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Austria, officially the Republic of Austria is a landlocked East Alpine country in the southern part of Central Europe. It shares borders with 8 other countries and had a 2020 population of approximately 10 million people.
At the beginning of 2021, Austria was experiencing a period of “Moderate” quality air with a US AQI reading of 51. This is according to recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the world ranking, Austria was ranked in 72nd place out of a total of 98 countries. With levels of pollution such as these, the advice would be to close doors and windows to prevent the ingress of dirty air and those of a sensitive disposition should avoid venturing outside until the air quality improves.
Looking back over figures for 2019 it can be seen that 12 cities where levels of pollution were recorded registered “Moderate” quality air with figures between 12.1 and 35.4 µg/m³, a further 13 cities registered “Good” quality air with figures between 10 and 12 µg/m³. The remaining 7 cities where figures are available attained the target figure recommended by the WHO of less than 10 µg/m³.
Satellite images from 30th March 2020 by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) show a significant decrease in air pollution in Austria as a result of the measures taken to counter the spread of COVID-19. The EPHA, together with the WHO, points out that the pollutants emitted in the past by traffic, industry and heating have led to lung damage, which has increased the risk of COVID-19 disease for many people. Calls are being made for Austria to take more measures for more clean mobility in order to reduce harmful traffic emissions in the long term.
According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is the biggest environmental health problem in Europe. Particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone cause around 400,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. Cities and metropolitan areas are particularly affected. Years of inhaling dirty air from traffic fumes and other sources have likely weakened the health of all those who are now in a life-or-death battle against coronavirus. But even after the diesel scandal, millions of non-compliant vehicles are still polluting the air.
Further analysis of the satellite images shows how severe air pollution is from traffic. The State of Salzburg has found a reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution of up to 40 per cent due to the reduction in traffic as a result of the measures to cope with the coronavirus crisis. Analysis by the Federal Environment Agency also found a significant reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution at measuring points near areas of heavy traffic in Austrian cities.
There are basically two main sources of fine dust pollution, one is from natural sources and the other from anthropogenic or man-made sources.
Natural sources can include particles that come from upheavals or volcanic eruptions, but also so-called marine aerosols. These are liquid or solid salt crystals that are created by emissions from phytoplankton and contribute to the formation of droplets or clouds in the atmosphere. Aerosols can be transported over long distances in the atmosphere. Fine dusts of natural origin are also pollen, fungal spores and bacteria. Damage to health from marine particles can be excluded. For allergy sufferers or people with hay fever, however, pollen, spores and bacteria can be harmful.
Anthropogenic sources mainly come from the exhausts of diesel engines, the chimneys of industrial plants and power stations and the heating systems of households. In addition, particles are released from brake debris, car tyres and the gradual erosion of the road surface.
According to the latest research, 45 per cent comes from industrial processes 33 per cent of the total dust emissions come from traffic, 21 per cent of the emissions are caused by bulk goods and 1 per cent come from other sources.
These figures represent the sources of total dust emission. However, if the causes of the health-damaging fine dust (PM10 and smaller) are considered, the report cites traffic as 50 per cent. If the fine dust thrown up by traffic (abrasion from brakes, tyres, road surface erosion) is added, a further 25 per cent can be added.
This means that 75 per cent of health-relevant fine dust in Germany is caused by traffic!
The reason why some cities are generally more polluted with fine dust than others despite comparable traffic volumes is very likely due to their topographical location. The Baden-Württemberg state capital Stuttgart, known for its frequent fine dust pollution, has hardly any chance of good ventilation due to its location in a basin environment.
The cities of London and Los Angeles have long been known for winter and summer smog (smog is an artificial word made up of smoke and fog). While summer smog mainly consists of ozone gas, winter smog contains fine dust that originates from emissions from industry and households (a mixture of soot, sulphur dioxide (SO2), dust and mist). After several deaths in London in 1952, the life-threatening effects of winter smog were quickly recognised. The most favourable situation for its emergence is a winter inversion weather situation since the stratification of the air can remain stable for several days in this case without an air exchange taking place.
Austria must instigate measures for cleaner air. The reason is not concern about health, but mandatory EU requirements. For the first time, there is a legal duty to protect the general public from polluted air.
Although progress has been made in recent decades through action at international and national levels, there are still considerable costs associated with air pollution such as health expenditure, impaired ecosystems and reduced crop yields in agriculture.
All EU member states are currently deciding how best to tackle the problem. New targets must be set for 2030, this must be undertaken from 2020 with measures at the source such as vehicle and industry emissions and agriculture. The primary goal is to halve the health costs caused by air pollution and to support regional authorities that have to comply with concentration limit values for healthy air on-site.
Accordingly, maximum emissions are set for sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) except methane (NMVOC), ammonia (NH3) and, for the first time, for particulate matter (PM2.5). When selecting the measures, those should be taken that complement each other with climate protection, achieve the greatest possible health effect and, in the case of fine dust PM2.5, primarily eliminate black carbon (BC).
In Austria, the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was exceeded in six federal states last year. The nitrogen dioxide pollution was highest in Vomp in Tyrol with 59 µg/m³, the limit value is 30 µg/m³ (plus 5 micrograms tolerance margin). The unhealthy exposure was also far too high in the city of Salzburg, Hallein and in Vienna there were many places where the limit was exceeded. The main source of nitrogen dioxide is diesel exhaust.
Burning petroleum products, coal and other fossil fuels produce a particularly large number of harmful pollutants. What oil and coal are for heating systems, diesel and gasoline are for transport. Ending the dependence of transport on petroleum products is not only important for climate protection, but also for the health of the population.
Calls are being made for the rapid abolition of the tax relief on diesel, which according to sources amounts to more than 600 million euros per year. In addition, a schedule for the end of sales of new vehicles with internal combustion engines must be set. Realistically speaking, the end of diesel and gasoline for new cars can happen between 2025 and 2030 and the earlier the better. The climate-friendly mobility offer, from public transport, cycling, walking to e-car sharing needs to be expanded considerably, and the share of renewable energy needs to be increased more quickly. E-cars only make a relevant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions if the electricity is generated from renewable energy, however, they still produce PM2.5 particles by abrasion.
The reduction of ammonia emissions was the focus of negotiations at EU level from the start. Misunderstood for years, they play a role in the formation of secondary fine dust (particle formation in connection with sulphur and nitrogen oxides) and also damage the groundwater. Ammonia occurs exclusively in agriculture during fertilisation and factory farming. The possible measures range from a permanent cover of the liquid manure basins to professional application of liquid manure on fields and less protein content when feeding animals to filtering systems for factory farming. Despite all the requirements, ammonia emissions have not fallen in recent years but actually increased.
The fight against fine dust has been the focus in recent years. Therefore, great progress has been made in the removal of all particulate matter fractions both PM2.5 and PM10 and achieving the target in 2030 is not particularly demanding. Only primary PM2.5 emissions are relevant for the latest implementation. In terms of quantity, the largest polluters are households with biomass heating (especially individual log wood stoves and tiled stoves), which by far exceed all other areas (traffic, off-road and commercial). For the improvement of health, it is relevant to what extent black carbon (BC) is reduced in the measures to be taken. Alternatively, it could become politically interesting in the case of fine dust if in the few regions of Austria with notorious fine dust concentration limit values being exceeded.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) will remain prominently on the agenda. These are caused by high-temperature combustion of combustibles and fuels. By far the biggest polluter is traffic. According to the latest requirements, Austria must achieve impressive emissions reductions (minus 69 per cent) by 2030. The extent to which electricity drives and the Euro-6 diesel passenger car standard will find their way onto Austria's roads will be an important factor for achieving the target, and the EU Commission will approve "flexibility regulations" (= correction of emission reduction requirements due to exhaust tricks of the car manufacturer). But here, too, the following applies: Environmental organisations and affected citizens can legally claim that the concentration limit value is exceeded on busy roads. The discussion about driving bans could therefore continue for a few years.
In Austria, around 8,200 people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution, as a current study by the European Environment Agency shows. This means that pollutants cause 17 times as many premature deaths as traffic accidents. The main sources of the pollutants are motor vehicle traffic, heating and industry. The highest nitrogen dioxide pollution is found in Austria in Tyrol, followed by Salzburg and Vienna. Calls for the abolition of tax breaks for diesel have been suggested and a timetable for the end of sales of new cars that run on diesel or petrol.
The small fine dust particles PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in particular cause major health damage.
It is said that air pollution shortens life by almost three years and that bad air is a bigger health hazard than smoking or COVID-19.
It is proven that premature mortality from air pollution is highest in East Asia and South Asia (35 and 32 per cent, respectively), followed by Africa (eleven per cent), Europe (nine per cent), and North and South America (six per cent). Australia has the lowest death rate at 1.5 per cent possibly due to the strictest air quality standards.
Researchers examined how emissions of natural origins, such as forest fires and desert dust, compare to those caused by humans such as the intensive use of fossil fuels. This showed that almost two-thirds of the deaths caused by air pollution, namely around 5.5 million per year, are basically avoidable because the majority of polluted air comes from the use of fossil fuels. Researchers estimate that by doing without coal and oil, the average life expectancy worldwide would increase by a little more than a year.