Clean air or hot air?


On the eve of the National Air Pollution Summit, organised by Environmental Justice Australia, Doctors for the Environment Australia and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) who are the national body responsible for setting national standards for air pollution released a proposed amendment to our national air pollution standards – the National Environment Protection Measure (Ambient Air Quality) (NEPM AAQ).

You could be forgiven for thinking that this means that action is being taken to deal with air pollution, especially fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) which is the subject of the variation. The unfortunate reality is that the NEPM doesn’t require anyone to do anything to improve the quality of the air that we breathe. Unless the States voluntarily decide to regulate, the NEPM won’t make any difference whatsoever to air pollution levels in Australia. Even making the amendment to the NEPM AAQ may take years – it took almost a year to make a minor technical variation to the Diesel Vehicle Emissions NEPM.

The NEPM system started out almost 20 years ago as a way to negotiate and set harmonised standards for air pollution amongst States and Territories – to bring reluctant jurisdictions up to higher national standards.  Over time it has become a mechanism for the Commonwealth, States and Territories to give the impression that something is being done, when in fact air pollution levels are rising in many communities around Australia. For example, according to the OECD deaths from vehicle related air pollution in Australia rose 68% between 2005 and 2010.  Emissions of harmful pollutants from coal mining including PM10, lead, arsenic and fluoride have increased by between 150 and 200% in the last decade based on results from the National Pollutant Inventory.

The NEPM process now does little more than confuse responsibility and create paper. Environment Ministers typically meet annually to discuss, amongst other things, the issue of air pollution and agree on what can be done to address the issue. Since 2005, on the air pollution front they have announced:

  • 4 reviews
  • a study
  • two scoping papers
  • a discussion paper
  • a new methodology to integrate with a review
  • a regulatory impact statement
  • the release of all that (a whole year went into a decision to release something that was done the year before)
  • and finally, a ‘National Plan for Clean Air’ to be completed by the end of 2014.

Subsequently that plan became the ‘National Clean Air Agreement’ and a 2014 release date became an agreement “to consider working towards finalising an agreement by 1 July 2016”.

With all this in mind, it is hard to be optimistic about the current process. There are literally thousands of pages of reports on the NEPC website that ‘informed’ the proposed variation. The impact statement itself is about 170 pages yet the sum total of the actual changes proposed in the draft variation is to make the current PM2.5 advisory ‘reporting’ standards into ‘compliance’ standards. However, there are no consequences for States or individual polluters who do not comply with the standards because the standards are not intended to be binding. It is left to the States to make binding standards on air pollution, and this gets to the nub of the problem. With no nationally binding requirement to do so, State and Territory laws often don’t comply with the standards, or are so weak that they are unenforceable, or no one monitors to see whether they are being breached, or when they are breached they don’t get enforced… You get the picture.

In our report Clearing the Air; Why Australia urgently needs effective national air pollution laws, we discuss the case for legally binding national laws to deal with a national problem. There is no doubt that the Commonwealth has significant powers to regulate air pollution. Since 1976 the High Court has recognised the Commonwealth’s ability to use other heads of power to protect the environment, and air pollution is no different.

To change the way that air pollution is regulated is going to take a massive community effort. Right across the country there are many communities that are acutely affected by the issue. Communities must express their dissatisfaction with the current model and tell the government how they want things to change.

Environmental Justice Australia will be publishing a summary of the changes and our view on the changes shortly. If you are concerned about air pollution, you can use these to write a submission on the NEPM. Most importantly, we need governments to know that this isn’t a small issue that they can continue to ignore.

The NEPM process is old, outdated and no longer serving the community. Replacing it with something that mandates compliance and compels action to reduce air pollution will mean that we save literally thousands of lives and billions of dollars.



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