Church at Gargellen in the province of Vorarlberg
Courtesy Embassy of Austria, Washington
Austrians face a number of ecological problems in the 1990s.
One of the most pressing is the pollution caused by the
staggering increase of traffic through the country. Traffic on
the superhighway going through the Brenner Pass has, for example,
increased from 600,000 vehicles per year in the early 1970s to
over 10 million per year in the early 1990s. One-quarter of the
traffic crossing Austria consists of semitrailers used for heavy
transport. The opening of Eastern Europe has only exacerbated the
problem of transit traffic.
The Alpine valleys through which much of this traffic passes
are unusually vulnerable to ecological damage. Narrow valleys are
not conducive to dissipation of noise or pollutants caused by
motor vehicles. Inversions--cold layers of air that trap warm
layers of air or warm layers of air that trap cold layers in the
valleys and lowlands--also seasonally contribute to the magnitude
of the pollution problem.
Austria has negotiated with the EU to set limits on the
amount of commercial transit traffic, especially through Tirol.
Work is also under way to develop a "piggy-back" system of
loading semitrailers on to flatbed railroad cars in southern
Germany and northern Italy, transporting them through Tirol by
rail. Environmentalists have pushed for measures that are more
far-reaching. They advocate, for example, digging a tunnel from
Garmisch Partenkirchen in southern Germany to Bolzano in northern
Pollution is also brought by the weather systems that
determine the country's climate. Atlantic maritime weather
systems carry pollution into Austria from northwestern Europe.
Austria's proximity to industrialized regions of former Communist
states, with negligible or no pollution control policies or
equipment, combined with the influence of continental weather
systems also have proved to be extremely harmful. Mediterranean
weather systems transmit industrial pollutants from northern
As a result of domestic and foreign pollution, 37 percent of
Austria's forests had been damaged by acid rain and/or pollutant
emissions by 1991. The damage to forests has had dire
consequences, including the decimation of forests that for
centuries had protected many Alpine communities from avalanches,
erosion, mud slides, or flooding caused by runoff.
The seriousness of the ecological problems confronting the
country gave rise in the 1970s to an environmentalist movement.
Political parties were formed, and representatives were elected
(see The Green Parties
, ch. 4). A referendum in
1978 closed down a newly completed nuclear power plant and turned
the country away from the exploitation of nuclear energy. Public
opposition in 1984 stopped the planned construction of a
hydroelectric power plant in a wetlands region.
The country's long-standing commercial use of the Alps for
recreational purposes has also come under examination. Extensive
tourism places an inordinate amount of pressure on sensitive
Alpine ecosystems. Ski runs damage forests, as do summer sports
such as off-trail mountain hiking or mountain biking. Many Alpine
villages have also grown greatly because of the tourist industry.
In extreme cases, they have up to twenty hotel beds for each
inhabitant, a ratio that places a disproportionate seasonal
burden on communal infrastructures and the environment. For these
reasons, efforts have been made to introduce "green" or "soft"
forms of tourism that are more compatible with the Alpine
Part of the solution to Austria's ecological problems is
being sought in stricter environmental legislation at the
domestic level. Ultimately, however, pan-European and global
cooperation in the realm of pollution and emission control will
be necessary to protect the country's environment.
Data as of December 1993