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Coalition's fuel policy: Poisoning the air we breathe

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City of Melbourne (Image via Anne Beaumont / Flickr)

With mounting evidence of the disastrous health effects of poor air quality, Australians deserve better than the Coalition's failed fuel policy, writes Dr Graeme McLeay.

NEWS of a Spanish study, which has found that boys who are exposed to pollution in the womb and childhood, may have poorer cognitive and memory skills adds to the growing list of harms associated with air pollution, especially for vulnerable people, such as children.

In Australia, the following issues make up a constellation of policy failures by this Coalition Government:

  • weak and outdated noxious emission standards;
  • the emphasis on road and expressway funding to “bust congestion”;
  • the paucity of funding for good public transport; 
  • the absence of support for electric vehicles; 
  • the purchase of diesel buses in some capital cities; 
  • the lack of pedestrian and cycling pathways; and
  • the failure to adopt safe fuel quality and vehicle emission standards.

These policy failures will condemn not only the young, but all Australians to dirtier and unhealthier air, more cars in our cities, and more congestion. It will also hurt us in the hip pocket, as inefficient vehicles continue to be dumped on Australia.

Health groups have been calling for improvements in air quality for some time. However, progress has been slow.

The Department of the Environment and Energy (Fuel Policy Section) advised in April of the official publication of a regulation impact statement with submissions, 'Better fuel for cleaner air discussion paper'

It seems fair to ask whether or not the outcome of this enquiry reflects in any way the lofty title. 

In February the Australian Government announced “improvements” to Australia’s fuel quality standards. There wasn’t much fanfare, understandably. Australia is at the bottom of the OECD for fuel standards and the improvements amounted to what is, effectively, business as usual. There will be an improvement in aromatics (the BTEX compounds which include benzene, a known carcinogen) in 2022, and a tougher standard for sulphur in 2027. An option to phase out 91 octane fuel (option B) was rejected, despite being the favoured option of the automotive industry and health groups — including Doctors for the Environment Australia.

The 'Better fuel for cleaner air discussion paper' was first released in 2016, as part of the undertaking of the Ministerial Forum on Vehicle Emissions established in 2015 to examine vehicle emissions standards in Australia. Current fuel standards are due to sunset in October of this year.

Fuel quality is important because it determines to a large extent what emerges from the tailpipe. These emissions can be categorised in two broad groups — those which contribute to the rising greenhouse gas problem and those which are noxious and directly harmful to human health.

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and transport is part of the problem, contributing around 17 per cent of emissions. 

Australia’s vulnerability to climate change has recently been well demonstrated with drought, an extended bushfire season and heatwaves now the new normal, although “normal” does not adequately describe what is happening to the climate. 2018 was the third hottest year on record and nine out of the ten hottest have occurred since 2005.

Fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles have been sorely lacking. The current level of 192gmsC02/km fleet average is more than double the EU 2021 target of 95gm/km. A standard of 105gm/km should be easily achievable given the advances in engine technology in recent years — and with hybrids and pure electric vehicles entering the market place in greater numbers. But, improving fuel efficiency will not be possible without better fuel to match the higher efficiency engines now available. We can expect therefore that Australia’s transport emissions will continue to rise.

Noxious emissions are equally worrying. The concerns of health experts have been ignored by this failed policy. The Department’s own discussion paper (p5) states:

'There are proven links between pollutants found in vehicle emissions and a range of human health problems (both short and long term).'

Then it goes on to list the myriad health problems including ischaemic heart disease, stroke, reduced lung function and lung cancer. Health authorities across the world have warned of asthma in children, increased dementia, low birth weights and, recently, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an increase in mental health episodes in adolescents. The World Health Organisation in its latest report warned of the rising problem of air pollution and that there is no safe threshold below which harm does not occur.

The cost of the 3,000 premature deaths due to outdoor air pollution in Australia has been estimated to be up to $7.8 billion. Road transport is responsible for about half the cost of these preventable deaths (see Better fuel for cleaner air discussion paper).

The failure to improve fuel standards will condemn Australians to lower vehicle emissions standards for noxious emissions. Introduction of cleaner Euro 6 standard vehicles will be hindered because they are not designed to run on poor quality fuel with a high content of sulphur.

After years of procrastination, Australians deserve better than this failed policy. Has the Government taken its cue from Donald Trump who is rolling back vehicle emission standards and, as a consequence, condemning thousands of Americans to poorer health or an earlier demise?

It is surely conceivable that bad government decisions could end in court. We are seeing that citizens are prepared to hold governments accountable for decisions which increase global warming, as in the Netherlands. Similarly, if a child is subjected daily to dangerous and avoidable poor air quality by virtue of where he or she lives or goes to school and suffers health harm as a result, then the courts may be the only recourse.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. You can follow Doctors for the Environment Australia on Twitter @DocsEnvAus.

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