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Showing posts with the label air pollution

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 …

When Climate and Air Quality Compete

Reducing carbon dioxide pollution comes with benefits to the climate that usually go hand-in-hand with efforts to improve air quality.  A new housing development planned for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), however, has been warned that by going green it may in fact worsen air pollution.

In the ACT it is compulsory that new residential developments be fitted with natural gas infrastructure, which is used both for cooking and heating.  The new 350 home development of Ginninderry, however, has now been allowed to go completely electric in an energy efficiency trial.  The ACT has access to significant hydroelectric generators and has a commitment to completely switch to renewable electricity, making the move away from gas a good one for the climate.  An air quality impact assessment report from the EPA, however, has warned that it may harm air quality in the region.  Specifically, their report cautioned that the switch to electricity "will limit the choices available for spac…

Plastics Pile Up

China has effectively banned the import of waste paper and plastic, throwing recycling efforts around the world into chaos.  But what appears to be a crisis could turn out to be a good opportunity to question how we recycle.

I recently wrote about the impact of China's ban on Australia's recycling industry, and the dangers of stockpiling recyclable materials.  Here in Melbourne alone we've had a recycling plant fire last month, a paper and plastics stockpile fire that burned for multiple days in 2017, and a huge tyre fire in 2016.  Each of these fires was in an urban area, and I can remember smelling the smoke at the University of Melbourne in the heart of the city.  Alleged health impacts because of smoke from the 2017 Coolaroo fire form the basis of an ongoing class action lawsuit.

An alternative to dealing with paper and plastic waste is to burn it for energy.  Waste-to-energy incinerators are not ideal - they produce carbon dioxide and their emissions need to be filte…

Wood Fired Heaters Threaten Australia's Clean Air

Winter finally came to Melbourne today, bringing with it the smell of wood-fired heaters.  And as lovely as it is to curl up in front of a fireplace on a cold night, I'm here to remind everyone that they are absolutely atrocious for air quality.  Sorry about that.

A recent story in The Examiner highlighted how wood-fired heaters are negatively impacting upon Tasmania's air quality.  Wood smoke is also the biggest contributor to wintertime air pollution in Sydney.  The top tips for operating your fireplace from EPA Tasmania were to make sure you use dry wood and to get the fire burning hot by leaving the flue fully open for 20 minutes whenever adding new wood, and never let the fire smolder over night.  Further tips are available from EPA Victoria and the Department of Environment and Energy.

Operating your fireplace efficiently is important, but even when working correctly wood-fired heaters are bad for air quality, both inside and outside the home.  Australia needs to end its…

Mixed Results in Air Pollution Scorecard

Air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, with 9 in 10 people worldwide breathing polluted air, according to new estimates from the the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO identify air pollution as a major global health concern, contributing to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and respiratory diseases.  To help address this they set guidelines for safe exposure limits to key pollutants including particulate matter (PM), ozone, and nitrogen dioxide, and also maintain a global air quality database which tracks PM2.5 and PM10 levels in 4000 locations worldwide.

Peering into the WHO data there are good and bad stories to tell.  Air pollution deaths are concentrated in South East Asia and the Western Pacific, where poor air quality coincides with high population densities.  Interestingly the latest data shows that the worst affected cities in these regions are predominantly in India, whereas air quality in China appears to be improving in the wake of citizen action and…

Trump is Winding Back Cost-Effective Legislation

As President Trump directs the EPA to back off on air quality regulations in America's dirtiest cities, I want to remind everyone that in a free market it pays to cut air pollution, and it pays very well.

Independent analysis has shown the Clean Air Act to be one of the most cost effective pieces of legislation in existence, with the $65 billion price tag of meeting clean air regulations dwarfed by the $2 trillion in dividends in reduced healthcare costs and increased productivity projected over the 1990 - 2020 interval.  That is a staggering 30:1 return on investment.  The public cost of air pollution is private profit at cents on the dollar.


Old Men Yell at Trees

An atrocious piece of journalism has appeared in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, blaming air pollution on trees, people, dirt, and pretty much everything but cars and the burning of fossil fuels.

On the campaign trail in 1980 Ronald Reagan was famously reported to quip that "trees cause more pollution than automobiles do".  He was widely mocked - and rightly so - for this naive interpretation of atmospheric science.  Now another old white man, Paul Gigot, is shaking his fist at the sky in vain, and dragging his like-minded and troubleplagued editorial board along with him.

In their editorial, the WSJ inform us that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form ozone and smog.  So far so good.  They then go on to cite the latest scientific literature showing that in many cities personal care and household cleaning products - plus industrial solvents and commercial chemicals but they curiously don't get much attention here - pro…

Peat Fire Burns On

I took a break from blogging for a couple of weeks over Easter, and for that entire time peat bog fires have been burning here in southwestern Victoria.

Peat fires have been smoldering at Cobrico since St Patrick's day, creating significant air pollution for almost a month now.  Vulnerable elderly residents and school students have been relocated, and a dedicated water pipeline has been constructed to help battle it.

Burning peat bogs present particularly nasty environmental problems because they are difficult to extinguish and produce highly toxic smoke.  Peat does not burn in a hot, raging fire, meaning that the fuel source can last for many months, and also that the smoke produced is heavily laden with toxic fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide; these pollutants would be more fully consumed in a hotter blaze.  Peatlands also tend to extend over large inaccessible areas, and can smolder at depths of several metres.

Peat fires present a broader global environmental proble…

Fake Plastic Tree Refuses to Die

Just like that cheap plastic Christmas tree that mum trots out every year, stories about the scientifically questionable CityTree refuse to die.  This press release masquerading as news has been rehashed and reprinted with little scientific analysis by Wired, Forbes, Dezeen, CNN - and - so -  many - others that it made me throw up in my mouth a little and I had to stop googling it.

As I wrote the other day, these CityTrees make almost impossible claims to purify air of nearly every pollutant, all the way from particulate matter down to carbon dioxide.  This last one is the most challenging to accept, as it has been reported that each fake plastic tree "has the air purifying power of 275 normal trees". That is a direct quote from once-respected newspaper The Independent. Yes, that The Independent.

It is claimed that each one of these devices removes 240,000 kg of carbon dioxide from the air every year, equivalent to a small forest.  This means, however, that about one tonne (o…

Too Many Steps Back

The US EPA's resident supervillain* Scott Pruitt has been brutally efficient at winding back clean air and water provisions.  Journalist Marianne Lavelle does a great job of dissecting just how he has done this to America's air pollution rules in a detailed article over at Inside Climate News.
I don't want to be all doom-and-gloom here, because our planet has actually made tremendous progress in battling air pollution.  There have been steady gains in much of the developed world and growing public and political awareness in many developing nations.  Frustratingly, though, it is often a case of three steps forward, two steps back.  Now Scott Pruitt appears to be orchestrating perhaps the greatest leap back of all time.
The great air quality success story of recent decades has actually been the USA.  Their progress was empowered by the Clean Air Act and driven by the EPA, in work that was supported at its base by fundamental science and engineering.  Major gains were made i…

Fake Plastic Trees

Air pollution is a big deal - it kills millions annually - but we aren't going to make progress in dealing with it by planting fake plastic trees in the middle of the world's cities.
When you attempt to reduce air pollution it is much easier to do it at the concentrated source - and easier yet to stop these compounds being formed all together - than it is to do once they've been released and diluted to one part per million or billion.  But yet again we see another story / press release about a tech startup trying to do just this.

The Crown Estate claim to have planted a small number of their CityTrees in several first world cities - cities with air quality issues, yes, but not on the level of their counterparts in the developing world.  These devices, like many others out there, are designed to suck in dirty air and purify it. They then release clean air to mix back in with the urban plume, where it can modestly dilute the remaining pollutants.  When you try and picture t…

Another Dirty Side to Coal

Coal is dirty and it can't be cleaned.
We just saw another facet of this problem when particulate matter reached hazardous levels across much of the Hunter Valley on Monday.  Specifically, PM10 levels (the concentration in air of particles 10 micrometers and smaller) were reported to have exceeded national air quality standards at all nine monitoring stations in the coal mining hub of the Upper Hunter.  The cause, not surprisingly, looks to be coal mining.
Although carbon dioxide is the pollutant of most concern from coal, there are a range of air quality issues that arise from the mining, transport, and burning of this fossil fuel.  Even if we do manage to remove CO2 from the emissions of coal fired power stations we can't guarantee that other pollution sources will be eliminated, and this is why "clean coal" is a fallacy.  The mining and transportation of coal, as we saw on Monday, releases dangerous particles into the air.  These particles have both acute and chr…