Australia needs stricter rules to curb air pollution, but there’s a lot we could all do now


Robyn Schofield, University of Melbourne and Mark Stevenson, University of Melbourne

Have you ever left your car running as you wait for a passenger to return from a quick errand? It’s called idling, and while it may feel easier than switching it off and on again, it wastes money and fuel, and dumps pollutants into the air. Vehicle emissions are a very significant contributor to air pollution, which causes health problems.

Few of us would leave the tap running or the fridge door open, and many are diligent about turning off lights. But when it comes to air pollution, many people are wasteful and unaware.

We need major public health campaigns to change people’s beliefs about what they can do to reduce air pollution, similar to the campaigns and enforcement that made our public spaces smoke-free and our schools and beaches sun smart. Australia also needs stronger policy aimed at curbing air pollution.

The Australian government’s fuel efficiency standards and noxious vehicle emission standards review, under way now, offers a chance to do that – but what’s been proposed so far doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

A lack of awareness and weak standards

Air pollution is associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, dementia, cancer, pregnancy complications and adverse birth outcomes.

Many governments around the world now ask citizens to stay home when particulate matter – meaning the mix of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air – from vehicles, fossil-fuel and wood burning are at hazardous levels.

And bans on diesel vehicles in some places are part of a broader push to cut the amount of harmful particulate matter, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide in the air.

Australia, by contrast, lags behind the rest of the world on policies to reduce air pollution. Take, for example, our rules on sulfur in fuels – a particularly damaging component of vehicle emissions.

Australia has one of the world’s most lenient sulfur standards for petrol, allowing 150 parts per million. That’s 15 times the limit allowed in the European Union, Japan and the US. It’s three times what’s allowed in Brazil and China (China will allow just 10 parts per million from 2018).

Australia’s air quality standards, which are also being reviewed under the National Clean Air Agreement, feature good targets – even better than the World Health Organisation recommendations for PM2.5. However, without stricter measures to reduce vehicle emissions, these air quality targets will not be achieved.

The Australian government’s review of fuel efficiency and vehicle emission standards is looking at particulate matter, ozone, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (known collectively as NOx), and carbon. But what has been proposed so far worryingly includes a do-nothing scenario.

Doing nothing comes with significant cost

The OECD estimates that there are approximately 740 preventable deaths per year in Australia due to ozone and PM2.5 (the very fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions which, when inhaled, goes deep into the lungs and can pass into the bloodstream), but that does not include NOx – so these are very conservative estimates.

To put this in context, there are 1,280 deaths on our roads each year and another 740 deaths due to vehicle emissions. This is a significant cost for choosing a transport system reliant on fossil fuel.

If the strictest standard being considered by Australia under the review – the Euro 6 standard – is mandated for both light and heavy vehicles, a net benefit of A$675 million will be realised by 2040. This figure is very small compared to the current annual cost of vehicle pollution to Australia of A$4 billion.

But the standard Australia considers the strictest option is actually business as usual now in the US and Europe. Surprisingly, the impact statement doesn’t even discuss banning or phasing out diesel vehicles in cities – a policy that experts now consider global best practice.

What could be done?

The decisions being made this year on Australia’s fuel efficiency and vehicle emission policies can improve the health of our urban air. This is a great chance to simultaneously improve fuel efficiency, demand higher-quality fuels and implement emission testing for vehicles to improve the air in our cities.

In the short term, we can all try to use cars less often and not idle our cars when in use. Raising awareness helps; a recent study showed millions of dollars could be saved in fuel costs by exposing drivers of fleets to anti-idling initiatives.

Purchasing a vehicle with automatic idle-stop technology will help cut vehicle emissions. This technology, popular in high-end European car models, automatically switches off the vehicle when it is still and allows the driver to restart the car when their foot presses the accelerator.

To achieve a population-level benefit from such technology, however, would require policymakers to include it in the Australian Design Rules, the national standards for vehicle safety, anti-theft measures and emissions. That process can take many years.

A more sustainable approach to air pollution would be to upgrade Australian refineries to supply low-sulfur fuel. Although costly, the alternative – the escalating health burden associated with vehicle emissions – is a cost too high for society to pay.

We cannot afford to continually invest in a transport system operated solely on fossil fuels. Supporting public transport that operates with “clean” fuels (such as our trams and trains, which run on electricity) will go some way to reducing air pollution in our cities. It is worth noting, though, that while our electricity is mostly fossil-fuelled, this only shifts the air pollution to someone else’s backyard.

Importantly, we need to raise public awareness of the quality of our air and ensure the government considers the long-term ramifications of short-sighted policies.

We must all do our part to improve air quality in Australia – and that means not idling your car, which is an offence that can attract fines as high as $5,000 and/or jail time in some parts of the world.

We can survive weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. Let’s start treating our air as the valuable commodity it is.

The Conversation

Robyn Schofield, Senior Lecturer for Climate System Science, University of Melbourne and Mark Stevenson, Professor of Urban Transport and Public Health, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Stinking dead fish portend major problem with carp herpes release


Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

In April last year, this column looked at six concerns about the planned release of carp herpes virus (Cyprinid herpesvirus 3 or CyHV-3 – also known as koi herpesvirus, or the carp herpesvirus) into Australian rivers in an attempt to dramatically reduce the plague proportions of these introduced and destructive “river rabbits”. Radio JJJ also broadcast a special report in May on “what could possibly go wrong”.

In the eight months since, the NSW government has held public consultations with interested parties and the Australian government’s Department of Industry published a final report late last year.

This report concentrated on whether the virus might impact other fish and native species. It concluded:

Following clinical, molecular and histological observations, we now know that CyHV-3 does not infect (and therefore cannot affect) a wide taxonomic range of non-target animals including: 14 species of fish (13 native species, and the introduced rainbow trout); yabbies; a species of lamprey; two amphibian species; two reptile species; chickens; and mice. These results strongly suggest that both spillover infections and species jumps are highly unlikely with CyHV-3, and, therefore, the results encourage further work on the use of CyHV-3 as a potential biocontrol agent for carp in Australia.

The report also discusses a planned infected carp release into the Lachlan river catchment area in NSW. The Lachlan flows some 1,440km with its main stream and tributaries passing towns that include Cowra, Forbes, Condobolin, Lake Cargelligo, Hillston, Booligal, and Oxley.

Concerns about the release of CyHV-3 possibly affecting other aquatic species has been a major issue and these findings may provide some assurance of safety.

However, in my 2016 column, I noted the carp-deadly herpes virus had first “appeared” in Israel in 1998 and had since migrated to 33 nations through fish commerce. This seemingly innocuous “appeared” word, read in conjunction with the normal never-say-never, careful language of science in the government final report (“strongly suggest”, “highly unlikely”) raise questions about the provenance of the new virus before it first “appeared” in Israel.

If the 1998 appearance was a mutation of a previously benign virus, obvious questions arise about future mutations, including whether such changes might be capable of jumping species once the virus is released into NSW rivers.

The current situation appears to be full steam ahead with a gung-ho Barnaby Joyce publicly making statements about plans to start the release at the end of 2018. $15m has been budgeted for the exercise.

Mini “stench rehearsal” at Hindmarsh Island

This week, ABC News reported “hundreds” of dead carp had washed up on Hindmarsh Island near the sea in South Australia. Blackwater from decomposing vegetation washing into the Murray-Darling during the 2016 floods making its way downstream is seen as responsible for the fish kills. A local resident emphasised the stench. Her words were important and portend a major concern I raised in my column last year.

Catharina Taylor told the ABC the dead and rotting carp were causing a “horrible smell” and she feared the smell would get worse in the summer heat.

She had alerted both her local council and the South Australian State Government’s Primary Industries and Regions department about the problem, who offered no help: “Only thing that I actually heard is that they cannot help, they haven’t got the manpower and we should get the community behind us,” Ms Taylor told the ABC.

Photos in the ABC report show hundreds of dead fish on the shores of the island causing the stench. I have experienced the smell of a single dead carp. It is not an experience easily forgotten. No one has reliable figures about how many carp are in Australian waters, but estimates range from 2-6 million tonnes. The Hindmarsh Island experience will be like a splinter in the handrails of the Titanic compared to the problem the “carpageddon” we are being promised.

A November report in The Land quoted University of Canberra researcher, Dr Peter Unmack, who has two decades of experience working in the Murray-Darling basin. Unmack said disposal of carp carcasses would be a major concern, as decaying fish would pile up from the first week the virus was released. This would de-oxygenate water and harm native fish. “You would need a lot of people in boats with nets scooping up dead fish.”

In all that has been written and said about the release plan, there has been no detail provided about clean up, beyond vague talk about paying locals to remove and dispose of dead fish. The Lachlan is 1,440 kilometres long, the Murrumbidgee 1,600 and the Murray-Darling, 2,507km. Great stretches of these rivers are sparsely populated. No scenarios have been painted about how many people will be needed in the clean-up, covering how many kilometres, in how many boats, and across what length of time will be required to clean it all up. And in these small towns, how many people are sitting about ready to take to the boats?

A “thought bubble” solution”?

Matt Landos, a lecturer in aquatic animal health at the University of Sydney posted important comments on my last column on this issue.

Carp are vilified as a major cause of river turbidity or cloudiness. They suck up mud looking for food. Landos argued the evidence about carp being a major cause of river turbidity is conflicted in the research literature on the issue. In 1985 Fletcher and others said of a Goulburn valley study:

There was no association between high carp densities and high turbidity, and populations of carp did not appear to increase turbidity. Observed turbidity increases at each site appeared to be related to hydrological changes. Fluctuation of water levels was also an important factor determining the extent of aquatic vegetation communities.

Landos also noted King et al (1997) had stated:

factors other than carp usually contributed to most of the variation in measured water quality in Murrumbidgee billabong.

They also observed:

Cattle grazing and clearing has altered the vegetation communities of the floodplain in this region. The floodplain vegetation now consists of scattered mature river red gums. The understorey is dominated by introduced grass and weed species. Owing to the drought conditions and grazing by cattle, vegetation in the catchments surrounding the billabongs was sparse during most of the study period; this and heavy rain towards the end of the experiment combined to cause significant sediment loss from the adjacent hills.

Dr Landos also notes carp are highly unlikely to be the primary driver of native fish declines, though often blamed. To blame carp, is to ignore the swathes of literature on the reasons native fish reproduction has failed including: loss of passage/access due to dams, weirs and irrigation gates; cold water pollution obliterating the spawning signals; pesticides killing and deforming larvae; fertiliser promoting toxic algae; salinity impacting egg hydration; and loss of habitat.

Carp have few friends. Unlike in other parts of the world, few are eaten in Australia. They are an easily scapegoated target. The herpes release seems highly likely to cause massive problems that have to date only been sketched. And all agree that while the release will reduce carp numbers dramatically, it will not eradicate them. If Landos and the researchers he cites are correct, this exercise may do little to improve water quality in our rivers either and may have signiicant collateral impacts.

The Conversation

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.