Background brief on proposed changes to national air pollution standards

On Wednesday 15 July 2015 Commonwealth, State and Territory Environment Ministers will meet to decide whether to change Australia’s national air pollution standards.

Environment Ministers released a draft proposal on 31 July 2014 for public comment. Public submissions to the consultation process closed in October 2014.

The national standards are contained in the National Environment Protection Measure (Ambient Air Quality) (NEPM (AAQ)). The standards are made and varied by the Australia’s Environment Ministers who make up the National Environmental Protection Council (NEPC).

Why are the standards important?

Over 3000 Australians a year die from air pollution. Much of this is due to fine particle pollution (PM10 and PM2.5) which is the subject of this proposed change to the standards. The serious health consequences from exposure to different sources of air pollution are now well established. There is international consensus that there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure for many pollutants, and that there are harmful effects (including death) from exposure at levels well below the current air quality standards.

Exposure to PM2.5 is particularly harmful to health and short term and long term exposure can result in death.  The pollutant PM2.5 is fine particles of any substance that cannot be seen by the naked eye but that are drawn deep into the lungs causing lung cancer, respiratory illness, heart attack and stroke. Sources include coal dust from mines and stockpiles, coal fired power stations, diesel trucks, wood smoke and industrial facilities that produce fine particles. PM2.5 can travel hundreds of kilometres.  At present there is no national compliance standard for PM2.5, despite the overwhelming evidence of harm and governments considering including this in the NEPM for over 15 years.

While the national NEPM AAQ standards are monitoring and reporting standards only (rather than compliance standards that require States to reduce their pollution), they are important because many States adopt them in their own air pollution regulation and decision-making for pollution licencing. Therefore improvements to the national standards drive improvements in air pollution levels within the States.

The coal mining industry, Australia’s main source of particle pollution, has admitted their emissions grew by up to 187% during the last decade. The mining industry, including the Minerals Council of Australia is lobbying for changes to the standards to limit their use in regional areas, meaning regional communities could have lower protection from pollution than urban communities, despite significant pollution sources near regional communities such as coal mines, power stations, and other industrial sources.

What is being considered at this meeting?

The key changes being considered for the NEPM AAQ (the national air pollution standards) are changes to the standards for particle pollution - PM2.5 and PM10.  The NEPC is considering:

  • Including a new one-year average standard for PM10 (there is currently only a one-day standard);
  • Improving the PM10 one-day standard
  • Adding new PM2.5 one-day and one-year standards (there are currently no national compliance standards for PM2.5

For more detail on the measures being proposed see our summary of the proposed NEPM changes.

What decision should Ministers make?

In order to avoid more preventable deaths and illness, Australia needs to adopt the strongest possible standards for PM10 and PM2.5.  This means that Ministers need to agree that all four standards for PM10 and PM2.5 be reduced dramatically, with continuous improvement over time. Ministers must also ensure that the standards apply to ALL at risk communities in Australia, including regional communities.  They need to ensure the standards are implemented immediately.

Importantly, Ministers should prioritise the health of Australians and not continue to delay this decision (as they have done for 15 years).

While these improvements are essential as a temporary measure, ultimately, Ministers need to recognise that our system of air pollution regulation is no longer working, and move towards national Clean Air laws.

What is the likely outcome from the Minister meeting on 15 July?

Negotiations on what standards will be adopted (if any) are likely to continue between the States right up until the meeting. There are a number of likely outcomes:

Standards will improve slightly, but be insufficient to protect human health.

Standards will improve, but Ministers will bow to industry pressure to ensure the standards are not applied in regional areas. This means that thousands of Australians living in air pollution hot spots around Australia will be vulnerable.

Ministers will yet again be unable to reach agreement and again delay the decision. This is one of the fatal flaws of the NEPC system and a key reason why a new system is needed.

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