Industry needs to look to the future

By Jeff Mann*, MWH
Friday, 26 March, 2010


With a trend towards economic incentives to reduce air pollution, Australian companies need to look to the future when it comes to balancing the risk of their emissions with their bottom line.

Australia has multiple levels of regulation in place for controlling the air and odour pollution caused by industry - regulatory bodies at a federal and state level take a coordinated approach to air pollutants that have potential health impacts.

In addition, Australian states have regulations to control the impacts of odour emissions on neighbours, a measure that is absent in the United States and several other countries.

Odour pollution refers to air pollutants that generally don’t directly impact on health, but are more of a nuisance. For example, fragrances and flavours, sewage treatment and leather tanning industries may all have air emissions which can be odorous. Non-odorous emissions can include dust from construction sites, products of combustion from heating facilities, vehicle emissions and greenhouse gases.

Comparing emissions to existing regulations is obviously critical for Australian industries and is normally required under some sort of permit system. But it is equally important to look ahead at what regulation may do in the shorter and longer term.

As we learn more about air pollution, we find that some of the levels regulators have set are okay, some could be lower and for some there is no safe level. Industry should also be across this research and any new findings about their emissions because it is this research that drives changes in regulation.

For example, businesses should already be factoring in the effects of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). Whatever form it eventually takes, the CPRS is based on putting a price on carbon emissions, which could have major cost implications for industry and consumers.

Almost everything has the potential to cost more at some point and businesses need to factor in what they will be paying for carbon emissions in the future - it’s just good business practice.

The bigger greenhouse gas emitters and energy users are, or will soon be, required to measure or estimate and report their greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption under the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Scheme. Any sized business can also undertake this exercise to quantify their risk and any gains they may make through energy efficiency. An audit or review is the perfect opportunity to think smarter - it is possible to cut the potential costs associated with carbon and have less impact on the environment at the same time.

Regulation is always a compromise between the economic and social benefits of having industry located in a particular area and the environmental outcomes. I think the current approach to regulation is right — being based on achieving or maintaining acceptable levels of environmental and human health and amenity.

I also believe that the states being able to regulate differently is the correct approach, as different areas have different environmental factors that need to be considered. For example, Sydney and Melbourne, being large cities, can have an issue with smog and ambient air quality. New South Wales and Victoria therefore need an approach which takes the smog factor into account.

In many locations, today’s industry is also being affected by urban development encroaching on the industrial landscape.

When residential areas are developed nearer to existing industrial facilities, businesses are often left with two choices: they can spend money to upgrade their facilities to reduce emissions or they can move.

In state regulations, there is an assumption that everyone living in the state is entitled to the same quality of air. Even if an industrial facility was in an area before new neighbours chose to move in, it makes no difference. Most air pollution legislation judges the level of pollution by how it impacts on a facility’s closest neighbours, so as the neighbours get closer, the need for ever-increasing levels of emission control gets higher.

For this reason, it is essential that businesses be constantly aware of the land use plans around their facilities. While land can be rezoned, it doesn’t usually happen overnight, so businesses have time to plan ahead for any changes.

* Jeff Mann is the Global Knowledge Centre Leader, Air Pollution and Odour at MWH and is an internationally recognised expert in odour measurement and control. He is past President of the NSW/ACT Branch of the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand and a technical assessor for odour measurement laboratories.

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