Linking discussions of air pollution and climate change vulnerability in NSW

Image by Devin McGloin. Sourced via Unsplash.

Climate change and air pollution go hand in hand, and yet they are largely separated in climate change policy development and scientific research.1 Air quality is strongly dependent on weather and is therefore sensitive to climate change.2 Furthermore, traditional air pollutants and greenhouse gases have common sources, interact chemically and physically in the earth’s atmosphere, and together, and separately, they cause a range of entangled environmental effects at local, regional and global levels.3

While there is an established body of literature that explores the adverse health impacts of air pollution, there remains to be little research dedicated to air pollution as a secondary effect of greenhouse gas emitting practices, especially in the Australian context. This is perhaps because in Australia, we have relatively good air quality overall, and air quality meets the national standards.4 However, as a result of climate change inaction, and failure from our political leaders to reduce emissions, air quality decline has the potential to be a major health stressor in the coming years as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change.

Air pollution in Sydney

It is predicted that temperature change, predicted population growth, and urban development has the potential to result in air quality decline in urban areas. While the leading causes for air quality decline in Australian are attributed to the fossil fuel industry,5 dust,6 bush and landscape fires,7 pollen,8 and motor vehicle exhausts,9 in the context of Sydney, air pollution research indicates that vehicle pollution is the main anthropogenic source of air pollutant emissions impacting Sydney.10

In a report by the Office of Environment and Heritage on Sydney’s air quality, it was highlighted that pollutants emitted from high traffic volumes and several industrial facilities in the area have the potential to impact the entire airshed, which can cause adverse health risks. For example, the report by the Climate and Health Alliance highlights that traffic pollution is causing cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and cancer, and has the potential to impact people’s reproductive, urological and neurological systems; making people who have, or who are susceptible to these conditions, vulnerable.11 This is problematic from a public health perspective when considering that incidences of allergic respiratory diseases and bronchial asthma appears to be increasing worldwide, and people living in urban areas are more likely to experience these conditions than those living in rural areas.12

Furthermore, temperature rise, humidity, wind, and rain affect air pollutant emissions, its chemistry, and influence its distribution. The area most affected by air pollution in the greater Sydney region is Western Sydney, and this is due to as air pollutants carried inland mainly by sea breezes.13

The Western Sydney region is one of the largest growing urban populations in Australia, and it is projected that the population will grow to a near three million by 2036.14 Projected population growth in the region will simultaneously increase emissions and further impact future air quality across the Sydney basin.15 This is particularly troubling when considering that people living in Western Sydney already experience a host of interrelated issues that are affecting the adaptive capacity of communities in the region, such as water scarcity, soil degradation, and urban heat island challenges.16

Furthermore, temperature rise in urban areas will likely further increase air pollution during summer months, with scientists identifying the correlation between surface ozone and temperature in polluted regions. There is also a growing body of literature which identified the links between extremely hot weather, poor air quality, and excess morbidity and mortality in cities worldwide.17 Further research that explores the interconnection between air quality and heat in the Australian context is needed, especially when considering that heat is expected to increase across NSW (and the nation) over the coming decades and therefore poses a serious public health risk.18 There is mounting evidence on the social, physical, economic impacts of heat in NSW, however, this research does identify links between air pollution and the disparity of related health risk across different demographics.

Air pollution in mining communities

While traffic pollution is a major contributing factor to air quality decline in urban regions, the leading causes of air quality decline differ depending on location. For example, Butler (et al.) argues that the main cause of air pollution in Australia is caused by the inhalation of airborne pollutants such as “particulate matter from coal dust, coal smoke, and gaseous products of coal burning such as sulphur dioxide.”19 Exposure to these pollutants has direct and prolonged health impacts for the people who are in contact with them and can contribute to health issues such as asthma and bronchitis, cardiovascular issues in the form of heart attacks and strokes, and infectious diseases such as lung cancer and leukaemia.20

There are significant research findings on the health impacts associated with air pollution experienced by people living in the coal mining region of the Hunter Valley.21 Higginbotham (et al.) argues that the Hunter Valley is known as a ‘pollution hotspot’ and residents experience numerous social and health impacts from the number of open cut coal mines.22 The majority of air pollution in the region is caused by open-cut coal mines, which release coarse particle (PM10) pollutants into the air.23 These pollutants are suspected to have contributed to higher rates of cancer (such as lung, bladder and skin cancers), and chronic respiratory issues for those living near the mine sites.24

Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and Australia has the eighth-highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita (25.06 tonnes) in the world.25 If actions are not taken to reduce emissions, a range of entangled environmental, health and social effects will occur,26 and they will impact those who cannot respond to, and recover from, a range of direct and indirect exposures, such are air pollution.


While health disciplines are beginning to acknowledges the impact that future climatic changes will pose for the most marginalised people in our society, research on adaptive capacity of vulnerable people are in their initial stages, further academic and policy research is required to gage an understanding of the impacts of climate change on human health and well-being.

Health-related vulnerability to climate change is linked to a number of socioeconomic and environmental determinants, which hinder one’s adaptive capacity to climate change hazards and exposures. As with other climate change exposures, some people are more vulnerable than others to the effects of air pollutants, and the most susceptible being the elderly, children, and people with pre-existing medical conditions.27

While the physical health implications of air quality decline are widely acknowledged, future research on the topic of air pollution is Australia needs to both acknowledge the links between climate change and explore questions of vulnerability. This requires an understanding of the underlying social, political, economic, cultural and environmental factors which make some individuals and groups more vulnerable to the impacts of air quality decline, than others.

As climate change vulnerability is experienced by the most disadvantaged, an understanding of what contributes to the vulnerability of groups and individuals is needed if policy and planning interventions are to effectively address climate-induced inequities and injustices that intersect with environmental issues, such as air quality decline. Defining climate change vulnerability under notions of justice and fairness could work to establish just adaptation measures for people who are most susceptible to the adverse impacts of climate change and air pollution.


1. Swart, R., Amann, M., Raes, F., & Tuinstra, W. (2004). A good climate for clean air: linkages between climate change and air pollution. An editorial essay. Climatic Change, 66(3), 263-269.
2. Jacob, D. J., & Winner, D. A. (2009). Effect of climate change on air quality. Atmospheric Environment43(1), 51-63.
3. Ibid.
4. Office of Environment and Heritage. (2017). Clearing the Air [Annual Report]. New South Wales Air Quality Statement 2017.
5. Connor, L., Albrecht, G., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., & Smith, W. (2004). Environmental change and human health in Upper Hunter communities of New South Wales, Australia. EcoHealth, 1(2), SU47-SU58.
6. Johnston, F., Hanigan, I., Henderson, S., Morgan, G., and Bowman, D. (2011). Extreme air pollution events from bushfires and dust storms and their association with mortality in Sydney, Australia 1994–2007. Environmental Research, 111(6), 811-816.
7. See, for example, Johnston, F., Henderson, S., Chen, Y., Randerson, J., Marlier, M., DeFries, R., Kinney, P., Bowman, D., Brauer, M. (2012). Estimated global mortality attributable to smoke from landscape fires. Environmental Health Perspective, 120(5).
8. Butler, C. D., & Whelan, J. (2018). Air Pollution and Climate Change in Australia: A Triple Burden. In Climate Change and Air Pollution (pp. 131-149). Springer, Cham; Pope, C.A. and Dockery, D.W. (2006). Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: lines that connect. Journal of air and waste management Association, 56 6), 709-742.
9. Bowatte G, Lodge C, Lowe AJ, Erbas B, Perret J, Abramson MJ, Matheson M, Dharmage SC. (2015). The influence of childhood traffic-related air pollution exposure on asthma, allergy and sensitization: a systematic review and a meta-analysis of birth cohort studies. Allergy, 70, 245–256.
10. Office of Environment and Heritage. (2014). Air Quality Trends in Sydney. Sydney, Australia: New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage.
11. Climate and Health Alliance. (2013). Inquiry into the impacts on health of air quality in Australia. Submission to Senate Standing Committees Community Affairs (March 2018), p.2.
12. D’Amato, G., Cecchi, L., D’amato, M., & Liccardi, G. (2010). Urban air pollution and climate change as environmental risk factors of respiratory allergy: an update. Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology20(2), 95-102.
13. Jiang, N., Scorgie, Y., Hart, M., Riley, M.L., Crawford, J., Beggs, P.J., Edwards, G.C., Chang, L., Salter, D., Virgilio, G.D., (2017). Visualising the relationships between synoptic circulation type and air quality in Sydney, a subtropical coastal-basin environment. International journal or Climatology, 37, 1225.
14. University of Western Sydney. (2017). About Greater Western Sydney. Accessed June 15, 2018. Retrieved from <https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/rcegws/rcegws/About/about_greater_western_sydney>.
15. Ibid.
16. Mellick Lopes, A., Gibson, K., Crabtree, L., and Armstrong, H. (2016). Cooling the Commons Pilot Research Report. Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney.
17. Harlan, S. L., & Ruddell, D. M. (2011). Climate change and health in cities: impacts of heat and air pollution and potential co-benefits from mitigation and adaptation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability3(3), 126-134.
18. Steffen, W., and Hughes, L. (2015). The Critical Decade: Illawarra/ NSW South Coast Impacts. Climate Commission Report.
19. Butler, C. D., & Whelan, J. (2018). Air Pollution and Climate Change in Australia: A Triple Burden. In Climate Change and Air Pollution (pp. 131-149). Springer, Cham, p.134.
20. Ibid.
21. See, for example, Connor, L., Albrecht, G., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., & Smith, W. (2004). Environmental change and human health in Upper Hunter communities of New South Wales, Australia. EcoHealth, 1(2), SU47-SU58; Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Connor, L., & Albrecht, G. (2010). Environmental injustice and air pollution in coal affected communities, Hunter Valley, Australia. Health & place, 16(2), 259-266; Merritt, T. D., Cretikos, M. A., Smith, W., & Durrheim, D. N. (2013). The health of Hunter Valley communities in proximity to coal mining and power generation, general practice data, 1998–2010. New South Wales public health bulletin, 24(2), 57-64.
22. Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Connor, L., & Albrecht, G. (2010). Environmental injustice and air pollution in coal affected communities, Hunter Valley, Australia. Health & place, 16(2), 259-266.
23. Butler, et al., (2018), p.142
24. Higginbotham, et al., (2010). 
25. Australian Government. (2018). ‘Tracking Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions’. Department of Environment and Energy. Access here.
26. Castleden, W., Shearman, D., Crisp, G., and Finch, F. (2011). The mining and burning of coal: effects on health and the environment. Medical Journal of Australia, 195(6), 333.
27. Rosen, J. (2016). Climate, Environmental Health Vulnerability, and Physical Planning: A Review of the Forecasting Literature. Journal of Planning Literature, 31(1), p.5.

Anastasia Mortimer is the Content Editor & Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.