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Opening of Centre for Atmospheric Research

26 June 2000 Speech Notes - Phillida Bunkle

Opening of Centre for Atmospheric Research

Good afternoon and thank you for the invitation to be here. Let me say that I am especially pleased to help you celebrate the opening of what will be an important part of our national think-tank on air quality issues.

Air quality is indeed an integrated topic, so it is extremely valuable to set up systems that encourage collaborative work and ensure effective scientific studies are undertaken. This centre, I am told, will focus on bringing together students and practitioners from the university departments of geography, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering and maths, and practitioners from around New Zealand, local and central government, crown research institutes and universities.

This centre will have the opportunity to ensure that New Zealand keeps up with the international scene. Perhaps in the future the group could add psychology or human behaviour sciences, as these also have a role to play in changing people's perceptions about the environment, and their actions in minimising or contributing to pollution.

The increasing role of economic analysis in air quality management also needs to be considered. This need is especially highlighted by the situation here in Christchurch where there is great concern over proposed actions to ban open fires. These concerns have highlighted the socio-economic impact on those who find it to be their only affordable heating option.

It's of paramount importance that we have centres such as this to help us bridge the gap between science and policy. The Resource Management Act has increased accountability and scrutiny of environmental decision making. This is where I see this centre playing an extremely useful role.

It's also good to see efforts into air quality studies. For a long time New Zealand has been largely dominated by research into water quality and water pollution.

Most of you will already be familiar with the air quality issues that face this city. Levels of air pollutants have been decreasing in Christchurch since monitoring started in the 1970s but as we learn more about the effects of air pollution, levels become less and less acceptable. This is both in terms of our health and enjoyment of the environment. Christchurch needs more improvements to protect people's health and to protect the amenity value of the city as a whole.
Of course, it's easy enough for me to say this, but as Environment Canterbury has found, it is a challenge to make a difference and to improve air quality.

Research points out that particle levels in Christchurch are causing adverse effects on people's health. Environment Canterbury's guidelines for particles in the air have been breached nine times in Christchurch already this winter, and 11 times in Timaru. Unfortunately the affects on people's health are not always easy to identify when someone visits the doctor, suffers an asthma attack or dies from an existing respiratory disease. But I understand that some recent studies here have found similar relationships between the level of particles and increased hospital admissions as studies overseas.

Some opponents of Environment Canterbury's approach to reducing pollution say "Show me someone who suffers from the health effects of air pollution". If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, it is not easy to make the direct connections between air pollution levels and health, as there are often other complicating factors involved. However it shouldn't take people dropping in the streets, as they did in the United Kingdom, before action is taken.

There is enough evidence to say air quality in Christchurch is not acceptable and needs to be improved. This is not to say we don’t need to research its effects and sources. In fact, there's enough evidence already to justify improvements now. And any additional research will help provide a clearer picture and ensure more effective policy-making decisions.

Reducing air pollution is everyone's responsibility. Most of us drive cars, many of use fossil fuels for home heating and others burn garden waste rather than composting. Discharges from these activities appear to be small and insignificant on their own, but add them up under still winds and they cause air pollution levels that can adversely affect our health and environment. We can no longer blame just industries. In some cases they have been cleaning up their act, and they themselves have set the standard with one chemical company setting the goal of zero emission levels and zero impact on the environment. But it's equally important that we as individuals act to minimise our contributions to air pollution.

Government plays a role in preparing and updating the Ambient Air Quality guidelines, providing good-practice guidance on air quality management, providing funding for energy efficiency programmes and implementing regulations such as vehicle emission standards. We also have the ability to set national environmental standards for air quality. I am supporting the quickest possible movement to get these standards in place.

Universities and other research agencies also have an integral role to play. They are responsible for providing research that will assist policy decision-makers.

As most of you will know Environment Canterbury has prepared and released a draft plan for Christchurch and has held hearings on that plan. I understand that they will be releasing their proposed plan before the end of this year. They also considered whether to ban coal under a rather dated, transitional provision of the RMA – however, the committee hearing the proposal considered that the rule to ban coal would be more appropriately dealt with under the normal plan development process. Their efforts are commendable if rather slow.

I commend the Christchurch City Council for its financial incentives to switch from dirty fuel burning equipment to cleaner appliances. I hope this scheme will continue to be available and evolve. The increase in funding for EECA will also provide assistance to improve energy efficiency and reduce fuel use.

And while domestic emissions are, as they should be, the priority in Christchurch, we can't ignore vehicle emissions.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that people probably breathe in the highest level of pollution throughout the day sitting in your vehicle. The air intake for your de-mister is located right where the exhaust pipe for the vehicle in front is. You're better off walking on the side of the road, cycling or taking the bus.

Tackling vehicle emissions is often seen as a central government responsibility – indeed certain aspects are, such as implementing regulations for vehicle emission standards, amending the petroleum fuel regulations and reviewing the Ambient Air Quality Guidelines. However, regional and territorial councils also have a vital role in this area. Central government is working on implementing strategy to address the impacts of vehicle emissions on local air quality. This Vehicle Fleet Emissions Control Strategy includes:
 Providing information and tools to enable the use of Environmental Capacity Analysis and local traffic management techniques to tackle local air quality problems.
 Developing a rule to formalise an emissions standards regime for vehicles
 Reviewing the automotive petroleum fuel specifications
 Amending the Traffic Regulations to enable police to more easily identify excessively smoky vehicles on the road.
 Reviewing the Ambient Air Quality Guidelines and air quality monitoring methods.

This government will also look at additional measures such as public transport funding that improve air quality and reduce our reliance on vehicles.

I'd like to touch briefly on a few of the government's work programmes in this area. Already we have more money going towards better insulation of houses to reduce heating needs. The Ministry for the Environment's Performance Indicators programme is aimed at developing and using indicators to report on how well we are looking after the environment.
Air quality monitoring data from around the country is collated and presented over the Ministry's website. The information will be invaluable in examining air quality issues on a national and regional level as we consider policies and rules.

The Air Quality Management Programme is reviewing guidelines to streamline them with the latest research information we have and to include some new contaminants. The Ministry is considering the need for national environmental standards for air quality.

It is my view, that national standards for toxins, especially organochlorines, are long overdue. I am urging a standard, which aims at zero dioxin emissions. Dioxins are now spread world-wide but New Zealand still has an opportunity to reduce dioxins to very low levels as air quality measures from Baring Head showed very low levels of dioxin entering New Zealand from outside our borders.

Understanding atmospheric processes and sources of pollution are crucial for effectively managing air quality and for determining whether air quality has improved or worsened in response to policy decisions, or even other factors such as El Nina and El Nino. The work of this centre is crucial for integrated environmental management to ensure we work towards a sustainable future.

Climate change could have major impacts on our economy and ecology. New Zealand, being a country substantially dependent of primary production, is particularly vulnerable to severe weather patterns such as those brought by the 1997/1998 El Nino drought. That drought is estimated to have caused an economic impact of somewhere around $1 billion.

As you may know the government has announced that New Zealand will ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change within two years. This commits us to take responsibility for reducing greenhouse emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2010.

While we might not have a large impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, we must show our commitment to this priority. After all, as a nation we depend on the emissions reductions of other countries.

The issues for New Zealanders now are centred on community and individual commitment to addressing climate change. Information and education, along with partnership will be crucial in addressing the major risks to New Zealand. As a member of the ministerial group, established to oversee the development of a climate change action programme, I envisage that a broad range of measures will be considered. This starts with work on improving public understanding of the impact of climate change, increased public education programmes, greater investment in public transport and stronger measures on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

I am sure that this centre, a brain-centre of invaluable information if you like, will go a long way towards our understanding of the atmosphere and climate, and eventually, how we can act to improve our environment. It is with great pleasure that I declare this Centre of Atmospheric Research Centre, open.


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