Overall, the pressures on air quality remain very similar to those present in 2011: a growing population, greater urban density and increasing car travel, but a slowing in the growth of public transport patronage. For most of the population, air quality remains ‘good’ to ‘very good’, but there are ongoing issues in a number of locations, as well as impacts from bushfires and dust storms.
The 2014 Hazelwood mine fire was a major air pollution event that severely affected the adjacent town of Morwell for many weeks, with a complex mix of combustion pollutants and 24-hour average PM2.5 levels exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) at times. Extreme PM concentrations were also recorded across much of New South Wales and southern Queensland because of the September 2009 dust storm, with maximum 24-hour PM10 concentrations of 1000–2000 μg/m3.
The restructuring of operational and expert support for the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) during the past 5 years has slowed progress on some air quality improvements foreshadowed in SoE 2011. However, the extensive work undertaken for the review of the National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) air quality standards finally bore fruit with the tightening of the PM standards in early 2016:
- The PM2.5 standards were upgraded from advisory to performance status.
- A new annual average PM10 standard of 25 μg/m3 was added.
- The rule for allowable exceedances was tightened.
The revision also added a new requirement for a PM2.5 population exposure metric to be reported annually from 2018. But review of standards for the other pollutants—ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide—continues more than 10 years after the review was initiated in 2005.
An important new initiative on the policy front is the National Clean Air Agreement, which was released at the end of 2015. This provides a framework for all environment ministers to work together to identify and prioritise specific air quality issues, and to develop effective and efficient policy using a mix of approaches, such as standards; emissions reduction measures; partnerships; and better knowledge, education and awareness.
Compared with other aspects of the environment, comprehensive data are available to describe the state of air quality for much of the population. Most jurisdictions now provide real-time air quality data online, with the ability to download data. Work is progressing on the roll-out of a National Air Quality Data Service to be run by the Bureau of Meteorology, which will provide much better access to data for the community and a wide range of users.