The Commonwealth National Environment Protection Council Act 1994, with complementary state and territory legislation, enables the National Environment Protection Council to develop National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs), including the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (AAQ NEPM).
The use of NEPMs is unique in the world. They include agreed national objectives and protocols designed to assist in protecting or managing particular aspects of the environment.
For air quality, national standards for six pollutants make up the AAQ NEPM developed in 1998. All Australian jurisdictions must monitor and report against these annually.
The six pollutants are:
- carbon monoxide
- nitrogen dioxide
- sulfur dioxide
- particles (PM10 and PM5).
There are also National Environment Protection Measures for air toxics and public reporting of emissions through the National Pollutant Inventory. States and territories are required to report annually on how the various National Environment Protection Measures have been implemented.
The 2011 review of the National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure noted that, in general, air quality in Australian cities is good by international standards and that the introduction of an exposure reduction approach will align Australian air quality management policy with international best practice.
National Clean Air Agreement
The Australian Government and all states and territories committed to the National Clean Air Agreement on 15 December 2015. This includes a work plan for product standards, air quality standards and industry performance. The work plan focuses on reducing exposure to fine particles, but also looks at risks from nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulfur dioxide.
A long-term exposure reduction goal is proposed through this agreement. This will complement the current national standards and provide a basis for measuring each state and territory government’s performance with regard to improving community risks from air pollution.
Product standards development
Fuels used in vehicles are an important source of air pollutants. Australia has vehicle emission standards as part of the Australian Design Rules.
In addition, vehicle fuel quality may also affect engine performance and exhaust emissions, and is regulated under the Commonwealth Fuel Quality Standards Act 2001. Through this legislation, national standards are established for diesel and petrol, and various blends of petroleum-based fuels and biofuels.
A Fuel Standards Consultative Committee was established under this legislation to advise the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment on a range of operational, environmental and economic impacts of new fuels or blends. This committee has members from each state and territory government, petroleum suppliers and retailers, automobile clubs and consumer organisations.
In 2012, the SA Government released a low emissions vehicle strategy. This promotes alternative fuel use and development of vehicle technologies with reduced impacts on air quality. It also supports the Automotive Collaborative Research Centre.
On 20 December 2016, the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions released the following consultation documents:
- draft Regulation Impact Statement on improving efficiency of new light vehicles
- draft Regulation Impact Statement on strengthening noxious emissions standards for light and heavy vehicles
- discussion paper on improving fuel quality standards.
This forum provided a set of potential measures for consideration to the Australian Government, aimed at encouraging uptake of low emissions vehicles.
Wood heaters and small non-road engines
South Australia also supports national work to develop product standards for import, manufacture and sale of wood heaters and for small engines used in garden equipment, generators and marine engines. Adelaide has about 40,000 wood heaters. These are significant contributors to both local particle emissions and are important factors in the burden of disease (financial cost, mortality and morbidity), especially when they are in residential areas where smoke build-up occurs.
Analysis of residents living in Launceston, Tasmania showed that decreasing air pollution from ambient biomass smoke resulted in reduced cardiovascular and respiratory mortality. Launceston began regulating and replacing wood heaters in 2001, thereby decreasing winter air pollution. In SA, Mount Gambier is heavily impacted by wood smoke, and it is likely that some Adelaide Hills towns have similar problems in winter.
The environmental impacts from non-road engines, for example, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, generators and marine engines, are likely to be much less severe than those from wood heaters. Nevertheless, they still contribute to cumulative impacts and local-level exposure.
According to the Decision Regulatory Impact Statement for Reducing Emissions from Non-road Spark Ignition Engines and Equipment (Decision RIS), approximately 40,000 marine engines and one million units of outdoor powered equipment (including trimmers, brush-cutters, leaf blowers, chain saws, chippers, cement mixers, lawn mowers, pumps, generators and air compressors) are imported into Australia annually. These are large emitters relative to their size. For example, one hour of operation of a brush-cutter emits around the same amount of air pollutants as ten cars over the same period.
However, unlike other countries, such as the US, China, Japan, Canada and those in the EU, Australia did not have emission standards for these types of engines, resulting in high-emitting products entering Australia. The Decision RIS estimates that applying similar standards just to outboard motors would reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 30,000 tonnes annually. In addition to air quality impacts, these products also add to local noise pollution. This is expected to change when the Product Emissions Standards Act 2017 is implemented.
On a positive note, there is a range of high-performance four-stroke engines on the market that emit far lower concentrations of unburned fuel components. These also tend to be less noisy than existing two-stroke appliances. Marked improvements in batteries and electric motor technologies have made mains and battery-powered appliances viable alternatives to fuel-powered models, and do not impact directly on urban air quality.