By CHRIS BARTON
Auckland in winter. Crisp, still, cloudless, and a low warming sun. From the bridge, glass towers and glassy harbour glint in unison. For a moment the city is breathtakingly beautiful. Except for the brown smudge - a hovering haze revealing Auckland's dirty secret.
Normally invisible, how unfair it materialises on a calm radiant day like this. How rude to spoil the picture and introduce a silent deadly note.
Ask an Aucklander about the brown cloud and you'll probably be told the city doesn't really have a smog problem because most days the wind blows it away. Tell an Aucklander that despite the wind, 253 citizens die earlier than they should each year because of traffic pollution and you'll get a blank stare - Jafa denial. Like the chemical soup polluting the city atmosphere, the mix of science and statistics is elusive and unfathomable.
"The brown cloud itself might get blown away enough for you not to see it, but at the surface you still get high levels of particles on reasonably windy days," says Gavin Fisher director of climate-energy solutions at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa).
"It's not just what you see - these particles are often labelled 'the invisible killer' because you really can't see them."
He's talking about microscopic (less than ten microns in diameter) sooty particles mixed with nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and other nasties belched into Auckland's air each day from the city's million or so vehicle exhausts.
"Typically in Auckland we're getting around 40 micrograms [of particles] per cubic metre of air as a daily average - so it's under the 50 micrograms guideline that's been accepted internationally as a good level to manage to. But there are health effects with long-term exposure to levels of 40 or even 30 and that's a hard concept to get across because people are saying 'What is the level that will give us protection?' And the answer is there is none."
Fisher says the brown haze is indicative of more widespread pollution that is occurring near busy roadways or intersections before it goes up in the air. It kills not in the sense of "choke and die because you're behind a big bus", but through the cumulative effect.
That irritates the lungs and airways of babies under one, people who have asthma or other respiratory conditions and older people most, leading to increased hospital admissions, and in the worst circumstances, bringing forward the time of death by five to seven years.
"Two days of high nitrogen dioxide here - a quite common event in Auckland - and the asthmatics know all about it," says Fisher.
The 253 premature Aucklander deaths statistic comes from a wider study by Fisher and others - Health effects due to motor vehicle air pollution in New Zealand - for the Ministry of Transport in 2002.
The report estimates some 399 premature deaths occur nationally because of vehicle emissions. That's out of a total of 970 people "experiencing premature mortality" due to particulate pollution from all sources including burning and home heating.
While the study acknowledges "research gaps" such as the need for more air quality monitoring and the need to quantify the health impacts of very small particles, Fisher says the statistic is based on risk and is like the unquestionable fact that some people die in plane crashes.
"We know that hospital admissions and mortality in cities with high air pollution is higher - it's a huge correlation from studies done on hundreds of millions of people."
This may sound theoretical but people in Government have accepted the science and statistics are sound. Sound enough - along with a desire to address the Kyoto protocol, reduce fuel usage to help our balance of payments, and maintain our clean and green reputation - to introduce new laws to clean our air at a cost of about $200 million.
For people like Fisher and Auckland Regional Council air quality engineer Gerda Kuschel the change is long overdue - even if it's not until late 2006 that any significant effect will be felt.
"From my perspective we're positively running now compared to where we were in terms of getting people to understand we have a problem. You couldn't even put in an ambient air monitoring site a few years ago because people didn't believe anything was wrong," says Kuschel.
New Zealand's complacency about clean air comes from believing too much in our own clean green propaganda. In reality we have health hazard levels of sulphur in our diesel fuel, no vehicle emissions standards or testing, and no air quality standards.
This appalling state of affairs is about to change - albeit slowly - with a juggernaut of rules, regulations, standards and laws from the ministries of Environment, Transport and Economic Development, along with regional councils, being phased in over the next decade.
First up are the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality, estimated to cost $111 million and apparently save 625 lives over the period ending in 2020. In October bans will be in place on things like burning coated wire, tyres and oil in the open.
In late 2005 regional councils will be required to monitor and report on ambient air quality against minimum standards for levels of fine particles, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone.
In Auckland that's going to mean regular news of exceedances of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. "Last month we had an exceedance in Khyber Pass for carbon monoxide above the internationally acceptable concentration for an eight-hour period of 10 milligrams per cubic metre - which can have the effect of poisoning your blood. In winter that will happen two or three times every month," says Fisher.
But for Aucklanders the ambient air standards aren't going to make much difference. While the standards require regional councils to put in place programmes to reduce exceedances to acceptable levels by 2013, it's only likely to work in places like Christchurch and Nelson where the primary emitter of pollution is home heating fires.
In Auckland the main culprit is vehicles - a moving target (as long as you're not driving in rush hour) that's much more difficult to control.
Which is where the next bunch of regulations - vehicle emission standards, coupled with improvements in the sulphur and benzene content of fuel - come into play. Compulsory in-service vehicle emission testing as part of the warrant of fitness is due to come into effect in the middle of 2006. Around the same time sulphur in diesel will be reduced down from the current 500 parts per million (ppm) to 50ppm.
In the interim Kuschel, who sees diesel particulate as her number one enemy, will continue to try to educate Aucklanders in denial. "The biggest problem in Auckland is the rise of the urban assault vehicle - the four-wheel-drive.
A lot are fuelled by diesel and the problem is that the particulate that comes from diesel exhausts is very carcinogenic - a thing called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon which is in effect a whole pile of benzene rings. In theory it's more toxic than dioxin."
The emissions scheme which will include a $4.5 million advertising campaign and require testing agents to install new equipment is estimated to cost up to $50 million. It will also mean an extra charge of about $3.80 for a warrant of fitness check.
With about 5 million vehicles checked per year that adds up to about $19 million running costs per annum. Not to mention the $50-$500 in repair costs vehicle owners will have to pay if they fail the screening test.
Looking at the costs involved Fisher wonders whether blanket testing of all vehicles is the answer. Niwa and the ARC randomly analysed emissions of about 50,000 vehicles last year using roadside equipment whereby cars and trucks drove through a beam of light.
They found most vehicles were operating to their design criteria and that 53 per cent of carbon dioxide pollution was caused by 10 per cent of the fleet. There were similar results for other types of pollutants.
"The gross emitters contribute far more than their share of pollution. They should be targeted. If you fixed up that 10 per cent of the worse emitters, half the city's worst pollution would be fixed."
Fiona Ryan of the Ministry of Transport says targeting the gross emitter has been tried overseas and hasn't been successful due to variables such as the nature of the road, speed, aggressive driving and weather impacting on emission results. She says there are difficulties also in identifying high emitters and points out that mechanics would still need to have equipment for testing and fixing emission problems.
Clean air economics also show that with less emissions there's a reduction in greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) coming from the transport sector. More than a third - 6.6 million tonnes - comes from the Auckland region.
Carbon dioxide emissions have a value of up to $25 a tonne under the Kyoto Protocol so any reduction in emissions would deliver some very real environmental cost benefits. Health benefits through reduced health costs in the order of $142.4 million - assuming a 20 per cent reduction of particulates from diesel vehicles due to improved tuning - are also envisaged.
But cost benefit analyses like these can also go haywire. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority estimates that if all light vehicles on the road were properly tuned there would be around 30 million litres less petrol used - an annual cost saving of $30 million. Sounds great, but from a government point of view it means $11 million a year less petrol tax.
Without any effort on New Zealand's part, more fuel-efficient and cleaner burning cars are coming into the national fleet thanks to strict emission controls that have long been in place overseas - so the reduced petrol tax take looks set to continue. Ultimately that leads to the problem of less money for roads. Clean air costs in mysterious ways.
But that isn't stopping Kuschel and the ARC promoting ways to reduce traffic on the road such as the Sustainable Business Network's Greenfleet programme set up to "enable businesses to do something to reduce their transport costs, develop more efficient travel behaviour, support the local community, and help sustain our environment".
The ARC is also waving the flag for low emission vehicles, having recently added a Honda Civic Hybrid to its fleet. The half electric, half petrol car automatically turns itself off when waiting at lights or intersections.
In the face of public apathy and glacial slowness on the Government's part over air pollution, both Fisher and Kuschel remain tirelessly optimistic that change is coming. Fisher says even though New Zealand is late to deal with cleaning up our air, we have an opportunity to do things smarter.
He argues for congestion pricing schemes to reduce traffic at peak times and incentives that encourage vehicle owners to be clean. "Why should someone who has bought a nice new hybrid have to pay the same as someone moving around in a dungy old Holden leaving a trail of smoke?"
A radical approach would be to put a ring around Auckland's CBD and charge drivers coming into that zone during peak hours - possibly with discounts for car poolers and those with low emission cars.
The technology to deliver such a scheme involves banks of cameras at various entry and exit points to read number plates and check against a database for congestion payments. One can already hear the howls of protest from car-loving Aucklanders.
Meanwhile Auckland's roads continue to clog and the city's vehicle pollution worsens. The brown haze looks set to be with us for at least another three years.
Herald Feature: Conservation and Environment
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By CHRIS BARTON