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At a glance
Australian ambient air quality is mostly affected by increasing human activity and climate change.
The population of Australia’s major cities continues to increase, with both increasing urban density and expanding boundaries. The corresponding increase in emissions from transport, energy and resource use, and the concentration of these emissions—for example, in traffic congestion—put ongoing pressure on air quality.
Wood smoke from domestic wood heaters remains a major pressure on winter air quality in many regions (contributing 50 per cent or more to levels of fine particulate matter), with no effective controls yet implemented because of social and political complexities.
Longstanding pressures are present from industrial, commercial, domestic, on-road and off-road emissions. Increasing focus is on the pressure from nonregulated sources, such as nonroad diesel engines and equipment (including shipping and rail transport), as well as nonroad spark-ignition engines and equipment such as gardening equipment.
Climate change is also a pressure on air quality. The increasing prevalence of extreme heatwaves has an impact on the chemical reactivity of the atmosphere, promoting the formation of photochemical smog. In addition, an increase in heatwaves increases the risk of fire, leading to a greater impact of smoke on Australia’s airsheds; and changes in rainfall could lead to reduced precipitation and drought, promoting dust events. Increased temperatures cause human discomfort, encouraging people to seek mitigation from cooling systems, which places pressure on power requirements and emissions to the atmosphere.
The pressures affecting Australia’s air quality arise from the drivers discussed in the Driversreport and have not changed significantly since 2011. The main pressures are increasing human population, levels of consumption of energy (including in vehicles), and extraction and use of resources. Some of these pressures are balanced by improvements in infrastructure and equipment (e.g. cleaner vehicles; cleaner energy, including renewables; cleaner industrial and commercial operations).
Dust storm near Mount Ebenezer, Northern Terrritory
Pollutants occur as gases (e.g. carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and VOCs such as benzene and formaldehyde) and PM. In air pollution, PM refers to solid and liquid particles suspended in air, and the PM and air mixture is referred to as aerosol.
Emissions from commercial and domestic sources (domestic wood heaters are considered separately) exert pressure on local air quality and on airshed quality. Domestic sources, for example, can affect photochemical smog by releasing VOCs.
Both prescribed burns and bushfires emit smoke plumes, which are visible because of the PM they contain. The smoke is the product of incomplete combustion. Fire emissions rates are affected by fire behaviour and the amount of fuel being burned.
Nonroad diesel engines and equipment are used in a wide variety of applications, including rail transport, mining, construction, industrial, shipping and airport services, and can be high pollution emitters.
Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Ambient air quality: Pressures. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/ambient-air-quality/framework/pressures?year=96, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372
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What is a framework?
The SoE framework is the underlying structure used across all themes to assess the environment. It builds on an internationally accepted framework for SoE reporting—the DPSIR (drivers-pressures-state-impact-response) framework but also includes discussions on resilience, emerging risks and environmental outlooks.
Australia State of the Environment 2016 has been prepared by independent experts using the best available information to support assessments of environmental condition, pressures, management effectiveness, resilience, risks and outlook.
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We, the authors, acknowledge the traditional owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community; we pay respect to them and their cultures and to their elders both past and present.