Management framework


Each level of government—Australian, state and territory, and local—plays a role in managing the impacts of air pollution by preventing or minimising air pollutant emissions. For the key air quality standards, the Australian, state and territory governments act cooperatively to set national objectives and develop the NEPMs, through the NEPC.

The Australian Government is responsible for emissions standards for new motor vehicles, motor vehicle fuel standards, the National Pollutant Inventory, the national response to climate change, and international obligations such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (commonly referred to as MARPOL).

State and territory governments are responsible for implementing NEPMs and other measures with appropriate legislation, policies and programs. They report on progress made in achieving the NEPM goals.

Local government authorities are generally responsible for managing air pollution from small businesses and domestic premises, and through their role in urban planning.

International agreements

Australia is party to several international agreements that aim to reduce the levels of harmful chemicals in the Australian environment. These chemicals can be harmful to human health and ecosystems.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty that requires elimination, restriction or reduction in unintentional production of 27 compounds that have been used as pesticides, fire retardants and lubricants. These compounds can bioaccumulate in humans and other biota, and exposure to these compounds can lead to serious health effects. The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds, using measures to control the supply and trade of mercury.

National Environment Protection Council

National air quality standards in Australia are set by the NEPC, whose current members are the Australian environment ministers. NEPMs include those for ambient air quality, air toxics, diesel vehicle emissions, and the National Pollutant Inventory. The NEPC is also responsible for assessing and reporting on the implementation and effectiveness of NEPMs. Performance against the Air NEPM is assessed at compliance stations located at sites representative of air quality likely to be experienced by the general population.

The Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy currently provides operational support for the NEPC, following abolition of the NEPC Service Corporation on 1 July 2014. Six months earlier, the Council of Australian Governments revoked the Standing Council on Environment and Water, which was established after a 2010 review of the ministerial council system. This review had seen the dissolution of the Environment Protection and Heritage Council, which was established in 2001. The related restructuring of associated expert groups for the NEPC during the past 5 years, as well as regulatory reform agendas, have slowed progress on some air quality improvements that were foreshadowed in SoE 2011.

National standards

Australia has had national standards and goals for ambient air quality since 1998. The Air NEPM mandates a consistent approach to air quality monitoring, which has been applied by all states and territories, but—recognising the different legislative arrangements in each jurisdiction—does not dictate the means to be applied to achieve the goals. Performance against the standards and goals is published annually, but the single access point for these reports has not been maintained since the demise of the NEPC Service Corporation.

Responding to growing concern about particle and NOx pollution from diesel vehicles, the National Environment Protection (Diesel Vehicle Emissions) Measure was established in 2001. Unlike the Australian Design Rules (ADRs), which set standards for new petrol and diesel vehicles, the Diesel Emissions NEPM targets in-service vehicles (which are a state or territory responsibility), providing a range of strategies for governments to reduce emissions, such as smoky vehicle programs, inspection and maintenance programs, and retrofit programs.

The national standards were developed based on strong empirical evidence about the health impacts of major pollutants, but new evidence has emerged during the past 20 years. A review of the NEPM was initiated in 2005, with the final report in 2011 recommending that, because new evidence showed that many pollutants do not have a recognised threshold for adverse health effects, there should be a shift in the focus of the NEPM to minimise the risk to population health from air pollution (NEPC 2011a, 2011b). The review found that more benefit at less cost could be achieved through abatement of PM pollution than for any other pollutant, so this was set as the priority for review.

On 15 December 2015, Australia’s environment ministers agreed that the advisory standards for PM2.5 should become reporting standards and that an annual average standard for PM10 of 25 µg/m3 should be added to the existing 24-hour standard. Recognising the health advantages of lower PM standards, they also agreed to aim to lower the PM2.5 standards by 2025—from 25 to 20 µg/m3 for the 24-hour average and from 8 to 7 µg/m3 for the annual average. These changes were legislated in 2016 and are incorporated in the listing in Table ATM4. To cope better with natural events that can contribute to exceedance of the standards, the 2016 NEPM changes introduced an exceptional event rule for episodes such as the major 2009 dust storm. Other natural particles, such as those of biogenic origin from emissions in the nearby Blue Mountains, can dominate the Sydney airshed during summer (Cope et al. 2014), and can make it difficult to achieve lower standards.

The 2011 review also prompted an investigation of options for introducing an exposure reduction framework (Bawden et al. 2012), after which the NEPC supported the development of an air quality ‘exposure’ metric and methodology (NEPC 2015). This has been incorporated into the 2016 Air NEPM changes. The review by the Air NEPM Expert Working Group of standards for ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide is currently under way, led by the Environment Protection Authority Victoria, and is due to report in 2018.

National Pollutant Inventory

The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) was established in 1999 as an NEPM. It is a public database that provides information on the types and amounts of 93 pollutants emitted to air (as well as to land and water) that have been identified as important because of their possible effects on human health and the environment. They include products of combustion (from burning petrol, diesel, coal, gas, etc.), VOCs, solvents and inorganic substances (e.g. metals, metal oxides).

Through its public accessibility, the NPI seeks to:

  • increase public and industry understanding of environmental pollution
  • track environmental progress
  • promote continuous improvement by encouraging companies to look for ways to minimise their environmental impact, and assist government in identifying priorities for environmental decision-making.

Industrial facilities such as power stations, smelters and mines report on their annual emissions, which are estimated using NPI emissions estimation technique manuals.

Other emissions (referred to by the NPI as diffuse emissions) are estimated directly by the jurisdictions. They cover emissions from commercial activities such as bakeries and service stations, domestic activities such as domestic wood heaters and lawn mowing, motor vehicle emissions, and emissions from small industries that are not required to report individually. They are only reported for certain airsheds and gridded according to the needs of each jurisdiction.

The method for calculating the motor vehicle emissions inventory was revised in 2014 using COPERT Australia software (Computer Programme to calculate Emissions from Road Transport), and it was extended to be nationwide.

An NPI users’ survey in 2014 produced recommendations to:

  • develop a nationally consistent emissions dataset that allows direct comparison of emissions across jurisdictions and facilities, and with other national and international inventories (e.g. the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory)
  • investigate more robust techniques for emissions estimation and compilation
  • improve the comprehensiveness and quality of NPI data, particularly for diffuse emissions
  • include relevant metadata
  • integrate relevant new datasets (e.g. shipping data) with the NPI
  • consider novel promotion activities to increase awareness of the NPI resource.

As discussed earlier, it is important to note that total annual emissions levels are not the same as exposure levels. The actual contribution of any individual source to population exposure (and thus health effects) is typically much larger for local sources, such as motor vehicles and domestic wood heaters, than for industrial sources (e.g. Caiazzo 2013). This is because motor vehicle and wood heater emissions are released close to ground level, and near where people live and work. In contrast, industrial emissions are generally separated from populated areas, and are typically emitted through vents and stacks with outlets well above ground level. For power stations, stacks are typically 200 metres tall. This means that such emissions are always significantly diluted before they reach the population.

Regional emissions inventories

The NPI contains data on annual emissions. This is useful for its intended purposes, but it is generally not suitable for urban or regional air quality modelling because of the absence of information about the temporal variation (diurnal or seasonal variation, or dependence on meteorology such as windblown dust) or the spatial distribution of diffuse emissions (vehicle, domestic, commercial).

Some jurisdictions have developed emissions inventories for their key airsheds, and use them to inform air quality management decisions and assess the effectiveness of regulation. These are based on a mixture of modelling and estimation techniques, with important quality control through verification studies. The most significant regional inventories are listed in Table ATM8. As model complexity increases, so does the need for information on more pollutant species in the inventories. For example, many PM2.5 particles are secondary particles, which require good inventory information about their precursors if the models are to be used to determine the effectiveness of various policies for reducing PM2.5 exposures.

Table ATM8 Regional emissions inventories in Australia




South-east Queensland



Base year

2008 (2013 update in progress)

2008, (2011 update in progress)


Motor vehicles: 2005–07; other sources: 1998–99

Motor vehicles: 2006; other sources: 1998–99

All major sources included?


Not marine aerosol

Not fugitive windborne or marine aerosols or paved road dust

Not fugitive windborne or marine aerosols

Not biogenic/geogenic sources

Secondary precursor pollutants?

Not elemental/organic carbon


Not SO3 or elemental/organic carbon

Not SO3 or elemental/organic carbon

Not SO3 or elemental/organic carbon

Suitable for urban/regional air quality modelling?




No spatial or temporal variation of emissions

No spatial or temporal variation of emissions

NSW GMR = New South Wales Greater Metropolitan Region (includes Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong regions); SO3 = sulfur trioxide

Source: Based on Table 5.1 in Bawden et al. (2012)

National Clean Air Agreement

In 2014, a National Clean Air Agreement (NCAA) was proposed, which, after a public consultation process, was agreed to by all Australian environment ministers on 15 December 2015 (Australian Government 2015c). The NCAA provides a framework to identify and prioritise specific air quality issues, and to develop effective and efficient policy. It acknowledges the importance of combining several strategic approaches: standards; emissions reduction measures; partnerships and cooperation; and better knowledge, education and awareness. The initial work plan includes reducing emissions from wood heaters, and nonroad spark-ignition engines and equipment, as well a range of other measures listed in Table ATM9.

Table ATM9 National Clean Air Agreement, initial work plan 2015–17

Strategic approach

Priority areas



Vary Air NEPM to strengthen particle reporting standards

Mid-2016 (completed)

Review Air NEPM for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone towards strengthening the standards


Review Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000


Review Air Toxics and Diesel Vehicles NEPMs


Emission reduction measures

Reduce emissions from nonroad spark-ignition engines and equipment (decision RIS completed 2015)

Implement by 2017

Reduce emissions from wood heaters (decision RIS completed 2015)

Implement by 2017

Manage nonroad diesel engine and marine engine emissions


Partnerships and cooperation

Explore partnerships with nongovernment stakeholders to positively influence air quality outcomes


Improve exchange of information and experiences in implementing air quality management/monitoring tools across jurisdictions


Better knowledge, education and awareness

Improve access to reliable air quality information for researchers, policy-makers and the community:

  • National Air Quality Data Service
  • National Environmental Science Programme Clean Air and Urban Landscapes hub




Undertake National Pollutant Inventory reforms


Priority setting

Establish and implement a priority-setting process and work plan

2015 start, ongoing

NEPM = National Environment Protection Measure; RIS = regulation impact statement

Source: DoE (2015c)

The National Environmental Science Programme has set aside $8.88 million over 6 years for a Clean Air and Urban Landscapes hub. The research is focused on building better, more livable cities, but some of the resources will be directed to strategic research to address air quality priorities. One of the first objectives is to provide comprehensive air quality monitoring in western Sydney to investigate sources of PM.

The Bureau of Meteorology is developing a central National Air Quality Data Service, to house the air quality data collected by the states and territories from their regulatory monitoring. At present, these data are held by the states and territories themselves and are not always publicly available. The new service would enable the public to interrogate the database themselves, and use the information for their own research or other projects.

Keywood MD, Emmerson KM, Hibberd MF (2016). Ambient air quality: Management framework. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372