Vienna and Danube
Case studies from Austria show that foreign nationals are disproportionately affected by particulate matter, and this does not necessarily depend on their income. © Ashkan/Unsplash

While it may be unexpected, official statistics say that more than 50 per cent of Vienna is green – in terms of ground cover, at least. Roughly one out of two square meters of the Austrian capital’s surface is green. Those living in an inner-city district like Alsergrund or Margareten, however, do not get to see that much of it. This goes to show that, just like environmental pollution, environmental quality is never equally distributed. This phenomenon has been named “environmental inequality” or “environmental injustice”, and it is a growing field for researchers. Klara Zwickl, an economist at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration, has specialized in this area.

“Environmental inequality includes distributive and procedural aspects,” says Zwickl. The distributive aspects are outcome-related. “You look at how unequally the burdens of environmental hazards are distributed, for instance. Or you turn the question around: how unequally do people get to enjoy good environmental quality?” Procedural inequality, on the other hand, is about unequal participation in environmental policy decisions – or, to put it more succinctly: who gets asked, and whose opinion counts? Until recently, Zwickl was the principal investigator of the research project “An empirical analysis of environmental inequality in the EU”, which was primarily concerned with the distributive aspects. The researchers examined how different population groups in Europe are affected by air pollution, especially industrial pollution.

Root-cause research with incomplete data

The research field of “environmental inequality” evolved in the USA in the early 1980s. At that time, the civil rights movement criticized the fact that toxic-waste landfills were disproportionately more often built in neighborhoods with a high percentage of African American residents. Social scientists began to wonder if this environmental inequality also existed beyond the case studies that were so prominently covered by the media. The ensuing research confirmed the suspicion. “It is indeed the case that landfills and other environmental hazards are located in neighborhoods with a disproportionately high share of members of minorities and people with low incomes,” Zwickl confirms. “There is hardly an environmental hazard where this effect has not been identified.” Experts are still discussing several reasons for this situation, but all researchers agree on one: people with low incomes cannot afford to move to areas with high environmental quality. “If that were the only reason, environmental inequality would be a consequence of income inequality only,” says Zwickl. “But evidence has also been found in the US that new industrial sites are being moved to neighborhoods where those responsible expect the least resistance from the residents, and these are often neighborhoods with socio-economically disadvantaged populations.” Equating environmental inequality solely with income inequality is therefore not a true reflection of reality.

For a long time, research output from the field of environmental inequality came almost exclusively from the USA, where good long-term data has been available since the 1980s, when the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) forced authorities and companies to step up transparency in their activities. In the EU, comparable data on industrial emissions has only been available for a few years. There is also a lack of finely detailed socio-demographic population data, i.e. data on income, level of education, nationality, etc., and there is no harmonization across the EU. For Austria and some other European countries, there is at least data at the local-authority level, which paves the way for first case studies on environmental inequality.

Foreign nationals suffer more

The researchers know the level of ambient particulate matter pollution and a number of socio-demographic variables for each local authority in Austria. In a case study, they focused on three variables: the number of non-Austrian nationals, the proportion of people with low education levels and the average income. “The data demonstrates very consistently that foreign nationals are disproportionately more exposed to particulate matter,” says Zwickl. “And this is not just a function of income: if we have two local authorities with the same income, the one with the higher proportion of foreign nationals still has the higher particulate pollution.” While being found throughout Austria, the effect is even stronger in cities where the majority of foreign citizens live. On the other hand, people with a low level of education are mainly affected by higher levels of particulate matter pollution in rural regions.

Can climate policy reduce environmental inequality?

The research project also explores under what conditions climate policy can reduce environmental inequality. This is based on the idea that a well-designed climate policy has many benefits beyond the climate, since measures to protect the climate not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also many other air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide or sulfur oxide. Unlike climate stability, these so-called “co-benefits” take effect quickly and are felt locally. They could justify an ambitious climate policy independent of global climate goals. The benefit is particularly high for people with high exposure to air pollution, which in turn reduces environmental inequality.

In the context of her professorial qualification, Zwickl was the principal investigator of the project “An empirical analysis of environmental inequality in the EU” (2019–2022), which received EUR 240,000 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF and also involved researchers from IIASA and the Environment Agency Austria.


Zwickl K., Miklin X., Naqvi A.: Sociodemographic disparities in ambient particulate matter exposure in Austria. Working Paper available at SSRN 2023

Zwickl K., & Sturn S.: Air quality co-benefits of climate mitigation in the European Union, in:  The Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of the Environment, 184–194, Routledge 2021

Zwickl K., Sturn S., Boyc J. K.: Effects of carbon mitigation on co-pollutants at industrial facilities in Europe, in: The Energy Journal, 42(5), 2021

Personal details

Klara Zwickl is Associate Professor at the Department of Socioeconomics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. She studied economics in Vienna and Massachusetts.

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