MEET OUR MEMBER: ÖKOBÜRO – Alliance of the Environmental Movement in Austria
ÖKOBÜRO was founded in 1993 by the environmental organisations Greenpeace Austria, WWF Austria, GLOBAL 2000 and Umweltforum (Forum of Austrian Scientists for Environmental Protection) as a coordinating office for Austrian environmental organisations. Our first major success was the referendum on genetic engineering in 1997, which was signed by more than 1.2 million people. Today, ÖKOBÜRO comprises 17 organisations from the environmental, nature and animal protection sectors.
ÖKOBÜRO's vision is a society in which people treat their environment, animals and each other with respect and thereby preserve our living space for future generations as well. ÖKOBÜRO represents the long-term common interests of its member organisations and forms an influential part of the environmental movement.
By providing legal and political expertise ÖKOBÜRO is the central point of contact for the environmental movement. We are committed to strengthening NGOs and civil society. This requires better framework conditions that facilitate the work of non-profit organisations. We therefore call for transparency by the state while maintaining privacy for citizens, the implementation of European rights for environmental organisations or better public participation, especially in infrastructure construction and legislation.
ÖKOBÜRO is constantly working on extending the legal possibilities for NGOs on participation and access to justice in environmental proceedings. In addition, we support and advise individuals, initiatives and organisations who wish to take an active part in environmental proceedings. In terms of content, our focus is, e.g., on protecting biodiversity and promoting sustainability. For this purpose, we have also co-founded the platform SDG Watch Austria, which advocates the implementation of Agenda 2030/the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Our organisation consists of a core team of seven employees: managing director, three environmental lawyers, public relations officer, office manager and a project manager for SDG Watch Austria; we also have two interns on a regular basis.
Our main partners are, of course, our member organisations as well as our international partners like J&E and the European Environmental Bureau EEB.
What are the highlights of your organization in recent years?
Particularly noteworthy are the recent court proceedings, where we successfully fought for legal standing and access to justice, even though Austrian law still does not provide for it.
In one of these cases we successfully challenged a regional government´s inaction regarding programs and plans to improve the air quality under the Air Quality Directive of the EU. The relevant ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court grants access to justice to NGOs against decisions, acts and omissions by public authorities for the first time in Austria. This seemed like a breakthrough.
We consider these procedural successes to be important because on the one hand, they increase the pressure on the legislator who is in default with the implementation of international public law and on the other hand, allow environmental organisations to contribute their expertise to better decision-making.
What is the major change you are striving for right now?
Austria has still not fully implemented the Aarhus Convention´s guarantees on access to justice; we will continue to engage in this topic. In that context, we consider it not only essential to train legal professionals, but also to promote the added value of public participation in public perception.
Although effective environmental protection requires a strong civil society, the space for civil society involvement is shrinking. Therefore, one of our main tasks will also be defending democracy and the rule of law.
Another burning issue in Austria is the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since there has been little progress in Austria in this respect, we, along with other organizations, have decided to establish SDG Watch Austria.
We expect the implementation of the SDGs to give a new impetus to environmental policy. The discussion about the government's goal of economic growth has shown that we are heading in the wrong direction. We see the SDGs as an opportunity to reconcile major environmental issues with jobs and Austria as a favoured location for businesses.
How does Justice and Environment contribute to achieving the objectives of your national organisation?
ÖKOBÜRO joined Justice and Environment (J&E) in 2005 because environmental protection must not end at national borders, therefore international cooperation between environmental NGOs is essential. Since then J&E has been an important cornerstone of the work of ÖKOBÜRO. Through it we gather information on legal implementation in other states, can better monitor the ongoings of European legislation as well as ECJ cases and are able to support each other. Through common efforts of all members, J&E is now a well known organisation on the European environmental level and can provide key insights on how EU law is affecting everyday decisions in member states throughout the EU.
Like other J&E members, ÖKOBÜRO stands out with its nationally unique focus on the legal aspects of environmental protection. As the key player in the field of implementation of the Aarhus Convention in Austria, ÖKOBÜRO focuses on the issues of access to justice and access to information. As these fields are dominated by international and European legislation, successes in Austria have a positive impact throughout Europe.
Since joining J&E, we have benefited from the expertise, knowledge and experience of the other member organisations and are able to contribute our legal know-how to the implementation of the J&E work programme. We are glad to be a part of J&E because together we can simply achieve more.