Smoke from domestic wood heaters remains a significant source of air pollution in some urban areas, regional towns and lower-density settlements, often contributing up to 50 per cent of the PM2.5 pollution on winter days. It has been identified as a priority in the initial work plan of the NCAA, with the focus on stronger compliance and improved in-service measures by adopting the best practices from across jurisdictions. However, a recent report for the NSW Environment Protection Authority (Databuild 2016) has highlighted the challenge of achieving the required behavioural change. For example, there were important differences in awareness and attitudes among participants in the study in the upper Hunter Valley. The different mindsets around wood smoke were characterised as:
- ‘oblivious’, who do not understand that wood smoke is harmful to human health
- ‘rejecters’, who do not accept that wood smoke is harmful to human health
- ‘rationalisers’, who do not consider any harm caused by wood smoke to be of concern or as bad as that caused by mining (and other industrial sources of particle pollution) in the upper Hunter Valley
- ‘conditional accepters’, who are prepared to listen and even change their behaviour around wood heaters, as long as they are convinced that it is worthwhile and that any change is not too onerous.
The study indicated that a communication campaign encouraging optimal operation of wood heaters is more likely to be embraced by the community than simply trying to encourage wood heater users to switch to alternative forms of heating. Given the view of some in the upper Hunter Valley community that mines, power stations and associated transport issues are a bigger problem than wood heaters, the study authors noted that messages on wood heaters need to be communicated in the context of other government actions that aim to reduce particle pollution. Otherwise, wood heater users might feel that they are being unreasonably singled out.
Although behavioural changes offer some opportunity for cleaner air, the only long-term solution is the same as that for backyard burning, which was slowly banned across urban areas through the 1980s and 1990s.