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With a pe r capita income of $32,900, Austria is the 15th richest country in the world. The quality of life among the 8,184,691 people is high, in great part because of the welfare state that provides social security and health care to the Austrian people. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Reports rank Austria 17th among the world’s nations in overall quality of life. The landlocked country has a temperate, continental climate, with cold, wet winters and moderate summers with frequent rainfall. The Alps in the western and southern section of the country are a major feature of the country’s geography, and landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes are common. Austria’s natural resources include oil, coal, lignite, timber, iron ore, copper, zinc, antimony, magnesite, tungsten, graphite, salt, and hydropower.
During the post-World War II period, Austria underwent major political, economic, and sociological transformations. By the mid-20th century, some 60 percent of Austrians were engaged in agriculture and forestry, and most practitioners had little knowledge about protecting and conserving the environment.
Because of past agricultural practices, Austria requires that all sewage sludge for application in agriculture be analyzed to monitor levels of dioxin. As urbanization accelerated, a population shift occurred, with two-thirds of the population residing in the valleys and lowlands of Austria. Currently, only 4 percent of the workforce is engaged in agriculture and forestry.
Increased urbanization also led to greater numbers of vehicles using fossil fuels in congested areas, motivating the government to pursue alternative energy resources. At present, Austria generates 0.3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Forty-seven percent of Austria’s 2,562 kilometers is forested, and timber is a key industry. One-third of Austria’s land is under national protection, and the government has been relatively successful at protecting the 83 mammals that are endemic to the country, with 7 percent of those species threatened. Bird life is even better protected, and only three species of the 230 birds endemic to Austria are threatened.
Austria’s major river is the Danube, which it shares with several other European countries. Historically, all riparians have worked together to manage the river. In the mid-1980s, major problems developed because large agricultural and industrial practices in cities such as Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade were dumping waste in the Danube. Testing revealed that 30 percent of the Danube’s tributaries had also become highly polluted. The Bucharest Declaration of 1985 brought eight Danube nations together to formulate environmental policies. Through subsequent agreements, riparians have identified four environmental goals: establishing and monitoring the use of the river, settling the issue of liability for cross-border pollution, defining rules for protecting wetland habitats, and creating guidelines for development that protect and conserve the environment. As a result of improved conditions, Austria has successfully reintroduced salmon into the Danube.
In 2006, Yale University ranked Austria 6th of 132 nations in environmental performance. Austrians are justifiably proud of their strong commitment to maintaining clean air and drinking water, for promoting recycling, and for establishing excellent sewerage connections. Austria’s entire population has access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation. The government has been particularly successful at integrating environmental policies among the energy, transport, agricultural, and forestry sectors.
Austria has reduced air pollutants and promoted renewable energy. The country has also improved the quality of both surface and ground waters, and pollution abatement has continued to be a financial priority. Nevertheless, in 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development presented the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry, Environment, and Water Management with 44 recommendations aimed at further improving Austria’s existing environmental programs. The recommendations dealt with improving environmental management and increasing the number of protected areas.
Austria has established support for the following international agreements: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Air Pollution-Sulfur 85, Air Pollution-Sulfur 94, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling.
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Europe: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Eric Solsten and David E. McClave, Austria: A Country Study (Government Printing Office, 1994);
- Rolf Steininger et , Austria in the Twentieth Century (Transaction Publishers, 2002);
- UNEP, Europe Regiona Report: Chemicals (Global Environment Facility, 2002).