Ambient air quality


National standards

At the national level, the Council of Australian Governments’ Standing Council on Environment and Water (previously the Environment Protection and Heritage Council) meets regularly to deal with issues of common concern, including ambient air quality. These ministerial meetings provide a forum for agreement on priorities and resourcing for the development of NEPM standards, policies and programs, and for related studies and other activities.

For more than a decade, Australia has had national standards and goals for ambient air quality (AAQ NEPM), which are based on strong empirical evidence about the health impacts of major pollutants. The standards are enshrined in law, and performance against them is regularly monitored in all our major cities and publicly reported. Achievement of the 10-year air quality goals established in the NEPM depends to a great extent on the effectiveness of actions (both regulatory and nonregulatory) taken by the states and territories to control point and nonpoint pollution sources. Although it is up to the individual state and territory governments how they go about achieving the NEPM goals, the system of public reporting allows interest groups and members of the public to pressure governments and regulators if progress to improve air quality is judged to be lacking or too slow.

The Australian Government also plays an important role in achieving air quality goals, chiefly through its powers to set emission standards for new vehicles (through the Australian Design Rules—ADRs) and fuel quality standards. ADRs are established under the Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989, while vehicle fuel quality standards are set through the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000.

Responding to growing concern over particle and NOx pollution from diesel vehicles, the National Environment Protection (Diesel Vehicle Emissions) Measure was established in 2001. Unlike the ADRs that set standards for new petrol and diesel vehicles, the diesel emissions NEPM targets in-service vehicles (which are a state responsibility), establishing a range of strategies for governments to employ to reduce emissions.173-174

Although, in the past, Australian emission and fuel quality standards have lagged behind equivalent overseas standards, they have been progressively tightened to require more sophisticated vehicle engine and emission-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) (Figure 3.33).

Point sources of pollution—industry

Environment agencies in the states and territories are responsible for controlling emission of pollutants 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 and to prevent such sources collectively leading to exceedence of national ambient standards at a larger scale. These tools are often supplemented by nonregulatory approaches, such as industry codes of best practice and programs to assist firms to identify and implement cleaner production approaches that provide both environmental and financial benefits.

Although discharges from industrial facilities are no longer the dominant source of most air pollutants in our metropolitan centres, a number of important regional centres host large-scale industrial facilities, such as metal smelters and petroleum refineries. Despite major gains in air quality achieved through improved pollution controls and cleaner forms of production, large industrial point sources still significantly affect air quality in some centres (e.g. Mount Isa and Port Pirie) and are therefore a focus for attention by environmental regulators.

Box 3.10 Major industrial point sources, Mount Isa

Mount Isa is home to one of Australia’s largest lead and zinc smelters. The lead–zinc and copper smelters, operated by the global mining company Xstrata plc since its 2003 takeover of MIM Holdings, have been a source of concern to the local community for decades, chiefly due to their emissions of sulfur dioxide and lead. In May 2011, the company announced that it would phase out copper smelting at Mount Isa by the end of 2016. Until 2008, the smelters operated under the Mount Isa Mines Limited Agreement Act 1985. This was one of a number of special agreement Acts applied to specific major industrial facilities that overrode stricter controls under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and allowed much higher emission limits than elsewhere in Queensland.176

The MIM/Xstrata facilities met the relaxed requirements of the 1985 Act, including standards for sulfur dioxide and lead (as PM10—particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometres) in ambient air, as measured at monitoring stations around Mount Isa. However, despite a general downward trend in total sulfur dioxide air emissions from 2000–01 to 2006–07 (linked to improved pollution controls and cleaner production measures), the one-hour NEPM sulfur dioxide standard continues to be exceeded on a number of occasions each year at Mount Isa’s single NEPM monitoring station (Figures A and B).

Figure C shows that Xstrata’s total lead emissions have fluctuated over the past decade. Available data show a downward trend since 2005–06, which may reflect improvement in pollution controls. Ambient lead monitoring results from five stations around Mount Isa (which record lead as PM10) show no clear reducing trend over the past five years. During that period, the NEPM annual average standard for lead of 0.50 micrograms per cubic metre was exceeded at three stations in 2008 and at one in 2009 (Figures D and E).

The 2008 amendments to the environmental protection and related Acts established a three-year transitional period, during which the Mount Isa facilities (and other facilities covered by special agreement Acts) have to come in line with national ambient air quality standards. During this period, the Department of Environment and Resource Management has worked with Xstrata and the local community through the Living with Lead Alliance to define best-practice standards that the company will have to meet. These will include tighter emissions standards aimed at ensuring that Mount Isa’s ambient air quality meets the national standards for sulfur dioxide, lead and other pollutants, as required under Queensland’s Environmental Protection (Air) Policy.

Diffuse sources of pollution—motor vehicles

The nature and scale of the impact of motor vehicles on air quality in our major cities is generally well understood (e.g. Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics;180 Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics;158 Environment Protection Authority Victoria141,181). Significant reductions in vehicular emissions followed the tightening of ADR emission limits for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons in 1986, and the national introduction of three-way catalytic converters and unleaded fuel in the 1990s. These reductions have been maintained, despite increasing numbers of vehicles and distances travelled. By contrast, NOx levels continued to rise through 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 emission controls led to a plateauing of NOx levels.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has developed projections for metropolitan cities (Figure 3.34). These indicate continuing reductions in carbon monoxide, VOCs (evaporative and exhaust emissions), PM10 (exhaust emissions) and NOx through to 2020, due to the increasing proportion of newer vehicles that meet the latest ADR requirements for engine and emission controls, and to 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 emission standards (after 2007–08 for diesel vehicles and 2008–10 for light-duty petrol vehicles), and only mid-range increases in future petrol prices (based on International Energy Agency reference case projections). As a result, they do not factor in further reductions in emissions that should follow the progressive introduction of tighter standards announced by the Australian Government in June 2011.182

From 1 November 2013, Euro 5 emission standards for light vehicles will apply to all new-model vehicles, with existing models to comply from 1 November 2016. All new-model vehicles must comply with Euro 6 standards from 1 July 2017. Existing model vehicles must meet Euro 6 standards from 1 July 2018.183 As the regulation impact statement for the review of the Euro 5/6 light vehicle standards noted: ‘[adoption of the standards] would lead to significant reductions in NOx emissions from petrol vehicles, and HC and NOx emissions from diesel vehicles, and dramatic reductions in PM emissions from diesel vehicles’.183Table 3.10 summarises the expected improvement in emissions.

Table 3.10 Emissions reduction from adoption of Euro 5 and Euro 6 light vehicle standards
Vehicle fuel type Emission reduction (%)a
Euro 4 → Euro 5 Euro 5 → Euro 6
Petrol/LPG 25 na
Diesel (and direct injection petrol) 25 30 80–90 26–40 55

– = no change; HCs = hydrocarbons; LPG = liquefied petroleum gas; na = not applicable; NOx = nitrogen oxides; PM = particulate matter

a To nearest 5%; a range indicates that the percentage reduction varies with vehicle category

Source: Australian Government Department of Infrastructure and Transport183

These improvements, together with those associated with the earlier introduction of Euro 3 and Euro 4 standards, should continue to counter the effect of further growth in vehicle numbers and distances travelled.184-186 However, although the general outlook is therefore encouraging, it needs to be acknowledged that local vehicle pollution ‘hot-spots’ continue to exist in our major cities. These are usually associated with very heavily trafficked roads, often carrying a significant proportion of heavy commercial vehicles through residential areas.181 There is a growing body of evidence that residents living on or near such roads not only experience loss of amenity, but also suffer a range of adverse health effects.187-188

Box 3.12 Diesel vehicles pollution reduction programs

New South Wales (NSW) has been running two separate programs focusing on reducing exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles.

Diesel vehicle retrofit program

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, in conjunction with the NSW Roads and Transport Authority, has established a diesel vehicle retrofit program,191 which involves retrofitting engine exhausts with pollution reduction devices, primarily to reduce particulate pollution. Some devices can also reduce carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds via a catalyst.

The program, which commenced in 2005, has had more than 70 vehicle fleets participate and has retrofitted 520 vehicles. As at April 2011, it is estimated that completed retrofits will result in 4.7 tonnes less particulate pollution per year.

Clean Machine Program

The NSW Clean Machine Program began in 2010. It aims to reduce diesel exhaust emissions from diesel plant and equipment used mainly in construction and industrial activities, such as cranes, dozers, loaders, graders, tractors and pumps.

The Office of Environment and Heritage partners with public-sector and private-sector organisations to implement the program through improved procurement practices, worksite guidelines and the subsidised retrofit of older engines with pollution reduction devices. As at April 2011, five organisations had formally joined the pilot program and committed to retrofit up to 35 machines.

Diffuse sources of pollution—commercial and domestic

In major urban centres, air quality is also affected by many small commercial sources whose size and large numbers generally make a licence-based approach to control inefficient and impracticable. Similarly, numerous small domestic sources, such as lawn mowers and solid-fuel heaters, add to the overall burden of urban air pollutants and are difficult to regulate.

When problems do arise with small commercial sources, they often take the form of a loss of local amenity due to emissions of odour, dust or noise. Environment protection regulators most often come in contact with these local problems as a result 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.

Often, however, such problems are best addressed proactively and at a larger scale, working with industry associations to inform small to medium-sized firms of cost-effective ways of improving environmental performance. In Victoria, the Environment Protection Authority has combined with the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry to run Grow Me the Money®.b,192This program assists firms to carry out audits and develop and implement action plans that will improve environmental outcomes (and often their relations with the neighbours), while improving their ‘bottom line’. A number of states operate similar cooperative schemes—for example, the CleanBiz program in Tasmania.c

Well-framed state land-use planning policies, together with local planning schemes and permits, also play an important part in preventing loss of local amenity due to emissions of odour, dust and noise from industrial and commercial premises. Use of planning controls to isolate offensive 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 ‘coming to the menace’ (i.e. locating near incompatible noxious or dangerous facilities)
  • setting planning permit conditions that complement the requirements of environment protection regulators.193

Since the banning of incinerators from suburban backyards during the 1980s and 1990s, smoke from solid-fuel home heating has been the focus of concern about particulate pollution from domestic premises. Open fires and heaters that do not meet the relevant Australian standards (notably AS/NZ 2918 relating to installation, AS/NZS 4012 relating to power and efficiency, and AS/NZS 4013 relating to the rate of particle emission) are the major source of the problem. When compared with noncompliant appliances, modern compliant wood heaters should generate less than half the particulate pollution per kilogram of wood burned and one-third the pollution of open fires.

However, as Meyer et al.194 noted, measurement of in situ emission rates from some 20 households in Launceston showed that, when operated in homes, even compliant heaters do not meet the AS/NZS 4013 particle emission rate of four grams per kilogram of wood burned. The authors concluded that the main factor determining the rate of particle emissions is combustion efficiency, which depends on the rate of air flow. In most cases, they found that heaters were operated with dampers set to significantly reduce the air flow, thus generating higher PM10 emissions. They further concluded that the test protocol specified in AS/NZS 4013 failed to accurately represent emissions performance in domestic usage and that it should be replaced by a test cycle that properly reflects actual domestic operational practices.

During the past decade, the Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (and its predecessors) and environment agencies in affected states and the Australian Capital Territory have worked on a number of fronts to reduce domestic wood smoke in urban areas. In Launceston, which faced a chronic wood smoke problem, the Australian Government (working with the state government and the City of Launceston) made available $2.05 million in rebates to assist residents to replace open fires and older wood heaters with modern, less polluting heaters, including natural gas heaters. By its end in 2004, the program had achieved a reduction in wood heater use in households from 45% to 30%.195

Federal, state and territory attention has also focused on:

  • supporting research into factors affecting emissions
  • further improving installation and emission standards
  • ensuring that new wood heaters meet the Australian standards (e.g. Victoria has required this via a statutory policy)
  • informing potential purchasers of the importance of buying a compliant heater and having it properly installed
  • running public education programs providing advice on best operating practices.
Planned burning

As noted in Section 3.2.2, recent work by the Environment Protection Division in Tasmania indicates that smoke from planned burns is a more significant source of diffuse particulate pollution than previously thought. The case study in Box 3.13 describes work being done in that state to monitor the effects of planned burning on air quality and to use real-time monitoring data to inform decision-making and management of burns.

(2011). Ambient air quality: Ambient air quality. In: Australia state of the environment 2011, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65c70bc372