Skip to main content

Australia's Clean Air Myth

I've been thinking a lot about air quality in Australia recently as I wrote up my submission in response to Victoria's Air Quality Statement, which will help shape a future air quality strategy for this state.  The Clean Air Statement presents a rosy picture for air quality in Victoria - our air is repeatedly described as "great" and "very good" - and this leaves the impression that air pollution is not a current health danger to Victorians.  Anecdotally, I have seen this attitude adopted by Australians around the country, who ask me why I need to research air quality in Australia and tell me that we already breathe clean air.  It is true that our air is cleaner than many of our neighbours, but this doesn't mean that it is healthy.  Air pollution in China, for instance, is one of the biggest handbrakes on development in what may soon be the world's biggest economy, and it is meaningless to compare it to Australia.

So, how big is Australia's air pollution problem?  It is estimated that air pollution causes over three thousand deaths a year, which is significant in a population of about 24 million.  As a preventable cause of death this is greater than car accidents and suicides.  Just two weeks ago the air quality index (AQI) in Melbourne was stuck at around 100 for days due to small particulates from wood burning - you can see the view from near where I live in the photo below.  Newspaper headlines, however, made it seem like weather was causing the pollution, instead of, well, the pollution itself.  A few weeks earlier and Sydney was grappling with unhealthy air as a result of controlled burns, but the national broadcaster was quick to tell us that air pollution is worse in Hong Kong and that we should just get over it.

The ability for state and federal governments to regulate air pollution in Australia is severely lacking, and I can't help but think this is due in part to our clean air myth.  And with rapidly growing cities under the influence of climate change, air pollution is likely only to get worse.  The National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs) however provide very little regulatory power to deal with air pollution, and set uniformly lax standards.  Astoundingly, there will be no active standard for PM2.5 until 2025 [correction - there should be a standard in effect as of last month], because of a lack of evidence about fine particulate matter specific to Australia.  Meanwhile, standards set for PM10 and other ambient pollutants are looser than those recommended by the World Health Organization.  There is also no enforceable way to deal with the most toxic air pollutants, with the Air Toxics NEPM only tasked with data collection, and then just for five hazardous compounds.

Air pollution is impacting upon health and productivity across Australia, and we need rigorous and enforceable legislation to deal with it.  But I don't see this happening until the media and our governments stop pushing the myth that our air is already clean.


  1. A government web page (see link below) states: "The PM2.5 standards were upgraded to performance standards from their previous status as advisory reporting standards."

    The page also notes that there should be no exceptions, apart from events directly related to bushfire, jurisdiction-authorised hazard reduction burning or continental-scale windblown dust -

    Surely the PM2.5 standard is just as much an active standard as all the other air quality standards? Jurisdictions should also be preparing for the even stricter limits (20 ug/m3 max daily average, 7 ug/m3 max annual average) by 2025.

  2. wow, awesome post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Cool. air pollution control


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Is Someone Cheating on the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol regulates emissions of ozone depleting substances.  It is ratified by every nation and bans the use of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), long lived substances which break down the stratosphere's protective ozone layer.  The international treaty has led to decreasing atmospheric levels of CFCs, and the ozone layer is beginning to recover.  It is now being reported, however, that atmospheric levels of one CFC (trichlorofluoromethane, CFC-11) have slowed their rate of decrease, attributed to a new CFC-11 source from Asia.

The origin of these new CFC-11 emissions are unclear, and will be difficult to pinpoint.  They may be from clandestine use of the banned substance, but could also arise from leaky CFC-11 stockpiles.  An international effort to investigate this issue now appears warranted, since it threatens to undo much of the good work of the Montreal Protocol.

CFCs are not the only threat to the ozone layer.  Recent studies have shown that the o…

New Zealand's Toxic Methyl Bromide Problem

Concerns are mounting in New Zealand around the continued use of methyl bromide for fumigation.  Methyl bromide is a highly effective fumigant, but it is also depletes the ozone layer and is harmful to human health.  Under the Montreal Protocol for the regulation of ozone depleting substances, use of methyl bromide is banned for all but a few exempt quarantine purposes. This ban has seen measured atmospheric levels of this substance drop from about 10 to 8 parts per trillion. In New Zealand, however, methyl bromide usage is soaring, with a 2020 deadline to eliminate methyl bromide emissions looming.

One of the biggest exemptions for methyl bromide use is in fumigating logs for export. China and India are the main destinations and both prefer methyl bromide treatment as a bio-security measure. New Zealand is a significant exporter of logs to China and India, and in recent years has grown to become one of the biggest users of methyl bromide worldwide. The NZ government have a 2020 deadl…