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Air Quality

The role of ecosystems in maintaining good quality air through the extraction of chemicals and dust from the atmosphere.


Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Service Category

Regulating Services


What is air quality and how is it derived?

Smog over South Bank, Brisbane, caused by a temperature inversion.

Maintaining ground cover even in times of drought is important to reducing air pollutants such as dust.

The air that surrounds us is essential to sustain life. In its natural state, air has a stable composition however this can be compromised by the presence of air pollutants resulting from human (anthropogenic) activity such as motor vehicles, commercial, industrial and manufacturing facilities and from natural events such as bushfires and dust storms. Impacts from air pollutants can also adversely impact natural ecosystems and reduce amenity and aesthetic values through haze, smog and dust. The effects may be local or global.

Table 1 below presents the magnitude ecosystem functions contribute to maintaining good air quality (relative to other ecosystem functions). Relative to the other functions listed in the Framework, the function gas regulation was identified as most important to the provision of this service. The self-regulation of pollutants in the atmosphere occurs through natural processes such as mixing, dilution and dispersion, the "scavenging" effect of rainfall and chemical reactions. In some cases this results in a reduction of pollutant concentration to acceptable levels (in the case of dilution and dispersion) or the transformation to another form (acid rain). Chemical reactions occurring in the lower atmosphere (troposphere) can result in secondary pollution, such as the reaction between volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and oxygen (O2) in the presence of sunlight to produce photochemical oxidants (also known as photochemical smog) of which ozone (O3) is the principal component.

Air pollutants may be transported by air movement over short or long distances. Vegetation plays an important role in removing wastes from our atmosphere. It not only impedes the movement of airborne substances by providing barriers to dust and aerosols (including agricultural chemicals and industrial and transport emissions), enhances air mixing and mitigates noise; but during transport air pollutants may undergo changes in both composition and concentration. Dilution and dispersion may reduce pollutants to acceptable levels, or may bring them into an environment where concentrations rise and adverse chemical reactions occur.

Vegetation is known to have a mitigating effect of air pollutants by absorption, deposition or reaction. While lowering the pollutant levels in the atmosphere it may, where concentrations are sufficiently high, have a detrimental effect on plant life.  As air is ubiquitous and essential, any reduction in air quality will have an impact on surrounding ecosystems. Local high concentrations or long-term exposure to lower concentrations will have an adverse effect on fauna and flora.


Table 1:The relative magnitude (to other ecosystem functions) each ecosystem function contributes to Air Quality.

Ecosystem Function Category Ecosystem Function 0
Regulating Functions
Gas Regulation

Climate Regulation

Disturbance Regulation

Water Regulation

Soil Retention

Nutrient Regulation

Waste Treatment and Assimilation


Biological Control

Barrier Effect of Vegetation

Supporting Functions
Supporting Habitats

Soil Formation

Provisioning Functions

Raw Materials

Water Supply

Genetic Resources

Provision of Shade and Shelter

Pharmacological Resources

Cultural Functions
Landscape Opportunity



Impacts on air quality from agricultural and/or forest management burning can be minimised when timed with appropriate wind strength and direction.

The increasing population of SEQ will place increasing demands for power generation.

Emissions of other substances have been implicated in global issues such as the depletion of the upper atmosphere (stratospheric) ozone layer, particularly by the human-made chlorofluorocarbons, and in the changing of the atmospheric composition resulting in an enhanced greenhouse effect. This is caused by the increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) from combustion processes and methane (CH4) from agriculture.

While emission to the atmosphere can have global implications in the case of ozone depletion and global warming/climate change, local conditions such as topography, microclimate weather patterns and land-use (forestry) can have both positive and negative effects on the dispersion and absorption of pollutants.

Although vegetation plays a significant role in removing air pollutants, local mitigation strategies can be supported by reductions of emissions of pollutants, achievable through community choices in personal transportation and consumer purchasing, regulation or licensing, improved city planning and urban design and the use of infrastructure to remove pollutants prior to emission through filtration, absorption or other techniques. Large area emissions can be reduced by changes to practices for example, green cane harvesting rather than burning and through coordination of agricultural burning such as hazard reduction burns to times when impacts can be minimised.


Are there any barriers to people receiving this ecosystem service and its benefits?

While access to air is non-excludable, there may be areas where the quality is consistently lower due to proximity to industrial processes or heavy motor vehicle activity. For some demographic or socio-economic reasons a portion of the population may be at greater risk from exposure to lower air quality.

This ecosystem service provides many benefits that contribute both directly and indirectly to the well-being of the SEQ community. The Constituents of Well-being this ecosystem service contributes to are presented in Table 2 below. Further information on these constituents and how ecosystem services contribute to them can be obtained by clicking on the links in the table.


Table 2:The relative magnitude (to other ecosystem services) Air Quality contributes to each constituent of well-being.

Well-being Category Constituent of Well-being 0
Physical Health            
Mental Health            
Secure and Continuous Supply of Services            
Security of Person            
Security of Health            
Secure Access to Services            
Security of Property            
Good Social Relations
Family Cohesion            
Community and Social Cohesion            
Freedom of Choice and Action
Social and Economic Freedom            
Self Actualisation            




A network of monitoring stations detect air quality changes across SEQ.

Links to other publications and websites

Air Quality Data for SEQ
Regional Air Quality Monitoring
Enviro. Protection (Air) Policy 2008
Air Quality in Australia
Air Filtering Plants
World Health Organisation

The established method of assessment of air quality in SEQ is through long-term monitoring of the pollutants of concern in carefully selected areas and comparison of results with the objectives set out in the Environmental Protection (Air) Policy (2008).

By maintaining a network of monitoring stations, trends over time can be identified. Changes may be due to demographic, climatic, cultural or land-use changes. The results from monitoring can be used to develop strategies to reduce the impacts of air pollutants and to measure the effectiveness of the implementation of such strategies.


How is this ecosystem service currently managed in SEQ?

The primary point of contact for air quality issues in SEQ is the Air Sciences Branch of the  Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. The Air Quality Sciences Branch is responsible for monitoring air quality and operates a network of stations throughout SEQ; and from the results produces monthly and annual reports on air quality issues. Data is available live on the web with graphical plotting utilities and links to supporting information about the monitoring network, air pollutants, measurement techniques, health and environmental effects and standards and goals.

There are numerous pieces of supporting legislation aimed at managing and/or improving this ecosystem service. For example, State legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act 1994 and the Environmental Protection (Air) Policy 2008. The objectives set out in the Environmental Protection (Air) Policy 2008 are derived from national (i.e. National Environment Protection Ambient Air Quality Measure 2003 and National Environment Protection Air Toxics Measure 2004) and international (i.e. WHO Guidelines for Europe 2000 and US Environmental Protection Agency) standards.