Management of sources of pollution


Industrial point sources

Environmental agencies in the states and territories are responsible for controlling pollutant emissions from large industrial point sources, such as power stations, refineries, smelters, manufacturing plants, cement works and abattoirs. Various regulatory measures (including works approvals, licences and notices), together with emissions monitoring and modelling, and enforcement programs, are used to prevent emissions from individual point sources affecting health or amenity at the local level. The regulatory measures also prevent such sources collectively leading to exceedance of national ambient standards at a larger scale.

Despite major gains in air quality achieved through improved pollution controls and cleaner forms of production, emissions from large industrial point sources still lead to some exceedances of ambient air quality standards in some centres, such as for sulfur dioxide in Port Pirie and Mount Isa (see also Box ATM14). The Port Pirie Transformation Project, slated for completion in 2017, is projected to halve the impact of lead and sulfur dioxide emissions from the smelter, and ensure that air quality standards are met.


Typical industrial point sources at Wagerup, Western Australia

Photo by Mark Hibberd

Motor vehicles

In addition to the Air NEPM, the Australian Government plays an important role in achieving air quality goals through its powers to set emissions standards for new vehicles through ADRs and fuel quality standards. ADRs are established under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989, and vehicle fuel quality standards are set through the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000. A reform of the Motor Vehicle Standards Act was proposed in 2016 (DIRD 2016), with the stated aim of reducing regulatory burden and barriers, including any regulatory barriers limiting the uptake of energy-efficient and alternative energy technologies. A broader review of vehicle emissions began in 2015 with establishment of a Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions (DIRD 2015) to examine ways to reduce the health and environmental impacts of motor vehicle emissions.

The nature and scale of the impact of motor vehicles on air quality in our major cities are generally well understood. Significant reductions in vehicular emissions followed the tightening of ADR emissions limits for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in 1986, and the national introduction of 3-way catalytic converters and unleaded fuel in the 1990s (Figure ATM41). These reductions have been maintained, despite increasing numbers of vehicles and distances travelled. In contrast, NOx levels continued to rise throughout the 1990s because ADR NOx limits were not tightened until 1997–99, when ADR 37-01 was introduced. This, combined with continued growth in numbers of vehicles and distances travelled, resulted in a lag of several years before improved emissions controls led to a plateauing of NOx levels.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has developed projections for metropolitan cities. These indicate continuing reductions in carbon monoxide, VOCs (evaporative and exhaust emissions), PM10 (exhaust emissions) and NOx until 2030, because of the increasing proportion of newer vehicles that meet the latest ADR requirements for engine and emissions controls, and improved fuel standards. However, the projections are based on a ‘business as usual’ case—that is, continued economic and population growth, no domestic carbon price in place, no further emissions standards (after 2007–08 for diesel vehicles and 2008–10 for light-duty petrol vehicles), and only mid-range increases in petrol prices (based on International Energy Agency reference case projections). They do not factor in further reductions because of changing standards. For example, European emissions standards define acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new vehicles sold in the European Union. The standards have been rolled out in stages since 1993; the stages are referred to as Euro 1 to Euro 6.

Since 1 November 2013, the tighter Euro 5 emissions standards for light vehicles applied to all new-model vehicles sold in Australia, with existing models to comply from 1 November 2016. Table ATM10 summarises the emissions limits for the Euro 4, 5 and 6 standards for light vehicles.

Table ATM10 Emissions standards for Euro 4, 5 and 6 light vehicles


Introduced in Europe

Mandated in Australia for all new light vehicles

Emission limits (g/km) for petrol/diesel engines

HCs                                   NOx                                           PM 

Euro 4


1 July 2010




Euro 5


1 November 2016




Euro 6


To be determined




g/km = grams per kilometre; HCs = hydrocarbons; na = not applicable; NOX = nitrogen oxides; PM = particulate matter

Note: Euro 6 was slated for introduction in 2018, but has been postponed for consideration by the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions.

These improvements, together with those associated with the earlier introduction of the Euro 3 and Euro 4 standards, should continue to counter the effect of further growth in vehicle numbers and distances travelled. However, although the general outlook is therefore encouraging, it needs to be acknowledged that local vehicle pollution ‘hotspots’ continue to exist in our major cities. These are usually associated with road tunnels and very heavily trafficked roads, often carrying a significant proportion of heavy commercial vehicles through residential areas. A growing body of evidence shows that residents living on or near such roads experience not only loss of amenity, but also a range of adverse health effects.

Diesel-fuelled registered vehicles are an increasing fraction of all registered vehicles (up from 1.0 million in 1999 to 3.6 million, or 19.7 per cent, at 31 January 2015). These figures represent an increase of 10 per cent per year during the previous 5 years. The progressive tightening of diesel fuel standards is expected to contribute to a reduction in particle and NOx levels over time by enabling the use of catalytic particle filters and NOx adsorbers.

In 2015, it was found that the Volkswagen Group had installed software in 11 million diesel engines to circumvent emissions tests, leading to NO2 emission rates 10–20 times greater than legally permitted in Europe and the United States. Oldenkamp et al. (2016) has estimated the public health consequences of these additional emissions, and calculated the value of life lost to be at least US$39 billion. The impact in Australia is not known, but the reported on-road emissions from these vehicles would have met the Euro 4 standard required for new vehicles in Australia until the end of 2013.

The average age of the total vehicle fleet has been steady at between 9.9 and 10.1 years in the 10 years to 2016. Campervans have the highest average age at 17.4 years (down from 17.8 in 2011), followed by heavy rigid trucks at 15.7 years (15.5 in 2011), whereas passenger vehicles have the lowest average age at 9.8 years (steady since 2011).

Australian emissions and fuel quality standards have generally lagged behind equivalent overseas standards, but they have been progressively tightened to require more sophisticated vehicle engine and emissions control systems, and improved fuel quality. Recent improvements in fuel quality have focused on greatly reducing sulfur content (particularly important in diesel engines, where high sulfur levels prevent the use of catalytic particle filters and NOx adsorbers) and lowering the volatility of fuels to reduce evaporative losses (a major source of VOCs). The national standard for the sulfur content of diesel fuel has been reduced dramatically from 500 ppm in 2002 to a maximum of 10 ppm since 2009, which meets international best practice. For petrol, the maximum sulfur limit has been 50 ppm for premium unleaded petrol since 2008, and 150 ppm for ‘regular’ unleaded petrol. The issues associated with reducing the limit in petrol to 10 ppm in line with the current European sulfur limit were canvassed in a 2013 review (Orbital Australia 2013). The Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 was reviewed in 2005, and a second extensive review released its final report in April 2016. This review underlined the effectiveness of fuel standards in meeting health, environmental and engine operability objectives.

The Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions was established in October 2015 to bring together the Australian Government infrastructure, environment and energy portfolios to explore options to reduce the environmental and health impacts of vehicle emissions. The forum will coordinate action on a group of issues: implementation of Euro 6 standards, fuel quality standards, fuel efficiency of vehicles and emissions testing.

Domestic wood heater emissions

There are several relevant Australian standards relating to wood heaters, notably AS/NZS 2918 relating to installation, AS/NZS 4012 relating to power and efficiency, and AS/NZS 4013 relating to the rate of particle emissions. The particle emissions standard, which was set at 5.5 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of fuel in 1992 and reduced to 4 g/kg in 1999, was revised in 2014. The new emissions standards are 2.5 g/kg of fuel for heaters sold before 1 September 2019 and 1.5 g/kg for those sold after 1 September 2019. For those with catalytic combustors, the limits are 1.4 and 0.8 g/kg, respectively. All jurisdictions support incorporating the new standards as part of managing emissions from wood heaters. However, it is recognised that athis will not necessarily translate into large reductions in ambient air pollution because of poor compliance with standards by both currently installed and new heaters, and suboptimal in-service use, especially operations causing incomplete combustion and emissions 2–3 times higher than the standard (e.g. NEPC 2013).

Consultation and decision regulation impact statements on reducing emissions from wood heaters have been prepared (NEPC 2013, COAG 2015b). They recommend that states and territories adopt the better practices evident across jurisdictions for stronger compliance and improved in-service measures. Implementation of these measures is slated for 2017 as a priority in the National Clean Air Agreement. Further measures, such as a National Star Rating system or a national audit of industry-based certification procedures, were rejected because of uncertainty about the benefits of such measures.

The NPI estimates that aggregate emissions of PM10 from domestic solid fuel burning for 2014–15 were around 20,000 tonnes; this is the same as in 2008–09 because there has been no update to the emissions methodology. This is an underestimate—actual emissions are higher as a result of poor fuel quality or incorrect operation.

On an annual basis, wood smoke in Sydney contributes 19 per cent and 29 per cent of PM10 and PM2.5 particle pollution, respectively (from both natural and human sources). On a winter weekend day, the contribution of PM10 and PM2.5 particle pollution from wood smoke can be as high as 48 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively (AECOM 2014). Box ATM11 shows the major contribution of wood smoke to PM2.5 levels in Muswellbrook—an average of 62 per cent in winter compared with 0 per cent in summer.

Commercial and other domestic emissions

In major urban centres, air quality can be affected by many small commercial sources, whose small size and large numbers generally make a licence-based approach to control emissions inefficient and impractical. Similarly, numerous domestic sources, such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers and generators, are high polluters relative to their size and levels of use, and add to the overall burden of air pollutants in urban areas. As part of the initial work plan for the NCAA, the environment ministers agreed, in December 2015, to introduce exhaust and evaporative emissions standards for nonroad spark-ignition engines and equipment (COAG 2015a). These standards will be based on international best-practice standards, and will apply to newly manufactured and imported products. Generally, 4-stroke and direct-injection 2-stroke engines would meet the standards, but many conventional 2-stroke engines would not.

Pollution from small commercial sources can lead to loss of local amenity due to the impact of odour, dust or noise emissions. Environment protection regulators most often encounter these local problems because of complaints from neighbours. Responses can include regulatory tools, such as abatement notices and compulsory works orders, or requirements to carry out an environmental audit to clarify the source of the problem and identify the most effective solution.

Well-framed land-use planning policies, together with local planning schemes and permits, also play an important part in preventing loss of local amenity because of the impact of odour, dust and noise emissions from industrial and commercial premises. Using planning controls to isolate industrial and commercial operations from residential and other sensitive land uses is not an alternative to requiring such operations to comply with relevant environmental laws. However, planning controls have an important role to play by preventing sensitive uses from locating near incompatible noxious or dangerous facilities, and setting planning permit conditions that complement the requirements of environment protection regulators.

Prescribed burning and bushfires

Prescribed burns, also referred to as planned, controlled or fuel reduction burns, are widely used to reduce the risks of bushfires. Following catastrophic bushfires in several states in the first decade of this century, more prescribed burning is being undertaken, leading to increasing concerns about the impacts of smoke on population health in rural areas, regional towns and major metropolitan areas (Keywood et al. 2015). Even though smoke concentrations are generally lower in major cities, much larger populations can be exposed, so that the overall impact can be high.

States are increasingly using models to predict the dispersal of smoke and identify potentially affected areas. This information is used to help coordinate prescribed burns to minimise the risk of high smoke concentrations within an individual airshed, and even during the process of deciding whether to burn or not.

Nonregulated diesel engines, including shipping and nonroad transport

Nonroad diesel vehicles and equipment—such as bulldozers, loaders and trucks used in construction and industrial activities, and at ports and coalmines—make a significant contribution to human-made particulate and ozone precursor emissions. In the Sydney greater metropolitan region, the nonroad diesel sector is the fourth largest human-made source of PM2.5 emissions and the largest unregulated source (see Box ATM15).

New South Wales has taken the lead on managing and reducing nonroad diesel emissions. From 2011–14, the NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ran the Clean Machine Program to raise stakeholder awareness of health impacts of diesel exhaust emissions, and to encourage voluntary emission reductions from nonroad diesel plant and equipment. In 2015, the EPA released the Diesel and Marine Emissions Management Strategy, with the objective of progressively controlling and reducing diesel and marine emissions from priority sectors: shipping, locomotives, and nonroad equipment used by EPA-licensed industry and in government activities. This is also a priority area for the National Clean Air Agreement.

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