It was a big week in the fight for clean air.
The National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) is an annual set of data about pollution released in the last year. It is not perfect, as it's self-reported by industry and not audited, but it is one of the most comprehensive sources of data we have in the fight for clean air.
On Friday April 15th, we were taken by surprise at the abrupt release of this year’s NPI data. We had expected the release a few weeks earlier but unexplained delays left us uncertain about when it would be made available. Immediately, we jumped into action and spent the weekend finding out what the data said.
What we found:
The results of analysing this year’s NPI were alarming, but not unexpected. Emissions have continued to rise in multiple industries, with coal mining and power generation continuing to represent a large share of the sources of air pollution in Australia. This year, we also analysed levels of two pollutants we hadn’t focused on before – sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) – as well as both coarse and fine particulate matter.
Particulate matter pollution (also known as particulate pollution or PM pollution) is one of the most common and concerning forms of pollution. It’s made up of particles that are referred to as coarse, fine or ultrafine particles (PM10, PM2.5 or PM0.1) depending on their size. Even short-term exposure can cause serious ongoing health problems, and new evidence has emerged showing that exposure causes lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke at concentrations well below the national standards.
This year’s Inventory revealed some concerning trends:
- Coal mining is Australia’s second highest source of particle pollution after metal ore mining
- Electricity generation is the leading source of PM2.5 (fine particle pollution), accounting for approximately 29% of the national total.
- PM10 emissions from the nation’s ten most polluting mines increased by up to a massive 788% during the last five years.
- Total PM10 emissions (from all sources nationally) have increased 69 per cent in one year, and 194 per cent in five years.
While some coal industry facilities showed a decrease in emissions compared to their previous reports, the increase from other facilities more than made up for it. Overall, particulate matter emissions are continuing to rise in Australia at a completely unacceptable rate.
Sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen
Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) are recognised in mining communities in the form of toxic orange blast fumes from the use of spoiled explosives which can blow over neighbouring towns, farms and communities and can lead to hospitalisation for respiratory health effects. Exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, choking and coughing. Our findings around NOx included that:
- 20 of the top 30 NOx sources from all coal mines nationally are in Queensland.
- Power stations are the biggest source of NOx emissions nationally, emitting more NOx than every motor vehicle in Australia combined.
We also learnt that AGL’s Loy Yang power station in Victoria was the top source of sulphur dioxide from electricity generation. Contact with sulphur dioxide (SO2) can also have multiple ill effects on health. Repeated or prolonged exposure to moderate concentrations, such as may be experienced by communities near sources of SO2, may cause inflammation of the respiratory tract, wheezing and lung damage. Electricity generation also featured highly in the rankings of industries emitting SO2, only being topped by metal manufacturing.
How this year’s NPI was reported:
Fairfax was one of the first media outlets to publish a story based on our findings, with the headline “Air pollution increases 69 per cent as coal named top polluter”. This article was shared well over a thousand times on social media websites. Our partner organisations, who work with us as part of the Clean Air Action Network, drew on our analysis and their own to publish media and echo the call for stronger pollution regulation. Highlights included:
- 350.org published a piece highlighting the role energy company AGL plays in pollution and calling on them to phase out coal.
- New Matilda published an article about coal seam gas emissions using analysis from The National Toxics Network and the Climate and Health Alliance.
- Media releases were issued by Doctors for the Environment Australia, the National Toxics Network, 350.org and the Queensland Conservation Council.
- Other groups played a supporting role, issuing comment or helping to boost our message across social media, including Voices of the Valley, Healthy Futures, Clean Air Queensland, GetUp! and SurfCoast Air Action.
We believe that effective pollution control requires a National Air Pollution Control Act and a regulator to enforce it. State governments have failed, and we’re convinced this is the best way to force polluters to be responsible for their pollution, and to put an end to worsening air quality. Many communities are suffering from the health effects of air pollution every day and we must continue to pressure our Environment Ministers and government to adopt an air pollution control act.
So, will you join our fight for clean air?