State of the Environment Air Quality Report 2021

Photograph of a freeway, with a sign 'Narellan Road, exit for Campbelltown, Camden, Penrith'. Dark grey smoke and low visibility.
December 2019. Photo by Wendy Bacon

The State of Environment report for 2021 was released in July 2022 by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water. There was little media coverage of the air quality section of the report. This post is an update on its key findings.

Introduction

Since the last State of the Environment Report of 2016, Australia has experienced dramatic extreme weather events including massive bushfires that raged for weeks, drought and severe thunderstorms. During these events, parts of Australia suffered extremely poor air quality followed by periods of exceptionally good air quality when there were clear skies. During COVID lockdowns that shut down industry, transport and other activities, there was improved air quality.

The takeaway from this is that air quality can be controlled and should be improved with technologies available now including solar panels, electric vehicles, cleaner, more efficient industrial processes and driving down emissions.

The researchers found that pressures on air quality are coming from population growth that brings urban growth, more cars, increasing emissions and an increase in the rate of climate change that leads to higher temperatures and more extreme weather events. 

The key finding of this research is that there is no safe level of some pollutants. This means that long term reduction in exposure to air pollution is the only way to maintain our health.

Key Points

  • Fine particulate matter particularly PM2.5 is of most concern for our health.
  • Overall, Australia experiences good air quality but it is severely affected by bushfires, industrial and other events that release pollutants leading to short periods of poor air quality. During bushfires, air quality can exceed many times the national daily standards.
  • Air quality standards are developed for the protection of human health but these only relate to ambient (background) and do not regulate low exposure rates which research has shown still negatively affect human health. Research suggests that for some pollutants including PM 2.5, there are no safe levels.
  • In April 2021, there was a reduction in National Environmental Protection Measures (NEPMs) for ozone, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide. The researchers found that these new standards will not work unless there is a targeted reduction program.
  • All Australian cities had rising ambient levels except Darwin, Hobart and Melbourne.
  • All Australian cities every year recorded peak levels above the NEPM standards
  • Compliance will be harder after 2025 as the NEPM standards for the amounts of airborne fine particulates will be reduced. The report found a targeted response will be required to make these new measures work.
  • Understanding the main sources of small particles and their formation in the atmosphere will be key to regulation.

What we put into the air has a direct effect on our air quality

  • Ozone helps improve air quality when it occurs naturally in the stratosphere and shields us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But it is not good at ground level where we can breathe it in. Ozone is created by nitrous oxide mixing with various industrial and transport emissions. Although most Australian cities are rated ‘good’ for ozone levels, these levels are trending upwards across the country. The report finds that good ratings will be much harder to maintain in the future with ozone levels at Kembla Grange in New South Wales and Traralgon in Victoria both having been downgraded by 59 % and 32 % respectively.
  • Industrial emissions are reportedly well controlled with recent improvements in levels of lead and mercury. However emission levels in Port Pirie South Australia and Mount Isa in Queensland are a concern for local residents with a major upgrade to the smelting operations of Port Pirie delayed.
  • Particulate matter PM10, which is classified as ‘coarse’, is 10 times smaller than the width of human hair and includes all smaller particle sizes down to PM2.5. Levels of PM10 have improved in Hobart, Melbourne and Perth but levels have been rising in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. 
  • It should be noted that there are no manufacturing processes that use these sizes of particulate matter in Australia.
  • Dust can be a significant air pollutant outside Australia’s urban areas where low soil moisture combined with sparse vegetation is leading to a rise in dust storms which may be exacerbated by climate change.
  • Wood heater smoke in winter causes localised air pollution in urban areas. Weaning residents off wood burners has proved difficult, with the exception of Tasmania where a buyback scheme was implemented. Other states have not followed this example. The Clean Air Plan for Sydney recommended banning wood heaters in urban areas as the impacts over winter months are greater than the impacts from prescribed burns over the rest of the year.

Improving information can help to improve poor air quality

There are only 211 air quality monitoring stations in the whole of Australia managed by the states and territory governments. This is not enough to provide Australians with the information required to protect their health. New networks of low cost sensors are helping to fill some gaps. (Community Environmental Monitoring is one example of low cost monitoring)

All communities need real time local information during periods of poor air quality. The Bushfire Royal Commission recommended that air quality measurements are reported hourly with a standardised alert messaging system. It found that the twenty-four hour averaged information provided during the bushfires was inadequate.

For more insights and for discussion of case studies, you can read a transcript of the Department of Environment and Climate Change briefing by Air Quality chapter authors Dr Kathryn Emmerson and Dr Melita Keywood on 1 August 2022.

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