Picture the causes of air pollution in a major city and you are likely to visualise pollutants spewing out of cars, trucks and buses.
For some types of air pollutants, however, transportation is only half as important as the chemicals in everyday consumer products like cleaning agents, printer ink, and fragrances, according to a study published today in Science.
Air pollution: a chemical soup
Air pollution is a serious health concern, responsible for millions of premature deaths each year, with even more anticipated due to climate change.
Although we typically picture pollution as coming directly from cars or power plants, a large fraction of air pollution actually comes from chemical reactions that happen in the atmosphere. One necessary starting point for that chemistry is a group of hundreds of molecules collectively known as “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs).
VOCs in the atmosphere can come from many different sources, both man-made and natural. In urban areas, VOCs have historically been blamed largely on vehicle fuels (both gasoline and diesel) and natural gas.
Fuel emissions are dropping
Thanks in part to more stringent environmental regulations and in part to technological advances, VOCs released into the air by vehicles have dropped dramatically.
In this new study, the researchers used detailed energy and chemical production records to figure out what fraction of the VOCs from oil and natural gas are released by vehicle fuels versus other sources. They found that the decline in vehicle emissions means that – in a relative sense – nearly twice as much comes from chemical products as comes from vehicle fuel, at least in the US. Those chemicals include cleaning products, paints, fragrances and printer ink – all things found in modern homes.
The VOCs from these products get into the air because they evaporate easily. In fact, in many cases, this is exactly what they are designed to do. Without evaporating VOCs, we wouldn’t be able to smell the scents wafting by from perfumes, scented candles, or air fresheners.
Overall, this is a good news story: VOCs from fuel use have decreased, so the air is cleaner. Since the contribution from fuels has dropped, it is not surprising that chemical products, which have not been as tightly regulated, are now responsible for a larger share of the VOCs.
Predicting air quality
An important finding from this work is that these chemical products have largely been ignored when constructing the models that we use to predict air pollution – which impacts how we respond to and regulate pollutants.
The researchers found that ignoring the VOCs from chemical products had significant impacts on predictions of air quality. In outdoor environments, they found that these products could be responsible for as much as 60% of the particles that formed chemically in the air above Los Angeles.
The effects were even larger indoors – a major concern as we spend most of our time indoors. Without accounting for chemical products, a model of indoor air pollutants under-predicted measurements by a whopping 87%. Including the consumer products really helped to fix this problem.
What does this mean for Australia?
In Australia we do a stocktake of our VOC emissions to the air every few years. Our vehicle-related VOC emissions have also been dropping and are now only about a quarter as large as they were in 1990.
Nonetheless, the most recent check suggests most of our VOCs still come from cars and trucks, factories and fires. Still, consumer products can’t be ignored – especially as our urban population continues to grow. Because these sources are spread out across the city, their contributions can be difficult to estimate accurately.
We need to make sure our future VOC stocktakes include sources from consumer products such as cleaning fluids, indoor fragrances and home office items like printing ink. The stocktakes are used as the basis for our models, and comparing models to measurements helps us understand what affects our air quality and how best to improve it. It was a lack of model-to-measurement agreement that helped to uncover the VW vehicle emissions scandal, where the manufacturer was deliberately under-estimating how much nitrogen gas was being released through the exhaust.
If we can’t get our predictions to agree with the indoor measurements, we’ll need to work harder to identify all the emission sources correctly. This means going into typical Australian homes, making air quality measurements, and noting what activities are happening at the same time (like cooking, cleaning or decorating).
What should we do now?
If we want to keep air pollution to a minimum, it will become increasingly important to take into account the VOCs from chemical products, both in our models of air pollution and in our regulatory actions.
In the meantime, as we spend so much of our time indoors, it makes sense to try to limit our personal exposure to these VOCs. There are several things we can do, such as choosing fragrance-free cleaning products and keeping our use of scented candles and air fresheners to a minimum. Research from NASA has also shown that growing house plants like weeping figs and spider plants can help to remove some of the VOCs from indoor air.
And of course, we can always open a window (as long as we keep the outdoor air clean, too).
Emerging transport disruptions could lead to a series of nightmare scenarios and poorer transport systems unless we have sensible and informed public policy to avoid this. Of course, some foresee a utopian scene: self-driving electric vehicles zipping around our cities serving all our transport needs without road accidents or exhaust fumes. But the shift to this transport utopia might not be as straightforward as some think.
In a newly published paper, we explore some potential problems linked to vehicle electrification, autonomous vehicles, the sharing economy and the increasing density of cities. We examined what could happen if these four trends are not all properly managed together.
Much has been written about the potential benefits of these disruptions:
electric vehicles powered by renewable energy could cut costs and fossil fuel emissions, and eliminate the significant impacts of pollution on public health and the environment
shared vehicles could reduce transport costs and traffic
autonomous vehicles could eliminate traffic accidents, reduce congestion and increase mobility for everyone
However, the interplay between these trends could also result in nightmare scenarios. We developed a Future Mobility Disruption Framework to investigate what could happen if even one of these trends is not actively managed.
Four nightmare scenarios
Our research identified four potential nightmare scenarios.
Nightmare 1: vehicle electrification + autonomous vehicles + increasing urban density
If policy fails to support and manage a shift away from private vehicle ownership towards car-sharing, several negative impacts are likely. In this scenario, electric cars will be cheaper to run and still privately owned. This could encourage more people to drive and create more traffic.
The convenience of self-driving cars with low operating costs might also encourage a shift away from traditional public transport and could even cause its collapse.
Nightmare 2: autonomous vehicles + increasing urban density + shift towards sharing economy
If people shift from private car ownership towards shared, autonomous vehicles, significant transport cost savings could be possible. By replacing public transport systems, shared vehicle services could arguably provide cheap transport for all.
While these benefits are obvious, without vehicle electrification, the use of fossil fuels would significantly increase emissions. Though a reduction in emissions is plausible with a shift away from private vehicle ownership, the low cost and convenience of shared vehicles could lead to higher demand and more trips, thus increasing emissions. This pollution would increase rates of premature deaths and diseases in our cities, and worsen the impacts of climate change.
Nightmare 3: increasing urban density + shift towards sharing economy + vehicle electrification
We would again see a shift away from private vehicle ownership towards shared, electric vehicles. This would reduce transport and pollution-related health costs However, in this scenario, the vehicles would not be autonomous.
The shared vehicle fleet would require human drivers. This would result in higher costs, less efficiency and more accidents. Ultimately, this would be a barrier to the long-term sustainability and widespread use of shared vehicles.
Nightmare 4: shift towards sharing economy + vehicle electrification + autonomous vehicles
So what would happen in the face of three of the transport disruptions occurring without increasing urban density? Electric and autonomous vehicles would significantly reduce transport costs. Combined with the availability of shared services, this would lead to a substantial shift away from private vehicle ownership towards shared, electric, autonomous vehicles (SEAVs).
These vehicles would be efficient, safe and convenient, with minimal environmental impacts. At first this would seem like the ideal scenario to aim for. However, it ignores the potential impacts on urban form and density.
Without policies supporting urban density and public transport, a shift towards SEAVs would probably encourage sprawling, car-dominated cities as people would have fewer reasons to live close to work. SEAVs would be cheap and convenient. They could pick people up from their front door and drop them directly at their destination. People would likely not be as concerned with road congestion as they could carry out other activities during the trip – even working during the drive.
If people feel less restricted in where they choose to live, they might opt for larger houses and lots, further away from cities. This would not only place additional demands on infrastructure but also have a significant impact on the natural environments surrounding our cities.
This form of lower-density living would discourage active transport options, like walking and cycling, which would have negative health impacts. Urban sprawl could also have negative economic impacts as people and businesses spread out and lose the benefits of being close together.
Managing disruptions as a whole
Each of these four trends could independently yield many benefits. However, examination of these nightmare scenarios reveals that, without holistic planning and policy support for all four disruptions, negative unintended consequences are likely. Planners and policymakers must consider how these disruptions will interact.
As detailed in our paper, a range of possible policy interventions is available for managing the risks associated with these trends. These include reform of road taxation, supportive regulation and integrated planning.
Only a holistic approach to managing these disruptions will enable us to arrive at a future transport utopia.
You can read more about these transport disruptions in a forthcoming book, Three Revolutions.
Jake Whitehead, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Michael Kane, Director, Innovation and Economic Strategies, Economic Development Queensland; Research Associate, Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, Curtin University
It was reported this week that the federal Environment Department declined to prosecute Adani for failing to disclose that its Australian chief executive, Jeyakumar Janakaraj, was formerly the director of operations at a Zambian copper mine when it discharged toxic pollutants into a major river. Under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, Adani is required to reveal the environmental history of its chief executive officers, and the federal report found Adani “may have been negligent”.
The revelations come as Adani faces down the Queensland government in the planning and environment court, over allegations the company concealed the full amount of coal-laden water discharged into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands last year.
These concerns highlight some fundamental problems with the existing regulatory framework surrounding the long term utility and effectiveness of environmental conditions in upholding environmental protections for land impacted by mining projects.
How effective are environmental conditions?
In 2016, the federal government granted Adani a 60-year mining licence, as well as unlimited access to groundwater for that period.
These licences were contingent on Adani creating an environmental management plan, monitoring the ongoing impact of its mining activities on the environment, and actively minimising environmental degradation.
But are these safeguards working?
In 2015 Advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia reported several non-compliance issues with the Abbott Point Storm Water Dam, such as pest monitoring, weed eradication, establishing a register of flammable liquids, and implementation of the water monitoring plan.
More recently, in late 2017, significant amounts of black coal water were discovered in the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands next to the mine. Adani stands accused of withholding the full extent of the spill, redacting a laboratory report showing higher levels of contamination.
Adani seems to have released coalwater into the wetland despite it being a condition of its environmental approval that it takes sufficient care to avoid contamination. Its A$12,000 penalty for non-compliance is relatively small compared with the company’s operating costs.
In this instance, the environmental conditions have provided no substantive protection or utility. They have simply functioned as a convenient fig leaf for both Adani and the government.
Who is responsible for monitoring Adani?
Adani’s proposed mine falls under both state and federal legislation. Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act requires the holder of a mining lease to plan and conduct activities on site to prevent any potential or actual release of a hazardous contaminant.
Furthermore, the relevant environmental authority must make sure that hazardous spills are cleaned up as quickly as possible.
But as a project of “national environmental significance” (given its potential impact on water resources, threatened species, ecological communities, migratory species, world heritage areas and national heritage places), the mine also comes under the federal Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Federal legislation obliges Adani to create an environmental management plan outlining exactly how it plans to promote environmental protection, and to manage and rehabilitate all areas affected by the mine.
Consequently, assessment of the environmental impact of the mine was conducted under a bilateral agreement between the both the federal and state regulatory frameworks. This means that the project has approval under both state and federal frameworks.
The aim is to reinforce environmental protection however in many instances there are significant problems with a lack of clear delineation with respect to management, monitoring and enforcement.
Does the system work?
Theoretically, these interlocking frameworks should work together to provide reinforced protection for the environment. The legislation operates on the core assumption that imposing environmental conditions minimises the environmental degradation from mining. However, the bilateral arrangement can often mean that the responsibility for monitoring matters of national environmental significance devolves to the state and the environmental conditions imposed at this level are ineffectively monitored and enforced and there is no public accountability.
Arguably, some environmental conditions hide deeper monitoring and enforcement problems and in so doing, actually exacerbate environmental impacts.
For example, it has been alleged that Adani altered a laboratory report while appealing its fine for the contamination of the Caley Valley Wetlands, with the original document reportedly showing much higher levels of contamination. The allowable level of coal water in the wetlands was 100 milligrams. The original report indicated that Adani may have released up to 834 milligrams. This was subsequently modified in a follow-up report and the matter is currently under investigation.
If established, this amounts to a disturbing breach with potentially devastating impacts. It highlights not only the failure of the environmental condition to incentivise behavioural change, but also a fundamental failure in oversight and management.
If environmental conditions are not supported by sufficient monitoring processes and sanctions, they have little effect.
Environmental conditions are imposed with the aim of managing the risk of environmental degradation by mining projects. However, their enforcement is too often mired by inadequate andopaque enforcement and oversight procedures, a lack of transparency and insufficient public accountability
While the Queensland Labor government considers whether to increase the regulatory pressures on Adani, by subjecting them to further EPBC Act triggers such as the water resource trigger or the implementation of a new climate change trigger, perhaps the more fundamental question is whether these changes will ultimately improve environmental protection in the absence of stronger transparency and accountability and more robust management and enforcement processes for environmental conditions attached to mining projects.