A tale of two valleys: Latrobe and Hunter regions both have coal stations, but one has far worse mercury pollution


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Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Monash University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, and Simon Haberle, Australian National UniversityWe know coal-fired power stations can generate high levels of carbon dioxide, but did you know they can be a major source of mercury emissions as well?

Our new research compared the level of mercury pollution in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Latrobe Valley in Victoria.

And we found power stations in the Latrobe Valley emit around 10 times more mercury than power stations in the Hunter Valley. Indeed, the mercury level in the Latrobe Valley environment is 14 times higher than what’s typically natural for the region.

So why is there such a stark difference between states? Well, it has a lot to do with regulations.

Following a NSW requirement for power stations to install pollution control technology, mercury levels in the environment dropped. In Victoria, on the other hand, coal-fired power stations continue to operate without some of the air pollution controls NSW and other developed countries have mandated.

To minimise the safety risks that come with excessive mercury pollution, coal-fired power stations in all Australian jurisdictions should adopt the best available technologies to reduce mercury emissions.

A dangerous neurotoxin

Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it can damage the nervous system, brain and other organs when a person or animal is exposed to unsafe levels.

Coal naturally contains mercury. So when power stations burn coal, mercury is released to the atmosphere and is then deposited back onto the Earth’s surface. When a high level of mercury ends up in bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, it can be transferred to fish and other aquatic organisms, exposing people and larger animals to mercury that feed on these fish.




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Mercury does not readily degrade or leave aquatic environments such as lakes and rivers. It’s a persistent toxic element — once present in water, it’s there to stay.

The amount of mercury emitted depends on the type of coal burnt (black or brown) and the type of pollution control devices the power stations use.

The Latrobe Valley stations in Victoria burn brown coal, which has more mercury than the black coal typically found in NSW. Despite this, Victorian regulations have historically not placed specific limits on mercury emissions.

In contrast, NSW power plants are required to use “bag filters”, a technology that’s used to trap mercury (and other) particles before they enter the atmosphere.

While bag filters alone fall short of the world’s best practices, they can still be effective. In fact, after bag filters were retrofitted to Hunter Valley’s Liddell power station in the early 1990s, mercury deposition in the surrounding environment halved.

Mercury deposited in sediments of Lake Glenbawn (left) in the Hunter Valley and Traralgon Railway Reservoir (right) in the Latrobe Valley.

The best available technology to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is a combination of “wet flue-gas desulfurization” (which removes mercury in its gaseous form) and bag filters (which removes mercury bound to particles).

This is what’s been adopted across North America and parts of Europe. It not only filters out mercury, but also removes sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxic air compounds.

Using lake sediments to see into the past

Lake sediments can capture mercury deposited from the atmosphere and from surrounding areas. Sediments that contain this mercury accumulate at the bottom of lakes over time — the deeper the sediment, the further back in time we can analyse.

We took sediment samples from lakes in the Latrobe and Hunter valleys, and dated them back to 1940 to get a historical record of mercury deposition.

This information can help us understand how much naturally occurring mercury there was before coal-fired power stations were built, and therefore show us the impact of burning coal.

A power station by a lake
Lake Narracan: one of the lakes we sampled sediments from, near a coal-fired power station in Latrobe Valley.
Larissa Schneider, Author provided

From these records, we found the adoption of bag filters in the Hunter Valley corresponded with mercury depositions declining in NSW from the 1990s.

In contrast, in Victoria, where there’s been no such requirement, mercury emissions and depositions have continued to increase since Hazelwood power station was completed in 1971.

What do we do about it?

In March, the Victorian government announced changes to the regulatory licence conditions for brown coal-fired power stations. Although mercury emissions allowances have been included for the first time, they’re arguably still too high, and there’s no requirement to install specific pollution control technologies.

There’s a risk this approach won’t reduce mercury emissions from existing levels. Victoria should instead consider more ambitious regulations that encourage the adoption of best practice technology to help protect local communities and the environment.

Coal-fired power station at the end of a road, at night
Loy Yang power station, Victoria’s largest, burns brown coal which contains more mercury.
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Another vital step toward protecting human health and the environment from mercury is for the federal government to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty to protect human health and the environment from mercury.

Despite signing the convention in 2013, the Australian government is yet to ratify it, which is required to make it legally binding in Australia.

Ratifying the convention will oblige state and federal governments to develop and implement a strategy to reduce mercury emissions, including from coal-fired power stations across Australia. And this strategy should include rolling out effective technologies — our research shows it can make a big difference.


The authors acknowledge Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air for her contributions to this article.




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The Conversation


Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Lecturer, Monash University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, Professor of Environmental Pollution and Palaeolimnology, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, Associate Professor, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frequent extreme bushfires are our new reality. We need to learn how to live with smoke-filled air



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Gabriel da Silva, University of Melbourne

As fires ravaged large sections of the Australian bush last summer, cities and towns all along the coast were blanketed in toxic smoke. Air pollutants were measured at unheard of levels across the country.

Hazardous air descended on cities hundreds of kilometres away from the fires themselves. This air was the most dangerous to breathe on the planet.




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The bushfire royal commission was tabled on October 30, with some sobering findings about fires and air pollution. Unfortunately, it showed that as a nation we were not prepared to deal with this public health emergency.

These disasters are inevitable under climate change, and while we need to urgently act on climate change to protect future generations, we also need to make changes now to mitigate the risks that already face us.

Australia must get better at communicating how to identify and then stay safe in hazardous air. A national set of air quality categories would go a long way to achieving this.

Over 400 deaths attributed to bushfire smoke

The royal commission heard that air pollution from the summer fires likely caused more than 400 deaths. Thousands of additional hospital admissions put added strain on our hospitals. All up the added burden to our health system was estimated at almost A$2 billion.

Even in the absence of extreme natural disasters, air pollution is one of Australia’s biggest public health concerns. Pollution from all sources causes thousands of deaths per year. This includes emissions from coal-fired power stations, diesel cars and wood-fired heaters.

Better preparing ourselves to deal with bushfire smoke will have flow-on benefits in tackling these problems.

Different state, different health advice

The royal commission found “there is an urgent need for national consistency in the categorisation of air quality”. At the moment, every state has their own system to categorise air quality and communicate it to the public.




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But there are major discrepancies with how different states identify the worst air quality.

Air quality is the sum impact of the concentration of various unhealthy chemicals in the air. These include ozone, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, and fine particulate matter. To communicate this to the public, most countries convert these chemical concentrations into an Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the US, there is a standardised AQI categorisation for the whole country.

In Australia, the situation is very different. Every state has its own bands, with their own colour codes. These bands trigger at different pollutant levels and carry different health advice. The Royal Commission told us this needs to be standardised, and now.

For example, in NSW the worst air quality category is “Hazardous”, which triggers at an AQI of 200. South Australia, however, only recognises “Very Poor” as the worst class of air quality, with an AQI of 150 and above.

During the summer bushfires, AQI values as high as 5,000 were measured. It’s clear the highest bands of air pollution are no longer appropriate.

We need a national air quality system

We have faced a similar problem before. After Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in 2009, we recognised that our fire danger ratings were inadequate.

The Black Saturday royal commission found we needed a higher category for the most dangerous fire conditions. The “Catastrophic” category (“CODE RED” in Victoria) was added. It carried clear advice about what to do in such dangerous conditions, instructing people to safely leave as early as possible.

Fire danger rating sign in front of a grass fire
The ‘CODE RED’ or ‘Catastrophic’ fire danger rating was added after the Black Saturday fires.
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Something similar now needs to happen with air quality ratings.

When facing future extreme bushfires, we need a way to identify when catastrophic conditions have led to air so unhealthy that everyone should take precautions, such as staying indoors and wearing masks. We then need to get clear health advice out to the public.




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A national air quality rating system could achieve this, and would also help address other important recommendations of the Royal Commission: That we need improved means of getting reliable information out to the public, along with better community education around what to do when air quality plummets.

There’s work to do

An Australian AQI should be featured on national weather reports and forecasts, providing important health information to the public every day of the year. At the same time it would familiarise Australians with air quality measures and actions that need to be taken to protect ourselves from unhealthy air.

But there is work to do. First, we need to develop a new set of air quality categories that work for the entire country, and reflects both the everyday hazards of industrial pollution and the extreme dangers of bushfires. These categories also need to be matched with sound health advice.




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And if we are going to report these measures more widely then we also need to get better at measuring and predicting air quality across the nation — two other important royal commission recommendations.

Achieving all of this won’t be easy. But if we can get it right then we will be much better placed to deal with smoke risk the next time severe bushfires inevitably happen.The Conversation

Gabriel da Silva, Senior Lecturer in Chemical Engineering, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to cut your fuel bill, clear the air and reduce emissions: stop engine idling



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Robin Smit, University of Technology Sydney and Clare Walter, The University of Queensland

The transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, pumping out almost 20% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. But everyday drivers can make a difference.

In particular, the amount of time you let your car engine idle can have a significant impact on emissions and local air quality. Engine idling is when the car engine is running while the vehicle is stationary, such as at a red light.

Opting for a bike is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint.
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A new Transport Energy/Emission Research report found in normal traffic conditions, Australians likely idle more than 20% of their drive time.

This contributes 1% to 8% of total carbon dioxide emissions over the journey, depending on the vehicle type. To put that into perspective, removing idling from the journey would be like removing up to 1.6 million cars from the road.




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Excessive idling (idling for longer than five minutes) could increase this contribution further, particularly for trucks and buses. When you also consider how extensive idling may create pollution hot spots around schools, this isn’t something to take lightly.

Pollution hot spots

Reducing idling doesn’t just lower your carbon footprint, it can also lower your fuel costs up to 10% or more.

Drivers simply have to turn their engines off while parked and wait in their vehicle. Perhaps crack open a window to maintain comfortable conditions, rather than switching on the air conditioner.

Some idling is unavoidable such as waiting for a traffic light or driving in congested conditions, but other idling is unnecessary, such as while parked.




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When many cars are idling in the same location, it can create poor local air quality. For example, idling has been identified overseas as a significant factor in higher pollution levels in and around schools. That’s because parents or school buses don’t turn off their engines when they drop off their kids or wait for them outside.

Parked you car? Turn off the engine.
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Even small reductions in vehicle emissions can have health benefits, such as reducing asthma, allergies and systemic inflammation in Australian children. In 2019, Australian researchers identified that even small increases of exposure to vehicle pollution were associated with an increased risk of childhood asthma and reduced lung function.

Anti-idling campaigns make a difference

Overseas studies show anti-idling campaigns and driver education can help improve air quality around schools, with busses and passenger cars switching off their engines more frequently.

In the US and Canada, local and state governments have enacted voluntary or mandatory anti-idling legislation, to address complaints and reduce fuel use, emissions and noise.

The results have been promising. In California, a range of measures – including anti-idling policies – aimed at reducing school children’s exposure to vehicle emissions were linked to the development of larger, healthier lungs in children.




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But in Australia, we identified almost no anti-idling initiatives or idle reduction legislation, despite calls for them in 2017.

However, “eco-driving”, as well as a promising new campaign called “Idle Off” is poised to roll out to secondary school students in Australia.

What about commercial vehicles?

Commercial vehicles can idle for long periods of time. In the US, typical long-haul trucks idle an estimated 1,800 hours per year when parked at truck stops, although a significant range of between 1,000 and 2,500 hours per year has also been reported.




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Fleet operators and logistics companies are therefore in a good position to roll out idle reduction initiatives and save on operating (fuel) costs while reducing emissions.

In fact, fleet operators overseas have actively sought to reduce idling emissions. This is not surprising as fuel costs are the second-largest expense for fleets, behind driver wages, typically accounting for 20% of a trucking fleet’s total operating costs.

The transport sector contributes 18.8% of Australia’s total emissions.
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Various technologies are available overseas that reduce idling emissions, such as stop-start systems, anti-idling devices (trucks) and battery electric vehicles.

But unlike other developed countries, Australia doesn’t have fuel efficiency or carbon dioxide emission standards. This means vehicle manufacturers have no incentive to include idle reduction technologies (or other fuel-saving technologies) in vehicles sold in Australia.

For example, the use of stop-start systems is rapidly growing overseas, but it’s unclear how many stop-start systems are used in new Australian cars.

Emission reduction technologies also come with extra costs for the vehicle manufacturer, making them less appealing, although cost benefits of reduced fuel use would pass on to consumers. This situation probably won’t change unless mandatory emission standards are implemented.

In any case, it’s easy for drivers to simply turn the key and shut down the engine when suitable. Reducing idling doesn’t require technologies.

Reducing your carbon footprint

If reducing emissions or saving money at the fuel bowser is not enough incentive, then perhaps, in time, exposing children to unnecessary idling emissions will be regarded in the same socially unacceptable light as smoking around children.




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And of course, there are other measures to reduce your transport carbon footprint. Drive a smaller car, and avoid diesel cars. Despite their reputation, Australian diesel cars emit, on average, about 10% more carbon dioxide per kilometre than petrol cars.

Or better yet, where possible, dust off that push bike, or walk.The Conversation

Robin Smit, Adjunct associate professor, University of Technology Sydney and Clare Walter, PhD Candidate, Honorary Research Fellow, Advocacy Consultant., The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Air quality near busy Australian roads up to 10 times worse than official figures



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Hugh Forehead, University of Wollongong

Air quality on Australia’s roads matters. On any given day (when we’re not in lockdown) people meet, commute, exercise, shop and walk with children near busy streets. But to date, air quality monitoring at roadsides has been inadequate.

I and my colleagues wanted to change that. Using materials purchased from electronics and hardware stores for around A$150, we built our own air quality monitors.

Our newly published research reveals how our devices detected particulate pollution at busy intersections at levels ten times worse than background levels measured at official air monitoring stations.




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These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown


Our open-source design means citizen scientists can make their own devices to measure air quality, and make the data publicly available.

This would provide more valuable data about city traffic pollution, giving people the information they need to protect their health.

Air pollution can have serious health consequences.
Tim Wimborne/Reuters

Particulate matter: a tiny killer

Everyone is exposed to airborne particulate matter emitted by industry, transport and natural sources such as bushfires and dust storms.

Particulate matter from traffic is a mixture of toxic compounds, both solid and liquid. It’s a well-known health hazard, particularly for children, the elderly, pedestrians, cyclists and people working on or near roads.

Particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, referred to as PM2.5, is particularly harmful. To put this in context, a human hair is about 100 micrometres in width.

When inhaled, these fine particles can damage heart and brain function, circulation, breathing and the immune and endocrine systems. They have also been linked to cancer and low birth weight in newborns.

Do-it-yourself air monitoring

Highly reliable equipment to measure air quality has traditionally been expensive, and is not deployed widely.

Official air quality monitoring usually takes place open spaces or parks, to provide an averaged, background reading of pollution across a wide area. The monitoring stations are not typically placed at pollution sources, such as power stations or roads.

However there is growing evidence that people travelling outdoors near busy city roads are exposed to high levels of traffic emissions.

An air quality monitor built by the researchers and painted purple, attached to a light pole in Liverpool, Sydney.
Author supplied

Air quality monitors can be bought off the shelf at low cost, but their readings are not always reliable.

So I and other researchers at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility made our own monitors. They essentially consist of a sensor, weatherproof housing, a controller and a fan. Anyone with basic electronics knowledge and assembly skills can make and install one. The monitor connects to the internet (we used The Things Network) and the software required to run it and collect the data is available for free here.

The weatherproof housing cost about A$16 to make. It consists of PVC plumbing parts, a few screws and small pieces of fibreglass insect screen, which can be bought at any hardware store.

Sensors can be bought from electronics retailers for little as A$30, but many are not tested, calibrated or overseen by experts and can be inaccurate. We tested three, and chose the Novasense SDS011, which we bought for A$32.

A controller is needed to run the monitor and send data to the internet. We bought ours from an online retailer for under A$60. A fan, needed to circulate air through the housing, was bought from Jaycar for A$14.

Accounting for wiring and a few other parts, our monitors cost under A$150 each to make – ten times cheaper than mid-grade commercial detectors – and produce reasonably accurate results.

What we found

Following community meetings, we deployed our sensors at nine key locations and intersections around Liverpool in Western Sydney, a region which has traditionally suffered from poor air quality.

Our monitors have been in place since March 2018, placed close to pedestrian height on structures such as light poles, shade awnings or walls.




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They have detected roadside measurements of PM2.5 at values of up to 280 micrograms per cubic metre in morning peak traffic. This is more than ten times the readings at the nearest official monitoring station. The severity of the pollution and how long it lasts depends on how bad the traffic is.

These findings are comparable to other studies of busy roads.

Pollution from vehicle emissions can have serious health consequences.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Breathing easier

Our experience of roadside air quality can be improved in a number of ways.

Obviously, exposure to air pollution is worst at peak traffic times, so plan your travel to avoid these times, if possible.

Pollution levels drop quickly with distance from busy roads and can be at near background levels just one block away. So try to detour along quieter back streets or through parks.

Barriers, such as dense roadside vegetation, can shield pedestrians from pollution. Children in prams are more exposed to traffic pollution than adults, as they are closer to the level of vehicle exhaust pipes. Pram covers can reduce infants’ exposure by up to 39%.

Of course, the best way to reduce air pollution from traffic is to have fewer vehicles on our roads, and cleaner fuel and engines.

In the meantime, we hope our low-cost technology will prompt citizen scientists to develop their own sensors, producing the data we need to breathe easy in city streets.




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The Conversation


Hugh Forehead, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

These 5 images show how air pollution changed over Australia’s major cities before and after lockdown



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Elena Sánchez-García, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, University of the Sunshine Coast

Have you recently come across photos of cities around the world with clear skies and more visibility?

In an unexpected silver lining to this tragic crisis, urban centres, such as around Wuhan in China, northern Italy and Spain, have recorded a vastly lower concentration of air pollution since confinement measures began to fight the spread of COVID-19.

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Likewise, the Himalayas have been visible from northern India for the first time in 30 years.

But what about Australia?

Researchers from the Land and Atmosphere Remote Sensing group at the Physical Technology Center in the Polytechnic University of Valencia – Elena Sánchez García, Itziar Irakulis Loitxate and Luis Guanter – have analysed satellite data from the new Sentinel-5P satellite mission of the Copernicus program of the European Space Agency.

The data shows a big improvement to pollution levels over some of our major cities – but in others, pollution has, perhaps surprisingly, increased.

These images measure level of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, an important indicator of air quality. They show changes in nitrogen dioxide concentrations between March 11 to March 25 (before lockdown effectively began) and March 26 to April 11 (after lockdown).

Why nitrogen dioxide?

Nitrogen dioxide in urban air originates from combustion reactions at high temperatures. It’s mainly produced from coal in power plants and from vehicles.

High concentrations of this gas can affect the respiratory system and aggravate certain medical conditions, such as asthma. At extreme levels, this gas helps form acid rain.

Coronavirus: nitrogen dioxide emissions drop over Italy.

Declining nitrogen dioxide concentrations across Europe in the northern hemisphere are normally expected around this time – between the end of winter and beginning of spring – due to increased air motion.

But the observed decreases in many metropolises across Europe, India and China since partial and full lockdowns began seem to be unprecedented.

Nitrogen dioxide levels across Australia

Preliminary results of the satellite data analysis are a mixed bag. Some urban centres such as Brisbane and Sydney are indeed showing an expected decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentrations that correlates with the containment measures to fight COVID-19.

On average, pollution in both cities fell by 30% after the containment measures.

Like a heat map, the red in the images shows a higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide, while the green and yellow show less.



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CC BY-ND

On the other hand, nitrogen dioxide concentrations have actually increased by 20% for Newcastle, the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, and by 40% for Melbourne, a sprawling city with a high level of car dependency. Perth does not show a significant change.



CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

CC BY-ND

We don’t know why pollution has increased in these cities across this time period, as 75% of Melbourne’s pollution normally comes from vehicle emissions and most people are travelling less.

It could be because the autumn hazard reduction burns have begun in Melbourne. Or it may be due to other human activities, such as more people using electricity and gas while they stay home.

Pollution changes with the weather

Understanding how air pollution changes is challenging, and requires thorough research because of its variable nature.

We know atmospheric conditions, especially strong winds and rain, are a big influence to pollution patterns – wind and rain can scatter pollution, so it’s less concentrated.

Blue skies over Chinese cities as COVID-19 lockdown temporarily cuts air pollution.

Other factors, such as the presence of additional gases and particles lingering in the atmosphere – like those resulting from the recent bushfires – also can change air pollution levels, but their persistence and extent aren’t clear.




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Changes should be permanent

If the decrease in nitrogen dioxide concentration across cities such as Brisbane and Sydney is from containment measures to fight COVID-19, it’s important we try to keep pollution from increasing again.

We know air pollution kills. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates around 3,000 deaths per year in Australia can be attributed to urban air pollution.

Yet, Australia lags on policies to reduce air pollution.




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COVID-19 has given us the rare opportunity to empirically observe the positive effects of changing our behaviours and slowing down industry and transport.

But to make it last, we need permanent changes. We can do this by improving public transport to reduce the number of cars on the road; electrifying mass transit; and, most importantly, replacing fossil fuel generation with renewable energy and other low-carbon sources. These changes would bring us immediate health benefits.The Conversation

Elena Sánchez-García, Postdoctoral researcher at LARS group, Universitat Politècnica de València and Javier Leon, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s bushfire smoke is lapping the globe, and the law is too lame to catch it



Smoke form Australia’s bushfires could be seen from space. But who should be held to account for the problem?
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Western Sydney University

Smoke from Australia’s bushfires has travelled far beyond its origins. It crossed New Zealand and South America, and within days had drifted halfway around the globe. NASA predicted the smoke would complete a full circuit and arrive back where it started.

As climate change takes hold and global temperatures rise, bushfires are set to increase in severity and frequency. The underlying cause of the fires and resulting smoke haze are often numerous – spanning both natural variability and climate change caused by individuals, governments and corporations.

Legal and policy frameworks – local, national and international – fail to capture these diffused responsibilities. Despite the proliferation of climate-related laws in recent decades, bushfire smoke still largely escapes regulation and containment. In this new era of monster fires, our laws need a major rethink.

Smoke haze blanketing Sydney late last year.
NEIL BENNETT/AAP

A short history of smoke

Smoke is obviously not a new phenomenon – it has polluted Earth’s air since the invention of fire.

In Egypt and Peru, evidence of ancient soot has been found in the lung tissue of mummies, thought to be the result of humans inhaling smoke particles from wood heaters and elsewhere.

The Romans referred to the gravioris caeli (“heavy heaven”) and infamis aer (“infamous air”). Ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote to a friend of his relief at escaping the polluted city:

No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city Rome and that reek of smoking cookers which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated in their interiors whenever they’re started up, than I noticed the change in my condition.




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Smoke pollution grew worse during the Industrial Revolution, as coal-burning factories proliferated across Europe and the United States. In London, 12,000 people are believed to have died in the Great Smog of 1952.

In Australia too, air pollution, including from bushfire smoke, is not new. However laws to deal with it have traditionally targeted pollution from industry, transport, power generation, and vehicles. Until now, bushfire smoke has been seen as a natural phenomenon, outside human control.

Indonesian women wear protective masks as they perform a mass prayer for rain to combat the smoke haze and drought season in Indonesia.
AFRIANTO SILALAHI

Where to point the finger?

Australia’s fires are not the first to be felt far from their origin.

Slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia regularly spreads smoke across Southeast Asia. In September last year, winds reportedly carried the smoke north to Malaysia and Singapore, prompting schools to close and triggering a mass public health scare.

In 2018, smoke from wildfires on the west coast of the United States reportedly travelled to the east coast of the continent to states such as Missouri, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts.




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As climate change worsens, and so too the frequency and extent of bushfires, it is critical that all efforts are made to prevent smoke from being emitted in the first place, and spreading around the world. However this requires identifying those responsible – a slippery concept when climate change is involved.

The Bureau of Meteorology recently confirmed what many strongly suspected: climate change contributed to Australia’s hottest, driest year on record on 2019, which led to the extreme bushfire season.

Following the latest bushfire outbreak, some declared Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his government responsible for failing to take meaningful action on climate change.

Sharnie Moran and daughter Charlotte look on as thick smoke rises from a fire near Coffs Harbour, NSW.
Dan Peled/AAP

The federal and state governments and some quarters of the media in turn blamed others, such as arsonists and conservationists, for the fires – claims which were quickly discredited.

There is also a strong argument to hold corporations responsible for climate change – one analysis in 2017 found that just 100 companies were responsible for more than 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

But whether we blame a particular government or other human actors, the current suite of international laws are insufficient for holding them to account.

The law has failed

The number of global climate change laws has increased 20-fold between 1997 and 2017, from 60 to 1,260.

But despite this proliferation, the world is not on track to limiting planetary warming to less than 1.5℃ this century – a threshold beyond which the worst climate change impacts, including uncontrollable bushfires, will be felt.




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This is because most of the laws and policies consist of “declarations” and soft law – that which is not legally binding, and so is easily ignored. Few deal with issues of restorative justice – until now a criminal law concept which involves repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour.

Experts have argued that the idea could be applied to disasters, drawing all parties to come together to deal with its aftermath and implications for the future.

The United Nations, which last year released the first-ever assessment of global environmental rules, says weak enforcement was “a global trend that is exacerbating environmental threats” including climate change and pollution. It also pointed to the need to properly fund government agencies responsible for enforcing laws.

Beachgoers in Sydney amid smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales.
STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

Looking ahead

Many climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, are almost invisible. But bushfire smoke rapidly engulfs a city skyline. It travels beyond national borders and is impossible to ignore.

As fire seasons worsen, political leaders will come under increasing pressure to stem the emission and spread of bushfire smoke. Key to this will be stronger climate change laws and enforcement, which recognise that a bushfire in one country can quickly become the world’s problem.The Conversation

Eric Kerr, Lecturer, National University of Singapore and Malini Sur, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Even for an air pollution historian like me, these past weeks have been a shock



Throughout history, Australian bushfires have spread smoke over our cities. But this time it’s different.
David Mariuz/AAP

Nancy Cushing, University of Newcastle

Smoke from this season’s bushfires has turned the sun red, the moon orange and the sky an insipid grey. It has obscured iconic views tourists flock to see. Far more than an aesthetic problem, it has forced business shutdowns, triggered health problems and kept children indoors for weeks.

City dwellers in southeast Australia have been forced to take a crash course in the finer points of air pollution. We’ve learned about the dangers of inhaling tiny PM2.5 particles (those 2.5 microns or fewer in diameter). We’ve learned that only a close-fitting P2 mask will do much to protect us.

Still, we wear disposable paper masks and hold handkerchiefs to our faces, hoping any amount of filtering is helpful.

A police officer wears a mask while on duty at Parliament House in Canberra.
NARENDRA SHRESTHA/AAP

Even for an historian of air pollution like me, this situation is a shock. It is not the first time Australia’s major cities have been shrouded in bushfire smoke. But the terrible air quality is unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent.

Historically, air pollution from smoke was considered outside human control and not subject to regulation. But these bushfires are clearly linked to global warming, for which government, corporations and individuals are responsible. It’s time to rethink the way we protect air quality.

The history of smoke

In recent weeks, apps such as AirVisual have confirmed what we city dwellers can already see and smell: since the fires on the north coast of NSW began in late October, our air quality has plummeted.

The New South Wales government’s Air Quality Index data has shown that since late October, days when the index was higher than 100 – signalling exposure is unhealthy – have outnumbered clear days in Sydney, Newcastle and the Illawarra.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Index readings above 2,550 have been recorded in Sydney, while the Monash monitoring site in Canberra reached a choking 5,185 at 8pm on New Year’s Day.

Bushfire smoke has affected the cities of NSW and the Australian Capital Territory in the past. In late January 1926, when Canberra was just emerging as a city, a thick haze of smoke sat over the site. Fires came within metres of Yarralumla, the residence which, the following year, would become home to the Governor-General.

In several years in the mid 1930s, bushfires burning to the north of Sydney left the city air thick with smoke. In October 1936, bushfire smoke forced a motor liner arriving from Hong Kong to warily enter the harbour sounding its siren, because it was invisible to signallers on South Head.

A New Zealand pilot, flying into Sydney from Longreach the following month, had to fly blind in “great clouds of dense smoke” covering much of NSW. In 1939, Canberra was covered by what visiting writer HG Wells described as a “streaming smoke curtain”.




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In the summer of 1944, Sydney was again enveloped in a smoke haze, this time from fires in the Blue Mountains and (later Royal) National Park in November. Photographs published at the time show the Sydney Harbour Bridge barely visible through dust and smoke at midday. The ongoing fires were blamed for an increase in diseases of the ears, nose and throat, and for cases of influenza and pneumonia, leading to a shortage of hospital beds.

A satellite image showing fires burning on Australia’s east coast.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY

In November 1951, all of NSW was said to be blacked out by bushfire smoke. In Sydney on the worst days, records show all four of the city’s airfields were closed because of “smoke-fog”.

A hazy legal framework

In each of these episodes, bushfire smoke disrupted transport, commerce, health and the enjoyment of the urban environment. But even as other forms of air pollution began to be regulated, smoke from bushfires escaped legislative attention.

What was understood as air pollution were the unwanted byproducts of industrial processes, whereas bushfire smoke was viewed as natural.




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In NSW in 1866, an act based on British legislation restricted smoke from mills, distilleries and gas works. Further limitations on smoke production in built-up areas were included in later acts governing public health (1902), motor traffic (1909) and local government (1919).

After World War II Newcastle, the site of the country’s largest concentration of coal-burning heavy industry, began to pay closer attention to managing air quality. This pioneering work was given added urgency after 4,000 people died in heavy London smog in 1952.

A woman seen wearing a face mask as smoke haze from bushfires blankets Sydney.
JOEL CARRETT/AAP

In 1958, a NSW parliamentary committee delivered a report into smoke abatement. It did not mention recent issues with bushfire smoke, and also dismissed the impact of domestically produced smoke. The subsequent 1961 Clean Air Act focused on air pollution from industry, transport and power generation.

Air pollution legislation continued to evolve in following decades, targeting motor vehicle emissions in the 1970s, backyard burning of waste in the 1980s, and wood fires used to heat homes in the 1990s.

These measures have been successful. A 2006 study found that between 1998 and 2003, on the limited occasions when standards for PM10 in six Australian cities were exceeded, the main sources were not industry or transport, but dust storms and bushfires (with the exception of Launceston, where heating fires were the main contributor).

A young man jumps from a rock in Sydney during smoke haze.
Steven Saphore/AAP

Looking ahead

Today, bushfire smoke is excluded from air quality regulations, despite its obvious role in pollution. It is still considered natural, and beyond human control.

However the link between the current fires and human-caused climate change, long predicted by climate scientists, suggests this exemption is no longer valid.




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As the Australian National University’s Tom Griffiths has written, the current fires in some ways repeat patterns of the past. But “the smoke is worse, more widespread and more enduring”.

When Australia begins the recovery from these fires, our business-as-usual approach requires a rethink. Measures to protect air quality should be a major part of this.

It is time that corporations, governments and societies which contribute to global heating be held to account for more frequent, intense and widespread bushfires, and the smoke which billows from them.The Conversation

Nancy Cushing, Associate professor, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: seven reasons to be wary of waste-to-energy proposals



Many developed countries already have significant waste-to-energy operations and therefore less material going to landfill.

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I was in Switzerland recently and discovered that they haven’t had any landfill since the early 2000s, because all of their waste is either recycled or incinerated to produce electricity. How “green” is it to incinerate waste in order to produce electricity? Is it something New Zealand should consider, so that 1) we have no more landfill, and 2) we can replace our fossil-fuel power stations with power stations that incinerate waste?

Burning rubbish to generate electricity or heat sounds great: you get rid of all your waste and also get seemingly “sustainable” energy. What could be better?

Many developed countries already have significant “waste-to-energy” incineration plants and therefore less material going to landfill (although the ash has to be landfilled). These plants often have recycling industries attached to them, so that only non-recyclables end up in the furnace. If it is this good, why the opposition?

Here are seven reasons why caution is needed when considering waste-to-energy incineration plants.




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Stifling innovation and waste reduction

  1. Waste-to-energy plants require a high-volume, guaranteed waste stream for about 25 years to make them economically viable. If waste-to-energy companies divert large amounts of waste away from landfills, they need to somehow get more waste to maintain their expensive plants. For example, Sweden imports its waste from the UK to feed its “beasts”.

  2. The waste materials that are easiest to source and have buyers for recycling – like paper and plastic – also produce most energy when burned.

  3. Waste-to-energy destroys innovation in the waste sector. As a result of China not accepting our mixed plastics, people are now combining plastics with asphalt to make roads last longer and are making fence posts that could be replacing treated pine posts (which emit copper, chrome and arsenic into the ground). If a convenient waste-to-energy plant had been available, none of this would have happened.

  4. Waste-to-energy reduces jobs. Every job created in the incineration industry removes six jobs in landfill, 36 jobs in recycling and 296 jobs in the reuse industry.

  5. Waste-to-energy works against a circular economy, which tries to keep goods in circulation. Instead, it perpetuates our current make-use-dispose mentality.

  6. Waste-to-energy only makes marginal sense in economies that produce coal-fired electricity – and then only as a stop-gap measure until cleaner energy is available. New Zealand has a green electricity generation system, with about 86% already coming from renewable sources and a target of 100% renewable by 2035, so waste-to-energy would make it a less renewable energy economy.

  7. Lastly, burning waste and contaminated plastics creates a greater environmental impact than burning the equivalent oil they are made from. These impacts include the release of harmful substances like dioxins and vinyl chloride as well as mixtures of many other harmful substances used in making plastics, which are not present in oil.




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Landfills as mines of the future

European countries were driven to waste-to-energy as a result of a 2007 directive that imposed heavy penalties for countries that did not divert waste from landfills. The easiest way for those countries to comply was to install waste-to-energy plants, which meant their landfill waste dropped dramatically.

New Zealand does not have these sorts of directives and is in a better position to work towards reducing, reusing and recycling end-of-life materials, rather than sending them to an incinerator to recover some of the energy used to make them.

Is New Zealand significantly worse than Europe in managing waste? About a decade ago, a delegation from Switzerland visited New Zealand Ministry for the Environment officials to compare progress in each of the waste streams. Both parties were surprised to learn that they had managed to divert roughly the same amount of waste from landfill through different routes.

This shows that it is important New Zealand doesn’t blindly follow the route other countries have used and hope for the same results. Such is the case for waste-to-energy.

There is also an argument to be made for current landfills. Modern, sanitary landfills seal hazardous materials and waste stored over the last 50 years presents future possibilities of landfill mining.

Many landfills have higher concentrations of precious metals, particularly gold, than mines and some are being mined for those metals. As resources become scarcer and prices increase, our landfills may become the mines of the future.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Zealand poised to introduce clean car standards and incentives to cut emissions



Australia and Russia could soon be the last remaining developed nations without fuel efficiency standards, with New Zealand proposing new rules and financial incentives to get more people driving cleaner cars.
http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Robert McLachlan, Massey University

The New Zealand government has proposed new fuel standards to cut greenhouse emissions, along with consumer rebates for cleaner cars – paid for by fees on high-polluting cars.

The long-awaited proposed changes would bring New Zealand in line with most other developed countries; apart from New Zealand, Russia and Australia are the last remaining OECD nations without fuel efficiency standards.

New Zealand’s long tradition of not regulating its car market, combined with substantial indirect subsidies for private cars, makes addressing emissions from the transport sector both challenging and highly significant.




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New Zealand’s second-rate car fleet

Land transport emissions – the single largest source of fossil carbon dioxide in New Zealand – grew 93% between 1990 and 2017. There are multiple causes. The population grew 44% during this period, mostly through immigration. The car ownership rate also grew rapidly, partly due to economic growth and deficiencies in public transport in the main cities. Car ownership in New Zealand is now the highest in the OECD and there are more motor vehicles than adults.

Fuel efficiency improved only slowly over this period, before stalling in recent years: at 180g CO₂/km, the emissions of newly imported vehicles in New Zealand are 50% higher than in Europe. Because of the lack of a fuel efficiency standard, importers provide less efficient versions of their bestsellers to the New Zealand market. Of the ten bestselling new vehicles, five are utes (which also benefit from a fringe benefit tax exemption, four are SUVs and one is a regular car.

In addition, half of all vehicles are imported secondhand, mostly from Japan. They are cheap, but less efficient than newer models. Emissions, and congestion, are likely to continue rising as the national vehicle fleet is increasing by 110,000 vehicles a year.

One bright spot in the present situation is the emergence of an electric vehicle segment, mostly driven by the availability of cheap second-hand Nissan Leafs from Japan and the construction of a fast-charging network by a private company. Although sales have stalled in the past year at a market share of 2%, there are now 15,000 electric vehicles in New Zealand. (Australia has around 10,000 electric vehicles.)

New Zealand’s history of fuel taxes

New Zealand does not have a strong record of taxing “bads”. The only goods subject to excise taxes are tobacco, alcohol and fuel. The fuel tax is moderate by international standards. Over the past decade, the fuel tax has been fully allocated to road construction and maintenance.

New Zealand has an emissions trading scheme. The current carbon price of NZ$25/tonne of carbon dioxide adds five cents per litre to the price of fuel. Clearly, any likely increases in the carbon price are not going to be enough to change car buying decisions. Research shows that consumers tend to focus on upfront costs, while underestimating future fuel and maintenance costs.

Despite that, a special Auckland fuel tax of 10 cents per litre that co-funds public transport investment provoked a brief but intense backlash from the public. Plans to extend the scheme to other centres were canned.

A two-pronged plan

The proposed fuel efficiency standard would require car importers to either meet it or pay a fine. The suggested standard is 150gCO₂/km in 2021, falling to 105gCO₂/km in 2025, with further falls thereafter. There are more than 3000 car importers in New Zealand, so this could prompt a major shakeup, including possible price adjustments.

The standards are similar to those proposed by the Australian Coalition government in 2016, which have not yet been taken any further. Internationally, fuel efficiency standards cover 80% of the light vehicle market.




Read more:
Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago


But the second component of the proposal, the clean car discount, has attracted more attention. Cars emitting less than the current threshold would received a discount, initially up to NZ$1800 for an efficient petrol car, up to NZ$4800 for a hybrid and up to NZ$8000 for a battery electric car. Cars costing more than NZ$80,000 would not receive a discount.

Known as a “feebate scheme”, those rebates would be paid for by increased fees for high-polluting cars, of up to NZ$3000. The amounts are designed so that the entire scheme would be revenue neutral to the government. Modelling suggests that the proposed standard and discount combined would save motorists NZ$12,000 over the life of a vehicle.

International clean car schemes and testing

There is international experience with similar schemes, and they have been broadly effective. France has been operating a “feebate” scheme since 2008 with periodic adjustments. New Zealand’s proposed scheme is similar to the French and Swedish schemes.

But there is also room to get it wrong. Tinkering with electric vehicle incentives has led to wild sales fluctuations in the Netherlands and Denmark.

The spread between tested and real-world fuel use has widened, up from 9% in 2001 to 42%. The new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure testing cycle, currently being adopted by Japanese and European manufacturers, is believed to be more representative of real-world fuel use, as is the test already in use in the United States.

But overall, the New Zealand proposal has been received positively by car makers and across political parties.

One possible weakness is that it is entirely based on carbon dioxide. Other pollutants, including nitrous and sulphur oxides and particulate matter (soot), that are responsible for most of the immediate health impacts of vehicle pollution and are worse in diesel than in petrol vehicles, are not targeted. Nor are the underlying subsidies to the car-based transport system, which make a transition to active and public transport more difficult.

Any decisions made now will have impacts for decades to come. Switching the fleet to electric is different from just switching to more fuel-efficient cars. It involves new charging infrastructure and some behavioural changes from the public, and these challenges (rather than simply cost) are stumbling blocks worldwide to more rapid adoption.

These arguments have persuaded many countries to bring in electric vehicle incentives beyond simply targeting carbon dioxide. Norway is a famous example, where electric vehicles avoid purchase taxes and market share is already 60%. The UK has recently exempted electric company cars from fringe benefit tax.

As the global market share of electric vehicles still stands at only 2%, eight years after they became widely available, and the number of fossil-fueled vehicles is increasing by 48 million a year, stronger action on vehicle emissions is clearly needed worldwide.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australians could have saved over $1 billion in fuel if car emissions standards were introduced 3 years ago



Legislative action regarding vehicle emissions is overdue, and needs urgent attention by the federal government.
Shutterstock

Robin Smit, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, University of Technology Sydney

When it comes to road transport, Australia is at risk of becoming a climate villain as we lag behind international best practice on fuel efficiency.

Road transport is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions and represented 16% of Australia’s total carbon dioxide emissions in 2000, growing to 21% in 2016. Total CO₂ emissions from road transport increased by almost 30% in the period 2000-16.

Fuel efficiency (CO₂ emission) standards have been adopted in around 80% of the global light vehicle market to cap the growth of transport emissions. This includes the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, China, South Korea and India – but not Australia.




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If Australia had introduced internationally harmonised emissions legislation three years ago, households could have made savings on fuel costs to the tune of A$1 billion.

This shocking figure comes from our preliminary calculations looking at the effect of requiring more efficient vehicles to be sold in Australia.

A report, published yesterday by Transport Energy/Emission Research, looked at what Australia has achieved in vehicle fuel efficiency and CO₂ standards over the past 20 years. While Australia has considered and tried to impose standards a number of times, sadly these attempts were unsuccessful.

Legislative action on vehicle CO₂ emissions is long overdue and demands urgent attention by the Australian government.

Australian consumers are increasingly buying heavier vehicles with bigger emissions.
Shuterstock

How did Australia get here?

The most efficient versions of vehicle models offered in Australia are considerably less efficient than similar vehicles in other markets.

Australia could increasingly become a dumping ground for the world’s least efficient vehicles with sub-par emissions performance, given our lack of fuel efficiency standards. This leaves us on a dangerous path towards not only higher vehicle emissions, but also higher fuel costs for passenger travel and freight.

Australia has attempted to impose CO₂ or fuel efficiency standards on light vehicles several times over the past 20 years, but without success. While the federal government was committed to addressing this issue in 2015, four years later we are still yet to hear when – or even if – mandatory fuel efficiency standards will ever be introduced.

The general expectation appears to be that average CO₂ emission rates of new cars in Australia will reduce over time as technology advances overseas. In the absence of CO₂ standards locally, it is more likely that consumers will continue to not be offered more efficient cars, and pay higher fuel costs as a consequence.

Estimating the fuel savings

Available evidence suggests Australian motorists are paying on average almost 30% more for fuel than they should because of the lack of fuel efficiency standards.

The Australian vehicle fleet uses about 32 billion litres of fuel per year.

Using an Australian fleet model described in the TER report, we can make a conservative estimate that the passenger vehicle fleet uses about half of this fuel: 16 billion litres per year. New cars entering the fleet each year would represent about 5% of this: 800 million litres per year.

So assuming that mandatory CO₂ standards improve fuel efficiency by 27%, fuel savings would be 216 million litres per year.

In the last three years, the average fuel price across Australia’s five major cities is A$1.33 per litre. This equates to a total savings of A$287 million per year, although this would be about half the first year as new cars are purchased throughout the year and travel less, and would reduce as vehicles travel less when they age.

The savings are accumulative because a car purchased in a particular year continues to save fuel over the following years.

The table below shows a rough calculation of savings over the three year period (2016-2018), for new cars sold in the same period (Model Years 2016, 2017 and 2018).

As a result, over a period of three years, A$1.3 billion in potential savings for car owners would have accumulated.

Policy has come close, but what are we waiting for?

The Australian government is not progressing any measures to introduce a fuel efficiency target. In fact, it recently labelled Labor’s proposed fuel efficiency standard as a “car tax”.

But Australia has come close to adopting mandatory vehicle CO₂ emission standards in the past.

In late 2007, the Labor government committed to cutting emissions to achieve Australia’s obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, instructed the Vehicle Efficiency Working Group to:

… develop jointly a package of vehicle fuel efficiency measures designed to move Australia towards international best practice.

Then, in 2010, the Labor government decided mandatory CO₂ emissions standards would apply to new light vehicles from 2015. But a change in government in 2013 meant these standards did not see the light of day.

The amount of fuel that could have been saved is A$287 million per year.
Shutterstock

Things looked promising again when the Coalition government released a Vehicle Emissions Discussion Paper in 2016, followed by a draft Regulation Impact Statement in the same year.

The targets for adopting this policy in 2025, considered in the draft statement, were marked as “strong” (105g of CO₂ per km), “medium” (119g/km) and “mild” (135g/km) standards.

Under all three targets, there would be significant net cost savings. But since 2016, the federal government has taken no further action.

It begs the question: what exactly are we waiting for?

The technical state of play

Transport Energy/Emission Research conducted preliminary modelling of Australian real-world CO₂ emissions.

This research suggests average CO₂ emission rates of the on-road car fleet in Australia are actually increasing over time and are, in reality, higher than what is officially reported in laboratory emissions tests.

In fact, the gap between mean real-world emissions and the official laboratory tests is expected to grow from 20% in 2010 to 65% in 2025.

This gap is particularly concerning when we look at the lack of support for low-emissions vehicles like electric cars.




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Given that fleet turnover is slow, the benefits of fuel efficiency standards would only begin to have a significant effect several years into the future.

With continuing population growth, road travel will only increase further. This will put even more pressure on the need to reduce average real-world CO₂ emission rates, given the increasing environmental and health impacts of the vehicle fleet.

Even if the need to reduce emissions doesn’t convince you, the cost benefits of emissions standards should. The sale of less efficient vehicles in Australia means higher weekly fuel costs for car owners, which could be avoided with the introduction of internationally harmonised emissions legislation.The Conversation

Robin Smit, Adjunct professor, The University of Queensland; Jake Whitehead, Research Fellow, The University of Queensland, and Nic Surawski, Lecturer in Environmental Engineering, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.