Preserve the green lungs of Graz, Austria!

Imagine 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?

Before we get into the detail: the answer is "nothing". Today, 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. u

Want 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 necessary.

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 5-km mixed 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, is necessary 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:

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.

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!

Cost-benefit analysis

The 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.

The 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? 

And 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 severe 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 back.

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, 4,705 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!

If 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.

Central 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 complain. In 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 the 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 with New 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).

Today's 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 global 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:

The logic 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 practice.

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 trees.

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 accountable.

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.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at gmx dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage