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Nick Smith: Air quality - A healthy balance

Nick Smith

2 August, 2011

Air quality: A healthy balance

Speech to the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand Annual Conference, Auckland


Kia ora hui hui tatou katoa

Can I start by acknowledging our distinguished speakers and international guests as well as the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand for organising this conference.

Unfortunately we are unable to be in Christchurch as originally planned but I commend the Society for moving this important event to Auckland.

As you know, both Auckland and Christchurch are pertinent when it comes to discussing air quality issues in New Zealand, with both cities having the air quality problems associated with major centres. I plan to discuss these a bit later in my address today and the progress both cities have made towards clearing the air.

Can I first give a bit of context to the changes we've made to air quality policy in New Zealand.

Our broader environment policy is underpinned by a Bluegreen approach characterised by trying to get economic and environment policy better synchronised.

It is about ensuring policy is underpinned by good science and also about being practical and realistic on delivery.

Yesterday I spoke to a climate change conference on the contentious issue of greenhouse gas emissions.

The previous Government set a target of New Zealand being the first carbon neutral country in the world but emissions grew by 23%, faster than in any other developed country over that period. In contrast, we have adopted less bold targets but actually got emissions down.

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Particulate pollution suffered a similar fate. The targets set in 2003 were very ambitious, but the follow through was lacking.

The approach I want to outline today is one of realistic targets, increased action to back up those and a proper monitoring and compliance strategy so we can ensure we make progress.

I want to cover four bases today:

1. Revisit New Zealand’s revised National Environmental Standard on Air Quality

2. discuss the Government’s latest Environmental Indicator Update on Air Quality

3. launch a new compliance strategy for councils, and

4. announce changes to the clean heating initiatives of the government

1. Revised Air Quality Standard

While New Zealand attendees will be familiar with our country’s revised Standard, for the benefit of our Australian and other international guests, I want to spend a moment outlining it.

The Government believes clean air is as fundamental to New Zealand’s clean green lifestyle as clean water, wild beaches, gleaming white mountains and rich green forests. Images of grey smog hanging over Auckland and Christchurch are not consistent with our environmental values and brand.

However, as your conference title notes, air quality is about striking a healthy balance. And this Government didn’t feel that the National Environmental Standard on Air Quality adopted in 2004 stuck was fair or realistic.

The former Standard required all airsheds to have no more than one exceedance per year in particulate pollution by 2013. The penalty for non-compliance was that no new or existing consent for industry could be issued after that date.

This was combined with a stringent timetable; an unrealistic proposition since few of the polluted airsheds were expected to achieve this.

We believed the implications of non-compliance on jobs were dramatic and draconian. It meant that if any industry sought a renewal of an air discharge consent after 2013 in these areas, no consent could be granted – end of story.

The acute unfairness of this was that although households and vehicles produce the bulk of the particulate pollution, it was only industry that faced any penalty for non-compliance with this former regulation. It was estimated that this would impact more than 180 consents and put about 17,000 people put of work.

The Government established a Technical Advisory Group to examine the issue and we consulted on a revised regulation which took effect on 1 June this year.

The revised Standard introduces a split target for compliance . We are going to give moderately polluted areas, such as Auckland and Napier, with on average less than 10 exceedances a year, until 2016 to comply with the Standard.

For those more polluted areas, such as Christchurch, Timaru, Rotorua and Nelson, with on average more than 10 exceedances a year, the new Standard will require they have to achieve three or less exceedances by 2016 and be fully compliant by 2020.

This pragmatic approach of a split target recognises that some communities have a far more difficult challenge than others.

However, it’s important to note there is nothing to stop councils who want to achieve these targets more quickly.

The revised Standard also pragmatically excludes exceedances caused by exceptional events beyond communities’ control, such as volcanic eruptions, Australian bush fires and dust storms.

In 2009, Australian dust storms caused high levels of PM10 and we saw some airsheds that had always experienced low levels of PM10 exceed the Standard.

And earlier this year we saw the value of such a change, with the February earthquake in Canterbury causing several exceedances of the PM10 Standard - exceedances that could be excluded under the revised Standard.

The revised Standard has struck that careful balance between achieving clean air as quickly as is practical without imposing excessive costs on households and businesses.

Some have criticized the revised national standard as too soft and too slow. The reality is that it will require a greater focus on reducing air pollution over the next decade than anytime in our history.

However, we recognise we need to do more than just set Standards. We are also applying some new rules and initiatives to help councils achieve these improvements.

From 1 September 2012, new open fireplaces in areas with poor air quality are to be prohibited. Also from 1 September 2012, we are going to require mandatory offsetting for any new significant industrial consents in polluted airsheds. This will replace the arbitrary 2013 ban on consents that would have been so costly on jobs.

The Government is also moving to reduce air pollution from vehicles by toughening up on vehicle emission Standards on second hand imports and new vehicles, as well as progressing improvements in fuel Standards.

And the Government is providing financial incentives for households to install clean heating devices, which I will speak about shortly.

All of this brings me to outlining just what the state of New Zealand’s air quality is and what trends can we see.

2. Air Quality in 2010 and Trends

As New Zealand attendees will be aware, air quality across our country is highly variable. Some areas consistently comply with the national environmental Standard while other areas regular exceed it.

The Ministry for the Environment reports on this annually and the 2010 monitoring results I’m releasing today are indicative of this problematic situation.

In 2010, half of the airsheds in New Zealand breached the Standard. 18% of New Zealand’s population live in these airsheds and are potentially exposed to poor air quality on two or more days of the year.

While there is still some way to go, this 18 is a vast improvement compared to 2009 when 51% of the population was living within airshed that breached the Standard.

We can attribute a large part of this reduction to the densely populated Auckland urban airshed complying with the Standard for the first time.

Last year Hamilton City, another relatively densely populated airshed, also reduced its exceedances from 2009 to comply.

Also contributing to this reduction was the Taupo airshed and lastly, and very close to my heart, the Nelson B airshed also complied for the first time.

However, many airsheds continue to breach the Standard and many do so with a high number of exceedances.

In 2010, the 10 airsheds with the highest number of exceedances ranged from 15 to 76 exceedances.

The highest concentrations were also significantly higher than the 24 hour average of 50 micrograms per cubic metre allowed under the Standard.

In 2010, the 10 highest concentrations in airsheds ranged from 91 to 148 micrograms per cubic metre.

Generally, air quality continues to be a bigger problem in the South Island than the North Island.

So, what does the 2010 data tell us about the longer term trends?

We can now see that over time there are some large changes in air quality occurring in some airsheds.

The airsheds recording the highest number of exceedances from 2005 to 2010 remained fairly consistent. Four airsheds – Christchurch, Kaiapoi, Otago 1, and Timaru – consistently appeared in the top 10 list from 2005 to 2010.

On the positive side of the ledger, for the first time since 2005, Nelson A and Richmond airsheds were not on the top 10 list.

Also good news, we can see that Christchurch, Tasman and the Nelson airsheds are reducing concentrations and number of exceedances.

However, others such as Timaru, Reefton and Tokoroa, are yet to show consistent improvements.

But airsheds don’t tell us the entire picture – what we need to know is how air quality is tracking on a national basis.

The Ministry for the Environment has developed a new air quality index that allows us to look at the average number of exceedances experienced per New Zealander per year at a national level.

Like all indices there are limitations, but this index aims to provide a high level overview of the trend of New Zealand’s air quality by distilling a more complex set of information. In this way it is similar to those indices used in other sectors – such as GDP for economy or life expectancy for health.

The index takes into consideration compliance with the national environmental Standard for PM10 and therefore reflects its public health objectives. It does this by considering the number of times that PM10 levels exceed the Standard and the potential number of people exposed to PM10 levels above it.

The index includes the fact that a significant portion of New Zealand does not have a particulate pollution problem, and incorporates changes in population as well as changes in air pollution. It is a national index connected to the targets in 2016 and 2020, to enable us to monitor the progress towards achieving it.

The index currently starts at 3.5. It needs to get down to 1.4 by 2016 and 1 by 2020.

The 2010 Environmental Indicator Results are now available on the Ministry for the Environment’s website. I thank councils for their continued efforts in air quality monitoring and for providing their data to the Ministry.

3. Launch of the Compliance strategy

So, as we can tell from the update, while there have been some commendable improvements, there is still some work to do in order to meet the new Standard.

And it was never the intention of the Government to make changes to the Standard without providing support and guidance for councils upon whose shoulders the implementation of this ultimately falls.

As I have stated many times previously, the Government’s approach to resource management and reform has been to provide a greater level of leadership and direction to councils on what we expect and want to achieve.

It has become clear since the original Standard was introduced, that a cohesive strategy endorsed centrally as best practice and of practical use nationwide is the most beneficial approach.

In addition, some authorities that have made better gains than others in reducing emissions deserve to be recognised and supported, while those that have yet to make any substantial inroads need to be aware of the potential consequences of this.

I therefore have pleasure in introducing to the conference the new National Air Quality Compliance Strategy, to be published this week on the Ministry for the Environment website.

I realise that many of you at the conference and your colleagues will have provided valuable contributions to this document, for which the Government is grateful.

The Compliance Strategy will give high level direction to decision makers in regional and unitary councils. It will also be of interest to industry, business, resource management consultants and community groups.

It is also complemented by existing national environmental Standards and practice notes and the newly updated ‘User Guide’ which provides explanatory narrative at a technical level for the day to day implementation of the amended air quality regulations.

The Compliance Strategy has been specifically developed to ensure that New Zealand meets the ambient PM24-hour Standard and, therefore, does not seek to address the control of other contaminants listed in the regulations which can be controlled through the resource consent process.

The control of PMemissions presents a far more complex challenge as the majority of it is generated by people going about their legitimate daily business, be it driving to work or heating their homes.

Practices to change behaviour range from education, assisted compliance, advice, monitoring, and, as a very last resort, enforcement.

The ‘Toolkit of graduated responses’ is fully outlined in the Compliance Strategy and will be useful to form the basis of discussions between regional council officers and their elected representatives on how it could be applied in their communities.

It is the Government’s belief that the 2020 ambient air quality target for PMcan only be achieved through the combined efforts of individuals, council officers, industry, business and politicians.

It is essential that we collaborate to raise the profile of air quality in New Zealand and promote the need for community-wide effort towards cleaner air.

In the event a regional council remains unconvinced of the need to provide practical and financial support to the drive for clean air, the National Air Quality Compliance Strategy clearly sets out my powers to intervene as Minister for the Environment.

However, I remain hopeful that I won’t need to rely on these provisions.

4. Changes to the delivery of the Clean Heat Programme

This brings me to my final announcement of the day.

The amount the Government is spending on clean air initiatives has been significantly increased despite the tight financial environment. We will spend $26 million in this term of Parliament on cleaner air. That is a twelve-fold increase on the $2.2 million spent in the last term.

Our Government has contributed through the two current Clean Heat and Warm Up New Zealand programmes to the conversion of 20,000 households to clean heating systems over this current three years as compared to 800 during the previous three years.

For the last three years, Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart and Clean Heat have operated as two separate programmes.

I am sure you are aware of the fiscal pressures all Governments are under and our drive for efficiencies, particularly around compliance costs. It does not make sense for Government or industry to run two separate programmes – one from Vote Energy and another from Vote Environment.

Today I am pleased to announce that Clean Heat will be delivered as part of Warm Up New Zealand: Heat Smart.

There are widespread benefits to this – including for the next two years, an extra 1250 households each year will be able to access Government funding to decommission their old wood burners and open fires.

As well as providing warm, healthy and energy efficient homes, this will avoid an extra 35 tonnes of PM10 being emitted into the atmosphere each year. This will provide a significant boost to Councils in achieving the ambient PM10 Standard by 2020.

As the wood burner has been identified as the foremost contributor to PMlevels in New Zealand, it is essential that we support Councils by ensuring that new appliances comply with emission Standards.

The Ministry for the Environment is conducting an industry wide audit of wood burner manufacturers to ensure their products meet the national emissions standards.

This ensures the integrity of the wood burner authorisation process and enables us to measure the effectiveness of environmental regulation.


As you can see the Government is taking a balanced and realistic approach to improving New Zealand’s air quality.

The revised Standard aims to achieve clean air as quickly as is practical without imposing excessive costs on households and businesses.

The changes are economically and environmentally rational, won’t put thousands out of work, target air pollution fairly from all sources, and ensures our air quality measures up to our clean, green brand.

And we are also beginning to see some definite trends in improving air quality all over the country.

However, the Government recognises that collaboration and partnership are the keys to building on these improvements.

We are therefore ensuring Councils have the right tools to deliver these improvements while also helping the public to shift to clean heating in their homes.

Thank you.


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