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Upper Styria, Austria

Region: Upper Styria
Country: Austria
Leader: ZSI

About the case study

Upper Styria is a highly industrialized region, situated in the province of Styria, Austria. Upper Styria defined as labor market area, where main commuter flows to worksites are taking place, includes three NUTS 3 regions in the centre of Austria. Main cities in the area where industry is concentrated, are Bruck an der Mur, Judenburg, Kapfenberg, Kindberg, and Leoben.

Steel production has been playing a major role for the local economy for centuries. Steel production has started in the 17th century, experienced an important upswing in the 19th century, and has continued up until today. In the 1980s the local steel industry had sled into a deep crisis marked by important lay-offs of workforce and restructuring. Also environmental problems were still persistent (e.g. “red dust”).

Today, the industry is flourishing, innovative and searching for skilled labour. But the region is also one of the most important CO2 emitters nationwide; e.g. the steelworks in Leoben Donawitz are in second position in terms of CO2 emissions among Austrian industry and produce 3mio tons of CO2 equivalents annually (data for 2021). The provision with energy, and the transition to a zero emissions and renewable energy regime (“post hydrocarbons regime”) is therefore one of the main concerns not only for the local industry players, but also for an important part of the local population.

In Upper Styria, a particularly large number of jobs depend on the steel industry, which will have to change enormously in the coming decades in order to become CO2-neutral. As in many other regions of Europe, which are also dependent on fossil fuels due to mining, industry or power plant operation, the clean energy transition will also go hand in hand with economic, social and cultural transformation processes.

The text research as one of the methods applied in ENTRANCES has shown that publicly led discourses on the energy transition have been before the Ukraine war predominantly technological in nature, e.g. how the steel production processes can become carbon neutral with the use of hydrogen. The voestalpine plant in Leoben Donawitz is implementing the project SuSteel on hydrogen-based green steel.

Media reports are less critical or do miss to elaborate on multidimensional effects of CO2 reduction when it comes to investigate the current and future challenges of the energy transition on a broader basis. A recent publication on climate action programmes in Styria, written and published by Styrian representatives of the Austrian social partnership observes that at present regulations are “still in force that promote environmentally harmful behavior”. These “so-called counterproductive regulations” result in a “fossil lock-in”, i.e. the persistence on fossil dependency”. This is due to the missing “framework set by policymakers, and a result of investments made in the past that shape the infrastructure available today”. These infrastructural capacities will also be crucial to the success of the decarbonisation.

The results of our socio-psychological survey have shown that the residents of Upper Styria do not reject the energy transition. As to the reasons why the expansion of renewables is nevertheless proceeding slowly, regional decision-makers who were also interviewed in the course of the study named “the usual suspects”: energy prices that were too low (prior to the Ukraine crisis), the ongoing promotion of fossil energies (fossil lock-in), or a lack of incentives to save energy. In addition, there are long procedural delays in energy projects and a lack of skilled labour. An important role in the energy transition is attributed to regional development agencies, which promote projects and network regional organisations. The lack of coordination between the federal government and the provinces in Austria on the energy transition were viewed critically by interviewees.

Finally, a focus group discussion has revealed socio-cultural aspects around the energy transition in Upper Styria. Intertwined regional challenges have their origin mostly in the 1980s. Image issues related to the crisis of the steel industry have still an influence on the attractiveness of the region, although it does not reflect at all the current situation with a flourishing industry. Short sighted policy decisions in which the residents of the region were not given a say are also currently leading to various challenges, such as a neglect of housing renovation in favour of new individual housing construction and related soil-sealing. A significant gender pay gap between male and female incomes was identified, as well as deficits in local transport and care infrastructure (e.g. for elderly). Outmigration from main cities in the region is driven by these issues.

The main findings / results so far are the following:

  • Upper Styria is a flourishing industrial region; its steel industry has gone successfully through restructuring in the 1980s and has addressed environmental concerns during this period. However the big issue of energy provision and transition to zero carbon emission looms.
  • Industry is working on the energy transition, and residents of Upper Styria do not reject the energy transition.
  • Expansion of renewables has nevertheless been proceeding slowly due to energy prices that were too low (prior to the Ukraine crisis), and due to the ongoing promotion of fossil energies (fossil lock-in), or a lack of incentives to save energy.
  • Social partnership and regional development agencies play an important and beneficial role in the clean energy transition – CET.
  • Lack of coordination between the federal and the provincial governments, as well as between the nine provinces on energy transition has been highlighted in interviews.
  • Socio-cultural challenges in Upper Styria around the energy transition concern neglect of housing renovation in favour of new individual housing construction and soil-sealing, significant gender pay gap, deficits in local transport and care infrastructure (e.g. for elderly), outmigration from main cities in the region.

Local support

The following organisations have been contacted and supported us in our research in the project: Regionalmanagement Obersteiermark Ost, voestalpine, Geschichteclub Alpine, cities of Leoben, Kindberg, Kapfenberg, Judenburg, Bruck an der Mur, Energie Steiermark, Montanuniversität Leoben, Government of Styria, KEM StadtLandSee, Wirtschaftskammer Steiermark, Arbeiterkammer Steiermark, SORA, ViktorKaplanMürz.


Access the full case study here.