Issue: Resource Use

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How has resource use changed?

Apart from water, our use of most resources has increased. We are using more energy and expanding the area of land used for urban purposes. The amount of garbage we generate continues to increase, but we are recycling and reusing more of it each year.

Water restrictions help reduce water use

The change in Canberrans’ water use is one of the success stories of this reporting period (2000–03).

Total water use declined by 370 million litres in the reporting period (from 69,218 million litres in 2001–02 to 68,848 in 2002–03, as reported for April–March reporting period used in Environment ACT Annual Water Reports), despite an increase in population. The reduction was mainly due to water restrictions associated with the drought. Community support for water restrictions may have been influenced by the well-publicised effects of the January 2003 bushfires on the quality of the water supply.

Water efficiency, education and water sensitive urban design programs have been developed, or are in the process of implementation, but their efficacy is not yet known. Monitoring is needed.

However, 20 new groundwater bores were installed during the reporting period, nine of these in the inner urban Lake Burley Griffin subcatchment. This suggests that some residents and commercial users sought an alternative source of water rather than restrict their use. Unfortunately data were not available to provide more detail about water use by various sectors.

Energy use continues to climb

The ACT population is using more and more energy every year (see table), and the trend looks set to continue.

Table: Electricity and gas consumption
Year Electricity Natural Gas*
total (TJ) per person (GJ) total (TJ) per person (GJ)
2000–01 na na 6698 19.21
2001–02 9058 28.15 6627 18.66
2002–03 9166 28.31 6734 18.86

*includes gas supplied to Queanbeyan as well as the ACT
TJ = terajoule; GJ = gigajoule, na = not available

Some of the increase in total energy use is partly a result of increasing population. Canberrans’ personal use of energy is also increasing (see the per person figures in the table) and economic growth plays an important role in this. Economic growth allows higher incomes, which in turn provide the opportunity for larger houses and an associated higher consumption of electricity and natural gas through lifestyle-driven appliances including air conditioning, central heating and dishwashers.

The amount of energy sourced from wood and other renewable energy products is not known. Although consumers are starting to show an increasing preference for renewable energy through programs such as ActewAGL’s GreenChoice, only 3.2% of total customer base had selected this as of 30 June 2003 – a marginal contribution to the sustainability of the ACT.

Along with the urban design of the ACT, the relative wealth of the community contributes to increased car ownership and use. This increases the amount of energy used by transport. Passenger vehicles are still the dominant mode of transport in the ACT, partly because they continue to provide the highest level of accessibility and convenience. This is reflected in the increase from 2539 million total passenger vehicle kilometres travelled in 1999 to 2635 million in 2002.

Fuel consumption is not known because these data are no longer collected. In fact, much of the detailed data needed to monitor trends and develop evidence-based policies for changing energy use are not collected. It is imperative that this information deficit be addressed.

Landuse plans for differing needs

The expansion and intensification of urban landuse continued during the reporting period. In Central Canberra and around town centres there was a marked trend towards higher density residential and mixed-use development.

Larger-scale developments totalled 430 hectares. Three quarters of this was for housing in Gungahlin, west Belconnen and south Tuggeranong. In contrast to older developments, these areas are characterised by larger houses on smaller blocks, with significantly less urban open space.

There is an ongoing tension between urban expansion and conservation of woodlands and grasslands. Some 17 hectares of land with high ecological values was released for urban development. However, some 1065 hectares of land was added to the conservation system in Gooroo (Gungahlin), East O'Malley and the Jerrambomberra Valley, much of which had previously been zoned for urban development.

A partial solution may lie in the areas occupied by the ACT’s pine forests until the 2001 and 2003 bushfires. Urban development in some of those areas has the potential to save valuable grasslands and woodlands elsewhere.

Waste less

In response to the initiatives of ACT NOWaste and, more recently, the Queanbeyan City Council, the amount of waste has fallen by 50% over the last decade, while the amount of material recycled and reused has increased four-fold (see graph below).

Progress in waste reduction - how are we going?

Progress in waste reduction - how are we going? [Credit: Source: ACT NOWaste (

Most of the decrease in waste disposal over that time is due to reductions in building and demolition waste with the introduction of commercial tip fees. The same impact was not seen in the amount of commercial waste, which was still unacceptably high at 97,647 tonnes in 2002–03, the highest since 1993–94 when the current records began.

The staged introduction of tip fees for private deliveries from January 1996 saw the amount of household waste delivered directly to the tip face decline from 64,640 tonnes in 1994–95 (the highest on record) to 21,568 tonnes in 2002–03. By contrast, the amount of household waste to landfill from kerbside waste collections alone has increased slowly but consistently to 60,375 tonnes in 2002–03 after a low of 48,457 tonnes in 1995–96. ( All data include Queanbeyan and the ACT, but exclude an additional 154,000 tonnes of bushfire damaged material that was generated by the 2003 bushfires.)

Although the net change is a decrease in total household waste over the last decade, it is clear that the No Waste Strategy has had little impact on the amount of waste thrown into the rubbish bin.

Even allowing for the large increase in recycling, it appears that the overall level of consumption continues to rise with the affluence of the community. This, and the continued increase in the population, means the entire community must accept responsibility for waste generation and change accordingly. Otherwise the ACT will be reliant on technological change and finding more markets for recycling and reuse to meet waste reduction targets.

National Environment Protection Measures (NEPMs) for movement of controlled waste and used packaging materials continued to be effectively implemented. However, an unintended consequence of the National Packaging Covenant may be an increase in the amount of recyclable waste generated; a study of this is well outside the scope of the ACT Government.

Maintaining Canberra's infrastructure

Resource use is closely related to the infrastructure systems that support it. While some assets, such as energy, water supply and sewerage infrastructure in the ACT are generally in good condition and well managed, all the ACT’s infrastructure is ageing. The resulting increases in the costs of maintenance and upgrades present significant challenges for the future.

New and improved asset management systems are in place for transport and stormwater infrastructure, but maintenance of these assets continues to be under-funded. Of particular concern is the accumulating backlog of maintenance and rehabilitation works, combined with the ageing of the road and stormwater network and the effects of natural disasters.

The 2003 bushfires caused substantial damage to the ACT’s energy, water and roads infrastructure. For example, the financial impact of the bushfires on ActewAGL infrastructure was estimated to be $1.7 million, while the cost of repairing damage to the road network was estimated to be $2.6 million.

What does this mean for the future?

The high and generally increasing use of resources in the ACT places an unsustainable demand on the environment. As this trend continues there is the risk that some resources will simply run out, or at least become scarce and expensive. Future generations will then pay the price of poor practices currently in place.

The water supply is a good example. The existing water supply system of 214.5 billion litres will be adequate until about 2017, when the combined population of the ACT and Queanbeyan is estimated to reach 405,000.

Even with increased water prices, strategies for further reducing water use, or locating alternative sources of water such as a new dam or rainwater tanks and reuse systems, will need to be established well before that time.

In some cases Canberrans are already paying more for resources. Land values have increased dramatically, and pricing policies have been changed to better manage water use and waste disposal. Energy prices are expected to increase in the next decade as demand starts to exceed supply, and shortages are also predicted unless new sources are discovered.

The added costs probably promote more efficient resource use, however their imposition raises complex equity issues.

It is also clear that pricing policies are only one means to the end, particularly in a city of the relative wealth of Canberra. For example, waste generation will probably increase until a program that breaks the well-documented link between economic growth and waste generation is implemented.

The challenge is clear. All Canberrans must use less of the known resources. The resulting choices facing the ACT community are complex, and they should be informed by ecological, social and economic considerations. It is essential to aim for development which does not cause irreversible ecological damage.

What are we doing about it?

The ACT community, through Government, has started to plan ahead to manage some of the impending resource shortages, particularly for land and water.

A comprehensive attempt can be seen in the draft Spatial Plan (released in October 2003). It incorporates the Sustainable Transport Plan and it has been developed to guide future landuse and transport planning.

Although the draft Spatial Plan flags significant areas for greenfield development in Gungahlin, Molonglo Valley and Kowen Plateau, it combines consolidated higher density development around shopping centres and at key nodes along transport corridors. The aim of this pattern of landuse is to increase walking, cycling and public transport use and thus reduce reliance on energy-intensive private motor vehicle use. Some of the proposals in the draft Spatial Plan, for example developing Kowen Plateau, appear to be inconsistent with this aim.

The draft Spatial Plan will combine with The Economic White Paper and the draft Social Plan to result in the Canberra Plan, due in early 2004. That Plan must be developed with a central focus on sustainability and waste avoidance – waste of materials, energy, water and land.

Released in late 2003, Think water, act water is the draft strategy for sustainable water resource management in the ACT. It details how to achieve targets for water use reduction set by the draft water resources policy that was released in July 2003. Those targets are for water use reduction of 12% by 2013 and 25% by 2023.

The high monetary costs of some initiatives may be a limiting factor in their widespread implementation. The lowest costs are associated with pricing and education, medium costs with water supply options, and the highest costs with greywater retrofitting and rainwater tank installation.

Other efforts at reducing resource use appear to have less chance of success. For example, much remains to be done if the ACT is to develop a more sustainable energy system. Energy use is one of the more significant challenges, especially given the ACT Government’s limited influence on a deregulated national energy market.

The ACT Government continues to implement its pioneering No Waste by 2010 Strategy , but the amount of waste generated in total and per person continues to increase. New technologies which solve the problem of contamination of recyclable materials and mixed residual waste may help.

In reality, a whole-of-community commitment – including consumers, retailers and manufacturers – will be essential for the targets of the No Waste by 2010 Strategy to be attained. This will be practicable only with significant additional support and funding for community education.

Commissioner's recommendations

In consultation with the Commissioner for the Environment, the ACT Government should:

  • stimulate and reward innovations to minimise resource use identified in outcomes in The Draft Canberra Spatial Plan , The Economic White Paper , the ACT Greenhouse Strategy: 2002 Review of performance and options for the future , the No Waste by 2010 Strategy and Think water, act water
  • under section 158A of the Environment Protection Act 1997 , report on the effectiveness of innovations implemented as a result of the above recommendation
  • identify and implement those water use and efficiency initiatives which will yield the greatest environmental, social and economic benefits
  • apply the revenue raised through the water abstraction charge directly to catchment management and water efficiency programs
  • undertake a catchment-by-catchment hydrological study of groundwater systems to assess water quality and quantity and its connectivity, spatial distribution and temporal variability
  • provide sufficient funding to achieve asset management standards for existing infrastructure; and ensure new infrastructure supports sustainable resource use.

Some recommendations from this issue are found in other issues because of the interactions between various components of the environment.

Note about units

mega = million (106); giga = billion (109); tera = (1012)

living sustainably

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