Preserve the green lungs of Graz, Austria!
a small, historic city next to a beautiful, fast-running river. Along
its banks are thousands of trees. They are green in the spring and summer, colorful in the fall, and naked in the winter.
Now imagine a meeting of the city council. The councillors are deciding
to chop down 10,000 of those trees, equivalent to a square of kilometer of
forest near the city centre. What could possibly
justify such a decision?
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|Before we get into the detail: the answer is "nothing".
nothing can possibly justify axing 10,000 trees in a city. That is true
in any city in the world and for any possible reason.
to chop down trees for a freeway? Sorry, that was yesterday. Today, you should be building a
railway, and it should be underground. Want to turn a city park into a
shopping centre? You must be joking.
Imagine what would happen if someone wanted to axe 10,000 trees in your
local area. If you agree that is scandalous, please sign our petition. We need your support!
Sometimes it is necessary to fell 10 trees near a city centre. It's sad
but true. They are standing in the way of a new development. They've
got to go. But to my knowledge it is rarely justified to fell 100 trees
near a city centre. If that is part of your plan, you had better think
again. Create another solution.
The current plan in Graz is 100 times worse than that.
The authorities want to clear 10,000 trees to lay a pipeline along the
river. The pipeline is part of a massive project that is not even
What are those people thinking? Where have they been for the past century or two?
In the 21st century, trees are sacred. They absorb CO2 and other air
pollution including fine particles. They reduce extreme temperature
differences. They are homes for animals and birds, preserving
biodiversity. They make people happier and more productive. They
increase property values. They are beautiful.
Imagine again that council meeting in Graz. "The plan is justified in terms of
sustainable energy," says the mayor. "The trees have to go to enable a
new hydroelectric project. We need electricity for clean transport."
This is misleading. Of course the sustainable energy revolution is
important and urgent. But Austria already has more than enough power
stations. Our capacity for producing electricity is
more than twice the peak demand. Moreover, more than half of Austrian
electricity is from sustainable sources.
Even if the mayor were right and there was an urgent need to produce
more sustainable energy, hydro might not be the right choice, because of all the methane it produces.
Yes, there is a lot of research on this, and it means that hydro is not
sustainable at all and hardly better than fossil fuels. But even if
hydro was sustainable (which it is not) and even if it was the
cost-efficient (which it also is not), even that would not be a reason to cut down thousands of trees!
You don't save the climate by clearing a forest.
There are many different ways to generate electricity sustainably without sacrificing many trees, including solar, wind, and geothermal. Even in the case of hydro, a dam is not necessary: in fast-flowing rivers like the Mur the options include run-of-the-river hydroelectricity (also called in-river turbines or hydrokinetic energy) and floating generators (Strom-Bojen from Austria).
Such options must be systematically compared, and
comparisons updated regularly as the technology develops. In
each case we must consider BOTH economic costs and benefits AND ecological costs and benefits. The analyses must be publicized to enable public discussion.
None of that happened in this case. To my knowledge, the environmental
impact statements were negative but the project was pushed through all
the same. The authorities
just did what they want and ignored the reports. Nor was there a public
discussion of alternative means of producing "sustainable electricity".
Excuses for felling 10,000 trees
The authorities in Graz are very creative when it comes to finding
excuses to fell 10,000 trees. Their plan is to construct a massive
sewage-rainwater pipe along the left bank of the river. The pipe, we
are told, is necessary
because the dam will raise the water level. The dam, we are told,
for the hydroelectric power station.
That this logic is flawed, is obvious. So why would scores of elected city councillors fall for it? The answer is the authorities are not telling them the truth. Consider the following lies and distortions:
dam is necessary
to generate hydroelectricity!" But Austria already has the capacity to
produce twice as much electricity as it uses, around the
- "The trees will be replaced!" In fact, after the water level rises there
will be less space for trees. The new trees will be small to stop their roots
affecting the new pipeline and river walls. It will be 20 years
before they mature.
water quality will improve!" In fact, water quality
will deteriorate due to stagnation and continuing unsolved sewage
problems. Right now, after heavy rain in Graz, rainwater mixes
with sewage and passes along Grazbach (a stream that became a drain)
into the Mur. The new storage pipe will not solve this problem!
Instead, the sewage will land in a reservoir rather
than flowing down the river.
will also build a new recreational area!" The planned park and the
planned power station have nothing to do with each other. The mayor is
free to build a park with or without a power station, or a power
station with or without a park. Personally, I would prefer a park
without a power station.
plant will produce a lot of electricity!" In fact, it will produce 74
GWh per year, which is less than 1% of the electricity consumption
of the state of Styria (pop. 1,300,000, of which 300,000 in the capital Graz). Its peak power output will be 17 MW. That will be in summer after heavy rain. In winter when rainfall is low and the river is slow, output will fall to 4 MW. But that is when demand will be highest! Four
megawatts is enough to charge 28 Tesla Superchargers at 150
kW each. If cars are charged at different times perhaps that would be enough for 100-200 cars and nothing else. Four MW is also comparable with the power produced by three windmills at
1-2 MW each.
These and more Trump-style lies and DDR-style distortions can be found on the greenwash project homepage.
By contrast, the above account is accurate in all details, to the best
of my knowledge. If
anyone finds an error, please let me know and I will fix it
immediately. People have repeatedly asked the authors of the hydro
greenwash homepage to correct their errors, but they were not
interested. Their errors are deliberate.
- "New power stations are necessary to power electric cars!" In fact, Austria has the capacity to produce 23GW of electric
power, more than half of which is from sustainable sources. But even in the depth
of winter, when demand is highest, only 10GW of that capacity is actually used (more). Millions of new electric cars could be charged during the night in Austria using existing power stations.
But I digress. The above points are important, but they are not the main point. The main point is this: It is never justified to fell 10,000 trees in any city anywhere.
Ten, perhaps. A hundred, in rare and extreme cases. More than that,
never. Trees are the green lungs of a city. The world urgently needs
trees now and not in 20 years. You don't save the climate by clearing a forest.
Please help us save 10,000 trees. Sign the petition!
environmental benefit of a sustainable energy project must always be
greater than its environmental cost. The same applies to the economic
benefit and the economic cost. This is a fundamental principle and it
must be applied carefully to every sustainable energy project.
planned power station in the river Mur (pronounced "MOO-ah") and
sewage/rainwater pipe along the river will altogether cost
over 100 million Euros. As noted above, the amount of electricity
generated will be small by any standard. This is not value for money.
The project should be stopped for purely financial reasons.
Enormous amounts of public money are being wasted. Why not instead
invest in efficiency and
save several percent? Why not subsidize diverse solar, wind,
geothermal and hydrokinetic projects and increase supply by 10%? Why not tax motorists
and the rich and invest in public transport and bicycle tracks?
here's the thing--even if the project was economically viable, it would
still not justify clearing a square kilometer of forest near a city
centre. Nothing justifies that.
The planned hydro plant fails both economically and ecologically.
Construction should be stopped for a year while existing studies are
published, new studies are carried out, and a local referendum is held.
Please help us by signing the petition.
Biodiversity - what's that?
A few decades ago, the river Mur was badly polluted. It stank, and many
believed it would never be clean again. But the politicians acted and
today it is close to its original state except for the usual procedures
to avoid flooding. The Mur is a free-flowing, quasi-natural river. Graz is a beautiful place and the river is an
important part of that. The moral to this story is that politics can
achieve great things if people speak honestly about what needs to be
done and then put ideas into action: "Yes, we can!"
Now, the river is about to be
destroyed in the name of "progress", as if we were back in the 1960s.
The environmental cost of the planned hydroelectric plant
includes loss of habitat for a long list of bird and animal species,
not to mention the plants, reptiles and insects. The project will mean
disruption to a largely intact natural ecosystem. The city's
biodiversity will be
permanently affected. Our children will not be able to turn the clock
Loss of biodiversity is a global emergency (more). Cases
of ecocide such as this must be stopped immediately and everywhere.
That's a problem for the legal profession. Solutions are happening, but
far too slowly.
How big is the number 10,000?
That may seem like a strange question. But people are acting as if they don't know the answer.
The public response to the threat of losing 10,000 trees
would be the same, it seems, if the number of trees were 10, 1,000, or 1,000,000.
We are responding as if we belonged to Brazil's celebrated
Pirahã Tribe, who apparently do not have words in their language
for numbers except one, two and many. But the Pirahã do know how valuable a tree is! The people of Graz, if they know about this at all, have understood that Graz is going to fell "many" trees along the river.
Do people understand how big the number 10,000 is? It is 10x10x10x10. This is like 100
cases of 100 trees being felled, all at the same time. Each of those 100 cases is a natural tragedy, all by itself.
Just in case you are wondering if this is an exaggeration: Naturschutzbund Steiermark (Styrian Nature Protection League) carefully counted and classified every tree on the left bank along the 7-km stretch of affected river. In all, according to this organisation, between 16,535 and 22,194 trees
will be felled for this project, but a few thousand (I'm
guessing about 6,000) have already been felled south of the centre of
Graz and within city limits, so there are at least 10,000 left to save.
Here is analysis of those 16,535 trees. 824 have a trunk circumference of over 1.5m,
have a trunk circumference of over 50cm, 1,971 are over 10m tall, 3,440
are over 5m tall, and 5,476 are 1-5m tall. For comparison:
the number of trees in Graz's biggest park, Stadtpark, is 2,000. more
On the greenwash webpage advertising the new hydroelectric station, you can read that 839 trees
will be felled. It is not only the American president who is blatantly
lying about the environmental issues. If
we were living in a democracy, a crime of this magnitude would lead to serious punishment.
Are large numbers of trees chopped down in other cities? Yes, but not on this scale. In Alsergrund, a suburb of Vienna, 22 trees are threatened. We hope they are all saved. In Adelaide, Australia, 83 trees are threatened. Scandal!
people get angry when 100 trees are felled, ok. Try to stop it. Look
for another solution. But if
10,000 trees near a city centre are to be ripped out and no-one is
talking about it, you know there is a serious problem. This
is pathological. Something is terribly wrong in that place. Sane,
modern people don't do things like that.
Park in New York has 26,000 trees. What if 10,000 of them were axed?
There would be an international outcry. Even the president would
Graz, 10,000 trees are threatened and the city council is not even talking about it.
New Orleans City Park has 20,000 trees, of which 2,000 were lost in
Hurricane Katrina. That was tragic. The tragedy in Graz is that
trees are being logged deliberately. This is a premeditated crime
against nature (ecocide).
There is another world out there that Graz doesn't seem to be noticing.
In the UK, for example, Manchester is showing the way forward:
City of Trees is an innovative and exciting movement set to
re-invigorate Greater Manchester’s landscape by transforming
underused, unloved woodland and planting a tree for every man, woman
and child who lives there, within a generation. (internet)
Graz is doing the opposite to its "underused, unloved woodland". It is secretly planning to get rid of it.
In Munich, Geneva, Madrid, and Québec,
to name a few examples, the river that runs through the centre of town
is being "renaturized". In Graz, our main river is being denaturized.
China is planning a new city covered in trees to tackle air
pollution. Can we catch up with China please?
Fine particle pollution
Graz is known as the "City of Dust" for its chronic failure to
solve its particulate matter (Feinstaub) pollution problem.
The city is surrounded by hills on three sides so there is not much
wind to blow the stuff away. It has been estimated that this form of
air pollution reduces life expectancy in Graz by one year. The EU is
constantly reminding Graz that there is a serious problem that requires
a serious response. But so far there have only been half-measures. Our
most influential politicians lack the courage to take decisive action.
Planting trees is a cost-effective way to tackle urban air pollution, including particulate matter. The BBC ("Environment Reporter", Mark Kinver, 31 October 2016)
reported on a study by US-based "The Nature Conservancy" (TNC) as follows:
the average reduction of particulate matter near a tree
was between 7% and 24% ... PM pollution could
claim an estimated 6.2 million lives each year by 2050.
Conversely, chopping down trees in a city exacerbates the pollution.
Felling 10,000 trees in Graz will ultimately cause the death rate in
connection with respiratory disease to rise even higher. Do the
authorities in Graz really want to do that to their children? Have
they even thought about this?
Wangari Maathai in Graz!
One of the world's most famous tree planters and defenders was
Nobel-Prize Winner Wangari Maathai. The following account of her
experiences is based on her inspiring autobiography Unbowed
(2007) -- see Chapter 9, "Fighting for freedom". Fighting for
freedom is what the people of Graz should be doing right now, instead
of sitting back and accepting this imminent disaster.
In 1989 Maathai and her "Green Belt
Movement" found out about Kenyan government plans to build a 60-story
building, the Times Media Trust Complex, in the "green lung" of
Nairobi: Uhuru Park. Ironically, "Uhuru" means "freedom". The
plan included parking for two thousand cars. Construction would have
meant clearing thousands of trees in a park that she aptly compared
York's Central Park and London's Hyde Park. Not as many as Graz intends
to clear, but an enormous number all the same. As in Graz, construction
would have meant spending an enormous amount of money on a white
elephant instead of spending it on other, more urgent things.
Maathai's letters of complaint to the government and its sidekick newspaper, the Kenya Times,
were repeatedly ignored. The Graz organisation Rettet die Mur had
similar experiences in recent years when attempting to communicate with
the authorities in Graz and the local newspaper, Kleine Zeitung. At the time of writing (June 2017), the Kleine Zeitung is still acting as if this is not happening.
In a letter to the UN Development Program in 1989, Maathai wrote:
There are millions of Kenyans of tomorrow, our grandchildren and
great-grandchildren, who will either curse us or feel deeply ashamed at
the lack of foresight, at the magnitude of greed, and at the arrogance
of those who are promoting destruction and want to call it
development. (p. 188).
friends of the river Mur could say the same thing to the Mayor of
Graz and his supporters in Energie
Steiermark, Holding Graz, and the conservative Austrian People's Party
(ÖVP), all of whom are claiming that their project is good for
climate. This is simply not true, if the loss of trees and biodiversity
are taken into account. Moreover, if our beautiful wild river is dammed
and its left
bank logged, Graz will never be the same again. That is an additional
cultural cost. We should be deeply ashamed at the hypocrisy and lack of
forsight of our city's leaders.
With impressive insight and directness, Maathai continued:
behind this complex ... (is) the same as the attitude of development
with destruction that had lead to acid rain, poisoned rivers,
deforestation, and climate change (p. 189).
Again, similar sentiments
can be applied to the situation in Graz today. You don't save the
climate by clearing a forest!
In her lucid account, Maathai quoted from letters by others to the editor of Weekly Review.
One correspondent wrote:
Kenyans should be allowed to debate matters
freely without threats and abuse from our leaders. Their views and
opinions should be listened to because Kenya is acclaimed as
democratic; this should not only be on paper but also seen in
Today in Graz, one might well ask how we think democracy is going to work when we don't have the courage to speak the truth.
For the next three years, Maathai and her Green Belt Movement,
supported in part by CARE Austria, fought courageously against the
planned skyscraper in Uhuru park. They finally won. That
was just one of several major victories for the people of Kenya.
Maathai was one of the greatest fighters for human environmental rights
in history, and this political statement
is dedicated to her memory.
The demise of democracy in Graz
Graz was part of the "Third Reich" dictatorship until 1945. Then
democracy returned and since the war Austria has achieved great things,
especially in the Kreisky era (1970-1986). The spirit of collaboration
between the left and the right called the "social partnership", while
not without its problems, if one of those great achievements.
Given this tragic and wonderful history, you would think people would
have learned how important democracy is. Why aren't the people of
Graz up in arms about the imminent destruction of their city centre?
Why is life going on as if there was no problem? The answer will
surprise you: Most people don't even know about it.
On environmental issues, I have often been impressed by our local newspaper, the Kleine Zeitung -- particularly by journalist Günter Pilch
and his excellent pieces on climate change (although his attitude to
the Mur hydro project has been curiously ambivalent). Today, the Kleine
seems to be suppressing open discussion about this project. They should
be complaining (on the first page!) that 10,000
trees will be felled along the river in the city centre. They should be
explaining to people that these trees, many of which are 10-20m tall
and 50-100 years old, will
disappear right next to the city's main landmarks -- the island in the
Mur (Murinsel), the Modern Art Museum (Kunsthaus, "friendly alien"),
and the city's beautiful historic fortified hill (Schlossberg) -- under
the noses of thousands of tourists. But no-one is talking about that,
it seems. The newspaper must be receiving and suppressing hundreds
of letters about it.
In a word, Graz is corrupt.
Many local organisations rely on funding from local and state
governments. They fear that if they complain about the actions of their
government their funding will be cut. They figure that if they keep
quiet about scandals like the Mur hydro project they will get more
funding next year. Perhaps even the universities belong in this
category. The universities! This is not democracy.
Will the grassroots movement Rettet die Mur
(Save the river Mur) win their fight against the Graz city council? Not
the way things are going in June 2017. Right now, the council and
the local authorities seem determined to push through their destructive
agenda, right on schedule. After all, everyone knows that environmental
activists don't matter. Just ignore them, even if half of the
population secretly supports them.
The local government is a coalition of right and far right. Sometimes I
wonder if how much they actually care about the people of Graz or about
our children and grandchildren. Honesty and morality don't seem very
high on their list, either. In this case, their task is to build large
machines and concrete structures. It's man (patriarchy) versus nature,
and "man" is in charge! Right?
Besides, who cares if hundreds of highly respected local personalities
are openly protesting? You can see their photos and statements here.
Meanwhile the people of Graz are too frightened and obedient, it seems,
to complain. They voted for the mayor because he has a pretty face and
could afford a very effective election campaign. The last election was
really about the hydro-electric project, but the mayor managed to
divert attention to other things.
The many people who voted for the mayor and his party will get a big
shock when the trees are suddenly gone in October 2017. A very big
shock. After that it will be too late. Nothing will bring back those
Nairobi in 1992 was more democratic, it seems, than Graz in 2017, if I dare make that comparison.
What if the hydro plant never goes into service?
We already have a similar example in Austria. In 1972, work began on an
atomic reactor in Zwentendorf, Austria. In 1978, there was a national
referendum, and those opposed to the reactor won by a narrow margin.
The result of the referendum was legally binding and since that day
there has been no nuclear reactor in Austria. I have never met an
Austrian who was not proud about that. The reactor became a museum.
If Graz is a democratic city, and things currently are not looking that
way, there will be a referendum to decide the fate of the new hydro
plant. If those opposing the plant have the opportunity to explain
their case properly, they will win. We will have another monstrous
museum on our hands.
Some 50m Euros of public money will have been wasted. But continuing
with the project would mean wasting even more public money. The best
procedure in this case is to cut one's losses (Schadenbegrenzung).
Who would be responsible for the wasted funds? The question is not easy
to answer, because it would depend on a complex legal procedure. But in
general anyone who helped to push the project through knowing full well
that it was neither economically nor ecologically viable could be held
Incidentally, the amount wasted would correspond approximately to the
market value of the trees saved. A typical tree in a city is worth
about 5000 Euros, because it typically increases the market value of
nearby public and private land by that amount (assuming the public land
were for sale, which of course it is not). So 10,000 trees are worth
altogether about 50m Euros. Which of course is another good reason not
to chop them down.