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.