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Minister for the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts 2001-2004

The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

 

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Transcript
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Press Conference, Adelaide
Friday, 16 April 2004

State of the Air report on Australia's urban air quality


David Kemp - Federal Environment and Heritage Minister:

Thanks very much for coming along this morning. This morning, I'm taking this opportunity of a break in the conference to release a very significant report on Australia's environment, the State of the Air report, which is the result of a great deal of work by governments, by scientists and, indeed, by industries.

The really important overall message about this report is that the state of the air in Australia's major cities is an area where we can record significant success in improving our environment. It shows that if we make the effort, we can improve the environment. And what we've managed to do, over the last decade, is to reduce a number of the significant pollutants that have adversely affected air quality. So that we can say that in the major Australian cities we have seen, over the last decade, a significant improvement in air quality.

Now, that's not to say that there isn't a great deal more to be done. There are other pollutants to be tackled in addition to those which have been the major focus of this particular report. If you have a look at the report - and there's a very good summary document on this, which I think you'll find useful – you can see that there have been consistent reductions in a number of the major pollutants.

Lead in the atmosphere, of course, has gone down quite dramatically, and that's producing major health gains to the community. This is a result of fuel standards which have eliminated lead now from petrol. We've also seen significant reductions in carbon monoxide, in nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide. And more and more stringent fuel standards are being applied now, and will be applied in coming years, to reduce the incidence of sulphur in fuels.

We've also had some successes in relation to small particles, which can become lodged in the lungs and cause respiratory problems. But we need to take further action in relation to these small particles, because if you have a look at the charts here, you'll see that while, in general, the reporting standard is being observed, there are occasional instances when the level of particles in the air is above the desirable level for community health.

We also need to address the issue of ozone, which is stable, and is generally at an acceptable level, but also frequently goes above what is an acceptable level. And we want to see continuing action to bring about declines in the instances of these particular pollutants.

The government has taken quite a number of actions to reduce these pollutants in the atmosphere - and I might just mention, of course, in addition to the reduction in emissions from motor vehicles and the phasing out of lead from petrol - that controls on emissions from diesel vehicles are being tightened, and are becoming more stringent.

We are working with the states and territories to develop a new set of standards for ambient air toxics, in addition to the ambient air quality standard, which is the main subject of this particular report. And we've introduced a new fuel consumption label for new car models, so that consumers can make an informed choice about the impact of the vehicle they're buying on fuel consumption and emissions.

So there are a number of actions underway. The ministers today are going to be considering further actions in relation to air toxics. But the overall and very good message is we are making progress in this very important environmental area.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, we're seeing that Sydney has clearly got a significant problem there and Launceston is another city which has got a very serious particular problem because of the extensive use of wood heaters.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, it's really …

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

No, well Sydney's problem is not wood heaters. Sydney's problem is to do with air circulation patterns. The air movements and weather patterns over each of Australia's cities differs and they have different impacts on pollutants and particularly ozone levels. And it's ozone at ground level which is the problem.

In Launceston, we've got a wood heater replacement program, which has led to the replacement of some eighteen hundred wood heaters in recent years by cleaner, less emitting heaters. And that has had a measurable impact on air quality in Launceston but, again, there's still quite a way to go there.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, South Australia … you'll see the … there are charts in here which show for each of the major cities. And the data we've got varies according to the particular pollutant. In relation to carbon monoxide Adelaide is relatively high, but in relation to sulphur dioxide, Adelaide's performance is at a level with the other cities.

With nitrogen dioxide, we don't have Adelaide data available. For lead, of course, Adelaide is actually the city which looks best on this, I wonder whether we've got data for Adelaide there. And in relation to particles, Launceston is clearly the Australian leader in terms of excess levels of particulate matter in the air. So Adelaide is a city which, overall, it's air quality, I would say, is at average levels.

Reporter:

But has it improved? (Indistinct).

Kemp:

Well, we don't have here particular charts for Adelaide but I think we can be quite confident from the overall charts that we have seen a significant improvement in air quality of Adelaide.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Sorry?

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, I'll call on my technical expert here to provide you with details and comment on that.

Paul Kemba - Department of the Environment and Heritage:

(Indistinct)

Kemp:

Come in closer.

Kemba:

Paul Kemba (ph.sp.) director of Air Quality in Department of Environment and Heritage. The CO levels that you'd find in Adelaide would be especially due to motor vehicle emissions and … which are driven mainly by the increase in (indistinct) travel. But the levels are, you know, reasonably low, they're not high.

Kemp:

The challenge we've got in this area is that while we are actually making our fuel cleaner and our vehicles are emitting less pollutants, people are using more vehicles and travelling more. So it is a constant effort to make sure that we continue to reduce the pollutants in the atmosphere.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, you do that by making standards more stringent as we go, and that's what we're doing. We're continuing to clean up the fuels, particularly diesel fuels, and improving vehicle emission standards.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemba:

Yeah, definitely, there's definitely motor vehicles. As the government 's fuel quality standards are having a positive impact and will continue to have an impact over the future as they become more stringent, that … the … that's balanced off by the increasing number of vehicles on the road and the increasing distances travelled by (indistinct) vehicles.

Kemp:

The longer-term technical vision - if I could say this - I mean, we're at a stage now where we're still very heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Over time, the age of the fossil fuels is going to pass. We're seeing now the development of post-fossil fuel technology, in terms of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. And every major vehicle manufacturer now has pilot models of cars to … which use hydrogen fuel cells, and these are essentially no emission vehicles.

The issue is going to be how quickly can we introduce the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. And that's not going to come tomorrow. We're going to see these vehicles on the road over the next decade, but it's going to be some time before we move into the post-fossil fuel economy. And that's why we need to be keep making our standards more stringent in relation to fossil fuels and vehicle emissions.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, I think the problem of an ageing fleet is a problem right around Australia and, again, we just have to deal with that by making sure that, as vehicles come onto the road, they do meet proper standards.

And, of course, major emitters like large diesel-driven vehicles will have to meet tighter standards as time goes by.

Reporter:

How does the government fare in terms of the money for public transport (indistinct)?

Kemp:

Well, to the extent that people can use public transport, that does have a positive effect. It doesn't completely deal with emissions, of course, because a lot of public transport is electricity-driven, and that electricity comes from power stations which are coal-fired, and those power stations produce greenhouse gases in great abundance.

But nevertheless, there are advantages in non-polluting forms of transport, and one of those pol… non-polluting forms, of course, human power-driven cycles, and there is a program that we are implementing to encourage people, in fact, to, where they can practically cycle to work, to do so, and to perhaps cycle to their local railway station.

Reporter:

(Inaudible question).

Kemp:

I think Paul could probably help with that.

Male Speaker:

(Inaudible)

Kemp:

(Laughs)

Reporter:

(Inaudible question)

Kemba:

I mean, the ozone is a complicated chemical story, and even the scientists haven't got a full understanding of how the ozone is formed and why we get particular levels in Sydney. But it's understood to be an issue relating to weather, warm, moist days, accompanied by the particular topography which enable… maintains the flow of those pollutants around the city.

Ozone is formed by two gases which come together and chemically react. And it's just a feature of those variables that make it a difficult problem to address.

Reporter:

No-one's quite sure why Sydney (indistinct)?

Kemba:

Well, one issue with Sydney, which is not so much a feature of other cities, has background levels of ozone, which are caused by what are called biogenics which are … which naturally have a … as in the native vegetation. Eucalyptus produces volatile organic compounds which are a contribution to ozone. And so, you get these natural background levels. So, any additional from motor vehicles on top of that doesn't take much to flick it over to higher levels.

Reporter:

Can you talk to us about plastic bags in terms of whether you are going to support Western Australia's push to have a national timeframe (indistinct)?

Kemp:

Well, I'm not sure whether Western Australia is intending to pursue at the Ministerial Council Meeting any particular measure to speed up the national program that it is a party to. The program for the phasing out of plastic bags is a program which has the support of all Australian governments, the national government and all the state governments, and it's led to an agreement with the retail industry for the voluntary phase out of plastic bags at a particular rate, twenty-five per cent by the end of this year, fifty per cent by the end of next year, and ministers have indicated they would like to see plastic bags completely phased out within five years.

The voluntary program has the advantage that it is involves very significant community education. The voluntary program brings the community in, and it asks people to think about their impact on the environment. And what we are seeing are significant changes in community behaviour as a result of the voluntary program.

We're now seeing a much more significant take up of recyclable bags and reusable bags. We're seeing a significant reduction for the first time in forty years in the usage of the HDPE, that is the light plastic bag. Some … the major … two major retail chains have reduced their usage of bags by about two hundred million bags over the last year. They are on track to achieve the targeted reduction of twenty-five per cent this year.

Now, there have been some suggestions that there should be a short term ban from Western Australia, a ban in the short term. Whether Western Australia intends to raise that at the Ministerial Council I'm not sure, because we'll see that this afternoon whether or not this comes up.

If it did so, it would be a breach of the agreement that all governments have entered into with the retail industry at all levels to phase out plastic bags. The industry has acted on that, and I'm not sure whether any government wants to now break that agreement with the industry. We'll see that in the course of the discussion this afternoon.

Reporter:

(Inaudible) federal government support?

Kemp:

Well, we support an effective program in which the community takes the necessary action. And the community is taking up this voluntary program. We are seeing significant reductions now in plastic bags; we need to see much more and we want to see them phased out completely.

But the benefits to the environment, (indistinct) community commitment to do this, are potentially very great. And the Australian community has shown that it wants to improve its environment and is prepared to take the necessary voluntary action to do so. So we're committed to this voluntary approach that we believe is being effective at the moment and has the support of the community

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, it's … the variability between cities is very much a matter of the industry structure in the cities and the weather patterns and background levels of emissions. Clearly, the measures that have had the biggest impact have tended to be national measures, and they're measures that apply equally across all cities.

For example, the phasing out of lead in petrol, the adoption of new fuel vehicle standards and vehicle emission standards. These are all measures that are the result of national agreements. So the variability between cities, when you look at the charts, is not great. The overall picture is that within each of the capital cities; there's been a very significant improvement in air quality over the last decade.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Well, there's not a single bringing together of all of those because it depends on the weighting you place on each of the relevant pollutants. And we thought it better to give some detail about each pollutant and its health impacts. There are pollutants which are still in the air which we still need to address, and that's why ministers are looking at air toxics this afternoon.

We're looking at, you know, tygarine (ph.sp.) and benzene, chemicals in the air that can have carcinogenic effects that we need to take further action on. But nevertheless, we are seeing significant improvements. And the other point I think that really needs to be underlined; Australia, as a country, probably has the cleanest urban air in the world of any major developed nation now as a result of the action that we've taken.

Reporter:

[Inaudible comment]

Kemp:

(Indistinct)

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Yes, there is continual monitoring of the implementation of these air quality standards and there'll be further reports. This is the first report. It's based on a great deal of scientific learning as well as scientific research. I mean, we need really to come into this field in a way that no other country has done, and to put together a report of this kind has taken a very significant scientific effort. So I think we should be very grateful to those scientists who have worked on it, that we now have this information.

Reporter:

[Inaudible question]

Kemp:

Yes, the concept of product stewardship is one which has shown that it can be effective. We've seen that particularly in relation to waste oil; where we've got a levy which produces waste oil facilities, which enable us to recycle and reprocess waste oil. What … oil doesn't become inoperative, it just becomes dirty over time and it can be cleaned up and it can be reused.

Now, in relation to other industries, particular issues are raised and I wouldn't like to speculate here this morning about what particular product stewardship approach would work. But we are seeing an increasing interest within Australian industries in product stewardship approaches. I think industries recognise that there is a problem with their product, it turns up as a contribution to waste in the community, and we're seeing increasingly responsible attitudes.

So in relation to television, that is a matter that ministers have discussed and considered in the past, but we haven't got a specific product stewardship approach to that, which I would want to put forward today.

Thank you very much.

End of segment

Commonwealth of Australia