Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death …

Nick Smith’s announced that some highly-polluting airsheds will be allowed until 2020 to meet air quality standards, costing something in the region of several hundred lives, but saving jobs — and why I think this is okay

About as many deaths as lung cancer. Four times the road toll.

Half New Zealand’s population lives in polluted airsheds, where invisible particulate matter — PM10 — exceeds acceptable standards. That’s how many people die prematurely from the pollution: 1,640 per year.

It’s not so much the smoggy factory, or the dirty diesel (though both contribute, especially in Auckland). Counter-intuitively, “by far the main source of PM10 emissions in New Zealand is solid-fuel burning by households”. Open fires, old non-compliant wood burners, wet wood are the worst causes in the worst areas.

Timaru averages 39 exceedances, Christchurch 21. In 2008, Otago saw 91, in the Alexandra-Arrowtown-Clyde-Cromwell area. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says three are acceptable. Auckland, with all its gridlocked vehicles, has just five — however, Smith compares that with Sydney and Brisbane's two and three, and says it is not good enough.

In 2004, the Clark government made regulations, requiring all regional councils by 2013 to have no more than one exceedance per year of the WHO standard. Otherwise, if the over-pollution persisted, no new or existing air discharge consents could be granted or renewed.

Instead, Smith has a new more relaxed, split target: “We are going to give moderately polluted areas, like Auckland and Napier … with under ten exceedances a year, until 2016 to reach this standard. For those higher polluted areas like Christchurch, Timaru … with over ten exceedances a year, the new standard will require they get under three by 2016 and be fully compliant by 2020.” He is also excluding from the standard exceedances caused by acts of God — volcanic eruptions, Australian bush fires, dust storms.

It’s a straight trade-off. “This policy has been strongly influenced by cost-benefit analysis.” He says the consequences of the status quo would have been extreme and poorly directed, because home fires, not industry, are the primary source, and there would have been a massive downside in terms of jobs.

“It is true that there is some loss of health benefits by giving more time to reach the standard — a drop from $1,911 million to $1,746 million. The real shift is that the costs are reduced from $867 million to $196 million … the benefit to cost ratios [improve] from 2.2 to 8.9.”

A drop in "health benefits" from $1,911 million to $1,746 million. Let’s have that again, in terms of lives? In October 2009, the NZIER advised Smith’s Ministry an estimated 635 deaths would be avoided by meeting the standards in 2013; meeting them from 2020 would avoid 153, a difference of 482 deaths (Table 8, p 45).

Smith’s proposal is a little different: compliance from the least-worst polluting airsheds from 2016, and also from 2016, a dramatic cut in the allowed exceedances, for the worst of those who aren’t compliant.

Let’s say, then, that the number is less than half that large. Significant, nonetheless, and set off against it is the fact that the NZIER workings were based on a pollution-related premature death statistic of around 700 per annum — itself less than half Smith’s 1,640 “best estimate”.

Smith’s policy is still aspirational. It also could have been worse.

The WHO guideline allows three exceedences of the standard per year. The aspiration, when we finally get there, will still be more stringent than WHO’s, though pushed out to 2020. Other countries provide for the exclusion of ‘exceptional events’ from the count of exceedences, as Smith is proposing. Smith’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) recommended that, in addition to the two steps taken, the number of exceedances permitted should be increased from one to three days per year.

I know, I know: it wouldn’t be a true blue TAG, if it didn’t leave its Minister room to look moderate.

I think that this is a sadder policy, but a smarter one too. [Ed: but see further below, about whether it was the smartest.] For example:

  • Mandatory offsetting from 1 September 2012 for any new significant industrial consents in polluted airsheds: instead of being banned, they must offset any increase by funding an equivalent number of households to change domestic heating.
  • In Christchurch, the EQC is working in partnership with the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority to replace as many of the 30,000 damaged chimneys as possible with clean heating. “It is the silver lining to Christchurch’s tragic earthquake.”

Better than Must Do Something ... let’s Ban It.

In the end, I guess I’m relaxed. Among the highest priorities, this’ll stay on the radar, and be fixed. Sigh. It always helps so much with environmental impetus, when it's all about us. Let me rephrase that: it helps when we can prove the direct cause and effect.