Air pollution control: the case for a new national approach

More than 3000 Australians die prematurely each year from air pollution. That’s the equivalent of 17 fully-loaded domestic flights crashing with no survivors. These preventable deaths are largely the consequence of fine particle pollution from coal-fired power stations, coal mines, trains and terminals, wood heaters, and motor vehicles.

On Tuesday 15 December, Australia’s nine environment ministers will set new national standards for PM10 (coarse particle) and PM2.5 (fine particle) pollution. An Impact Statement for the new standards, commissioned by NSW Environment Minister Mark Speakman, presented expert health advice and assessed the benefits of various options for new PM10 and PM2.5 standards. Now it’s decision time.

Reducing daily average PM10 concentrations from 50 to 30 micrograms per cubic metre in Australian cities would reduce health impacts by 65%. Reducing annual PM2.5 concentrations to 6μg/m3 would prevent 530 deaths each year – the equivalent of saving the lives of all the passengers on 3 fully loaded domestic flights.

Australia’s current air pollution standards were set almost 20 years ago. Since then, epidemiology and community expectations have shifted significantly. We know now that respiratory and cardiovascular health impacts are caused by pollution levels well below the current standards.

During the last year, environment ministers received more than 500 submissions from individuals and groups in pollution-impacted communities, health experts, Doctors for the Environment, and the Climate and Health Alliance representing diverse health professionals. These submissions and the expert advice contained in the Impact Statement overwhelmingly supported stricter standards.

But the ministers have been lobbied hard by polluters and are unlikely to make the right decision. The Minerals Council of Australia is fiercely opposed to stricter standards. In regions like the Hunter Valley, more than 90% of PM10 emissions are caused by coal mines. These emissions have trebled in the last 10 years and doubled in the last 5. To meet stricter standards, coal mines would need to implement dust control techniques at a time that export coal prices are at an all-time low. In the Latrobe Valley and elsewhere, dirty old coal-fired power stations would require upgrading or replacing. In Newcastle, coal wagons and the stockpiles awaiting export would need to be covered. Meeting stricter air pollution standards in Australia’s major cities would require harmonising our motor vehicle emission standards with Europe and the United States.

The wood heating industry has also lobbied against the proposed stricter standards. In urban areas, tackling fine particle pollution necessitates the replacement of older wood heaters with a less polluting form of heating.

The ministers will fail. They received compelling evidence of the benefits of reducing air pollution but they will maintain the status quo. Commonwealth Environment Minister Greg Hunt pledged that improving air quality would be the ‘signature objective’ of his watch. This is a missed opportunity for the minister and his state and territory counterparts. But, more importantly, a missed opportunity for the many Australians who suffer the health impacts of air pollution.

There is growing support for an entirely new approach to air pollution control in Australia.

Our current approach relies on consensus between states, so national standards reflect the position of the minister least motivated to reduce air pollution. In this case, NSW Minister Mark Speakman. We rely on under-funded state EPAs and environment departments, which lack the capacity or will to monitor adequately, to make monitoring data publicly available, to enforce best practice pollution control and to prosecute polluters.

It’s time for a national Air Pollution Control Act and a national regulator to implement it.

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