Inaction on emissions is not an option in a post-pandemic world
COVID-19 has caused a great deal of economic loss to the Australian economy, and forced authorities to act swiftly with unpopular measures. However, not all has been ‘doom and gloom’ — it has had positive outcomes as well.
State governments’ science-led decisiveness in addressing this pandemic through stay-at-home orders has had the less-publicised side effect of drastically improving air quality in our most populated cities.
But before COVID-19 there were other invisible airborne threats not dealt with the same way. We should not forget that nitrogen oxides together with ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter as primary toxic pollutants are responsible for seven million deaths a year — a much larger figure than current casualties because of the pandemic.
One might wonder: Will the same decisiveness be used by the authorities to deal with air pollutants in the near future? Will the federal government commit to stricter emission reduction targets? If so, will the measures be effective enough? Certainly, international pressure on Australia to improve its environmental commitments and the erosion of votes for political parties looms unless drastic changes are made.
Most emissions-intensive facilities are facing the choice of either extending plant life through implementing sustainability measures or of falling by the wayside. Their decision will be to innovate or decommission, as there is unlikely to be a middle ground in the green future we all envision. For some large emitters, making a final choice will likely be accelerated by the negative economic impact of COVID-19. Others who have committed to change by becoming carbon neutral by 2050 — regardless of the current apathetic regulatory stance — have started offsetting their emissions by investing in renewables, optimising fuel consumption and improving on their emissions monitoring methods and equipment.
Historically, many emissions have been estimated using moderately inaccurate models. Often based on fuel inflow and mass balance measurements, these models were once considered the most appropriate tools when reporting to the environment protection authorities. Unless the environment protection licence had specifically instructed the business to ‘continuously monitor’ stacks for pollutants, the use of analysers (whether in-situ or extractive) has thus far remained optional. The issue here is that the practice of using flow-based reporting may have led to inadvertent underreporting of actual emissions.
Yet measurement technology is advancing at a breathless pace. Efforts by space agencies and private satellite operators to improve understanding of the carbon cycle threaten to expose reporting inaccuracies sooner rather than later. Through the collection of data using high-resolution infrared spectrometers, satellites are accurately monitoring ground-level concentration of gases near and around major sources of carbon dioxide and methane pockets.
Understanding where and how carbon dioxide is concentrating and behaving will assist governments and environmental protection agencies in making well-informed decisions when enforcing their climate change policies. This can easily extend to major industrial emitters such as oil and gas facilities, underground coalmines, power stations, wastewater treatment plants and even the agriculture sector. Critical review of measurements will focus attention on those who have been fortunate to date when using manual reports to comply with legal frameworks, a mechanism which will not withstand future scrutiny.
Many businesses have already applied emissions monitoring with the future in mind. The implementation of improved analytical systems in all their exhaust gas stacks gives them a real-time window on emissions and allows them to take corrective action quickly and efficiently. These systems may include infrared analysers — with similar principle of operation as those used by space agencies — for the detection of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. Depending on the pollutant, other approved methods like gas chromatography and UV-Vis spectrometry can also be used.
For those who are yet to take corrective action, or who are simply waiting to see what happens, you are placing your business at risk.
Inaction is no longer an option and public opinion is growing for action. Satellite operators know this and can deliver a ready-made solution to expose those who fail to comply. Industries will need to improve operational efficiency and deliver accurate, reliable and transparent environmental data. In basic terms though the true risk is not only the loss of your licence to operate, but loss of a habitable planet for your future generations.
- Brimblecombe P and Lai Y 2021, ‘Subtle Changes or Dramatic Perceptions of Air Pollution in Sydney during COVID-19’, Environments 2021, MDPI, <<https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3298/8/1/2>>
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