austria in which formal exchanges and research on the environment, climate change and energy could be conducted.  Moreover, thought could be given to strengthening formal environmental exchanges between Austrian and Californian colleges and universities.


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