Skip to main content

Posts

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 …
Recent posts

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…

Ozone Cheats Found

In May of this year scientists reported that atmospheric levels of one of the most important ozone depleting gases, CFC-11, were not declining as quickly as they should be.  Modelling showed that new sources of CFC-11 out of east Asia were required to explain this worrying finding, and that these sources were large: 13 gigagrams per year of extra CFC-11 since 2012.  This was in apparent contravention of the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty ratified by all nations.  As I wrote at the time, possible sources included clandestine production of the banned compound and leaky stockpiles of old material. Reports soon emerged that leaking fridges were probably accounting for some of the emissions increases, and now an investigative piece by the New York Times has reported that factories in rural China are still manufacturing CFC-11 and releasing it to the atmosphere in the production of polyurethane foam.

These new reports are consistent with the initial scientific findings of increa…

Clean Coal on the Ropes

Clean coal is a seductive proposition for arresting climate change.  It means we could continue to burn coal for power as usual and use carbon capture and storage (CCS) to remove carbon dioxide from the flue gas and bury it underground.  Carbon capture is actually a mature technology, widely used in natural gas processing, where gas is bubbled through a liquid amine mixture which chemically binds to carbon dioxide, letting the desired gas pass through.  The amine solvent is then heated to liberate relatively pure carbon dioxide.
Companies and governments invested in coal have devoted massive resources to try and adapt carbon capture technology for coal fired power, with the typical approach being to bolt on a conventional amine solvent plant to an existing power station.  This approach has, however, failed to succeed.  The Boundary Dam project, a flagship effort aiming to demonstrate that CCS is feasible on an industrial scale, was plagued by budget overruns during construction, and

Air Pollution Hangs Over Sydney

A blanket of smoke covered Sydney earlier this week, raising some complex questions about how we balance public health and safety when it comes to air pollution.

Hazardous air quality levels were recorded across Sydney on Tuesday, with more than 60 people reported to require treatment for acute respiratory issues.  There was some exaggerated reporting about air pollution in Sydney being worse than Beijing - which is actually not shocking given that it is summer in the northern hemisphere and a same-day comparison is almost meaningless - but nevertheless, the recorded air quality index (AQI) values in excess of 200 (even above 400 in some locations) were dangerous, especially to vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and those with known respiratory issues.

The culprit in this latest pollution event was planned and controlled fuel reduction burns, which themselves are an unavoidable part of living safely alongside the Australian bush.  Unfortunately, the best conditions for c…

Europe Fighting it Out in the Courts over Air Pollution

It has been a long time coming, but today the European Commission referred 7 member states - France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, and the United Kingdom - to the Court of Justice for violations of air pollution limits on NO2 and PM10.  In the past the commission has been gun shy when it came to enforcing air quality legislation, letting repeated violations slide over the past decade.  However they have recently ramped up their actions, obtaining a favourable ECJ judgement against Bulgaria last year, and against Poland earlier this year.  As I discussed recently, Poland have the worst air quality in Europe by many measures, but have recently initiated a major program to improve heating and cut air pollution.  It is not unreasonable to connect this action to pressure from the European Commission, and hopefully today's events will see similar efforts elsewhere in the EU.  It should however be noted that the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Spain appear to have dodged a …

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…