Progress Towards Sustainability

This discussion of Progress Towards Sustainability uses data from 10 years of ACT State of the Environment reporting, and it is supported specifically by indicators used in the 2003 State of the Environment Report for the Australian Capital Territory.

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What is sustainability?

Sustainability means different things to different people. This alone makes it difficult to define sustainability. It also makes it difficult to assess progress towards sustainability.

The things that matter to most people are human wellbeing and healthy living—clean air and water, safe food, individual and family security, health services, adequate shelter, education, employment. In the ACT these are currently accessible to the majority of the population. A ‘safety-net’ system aims to provide these needs for the disadvantaged, although there is concern about its adequacy.

This approach, however, neglects the fact that for the ACT to be sustainable we believe it must be able to continue to supply these basic needs to current generations without exhausting natural resources, or causing irreversible ecological damage, or reducing the options and opportunities open to future generations.

Also neglected by such an approach are the impacts of the ACT on the surrounding region and elsewhere. For example, a negative impact arises through the consumption of resources, while the contribution to sustainable development that is made by the policy, research and development expertise within the ACT population is positive.

These positive factors are not accounted for by any one method of measuring progress towards sustainability. They are also neglected by the various sets of indicators currently in use in Australia. The result is that any assessment of progress towards sustainability is tentative, including this one.

Where do we want to be and how will we know when we get there?

Despite the potential difficulties it is crucial to be able to begin the process of assessing the ACT’s progress towards sustainability.

An assessment of sustainability must be built upon a suitable goal or vision. In 2000, when we first reported on progress towards sustainability, there was no agreed vision for a sustainable ACT. We tentatively suggested the ‘Bush Capital’ as an appropriate vision—with the ACT featuring Canberra as a modern city with high quality built environment and infrastructure, high quality air and water, and space to display and protect the biodiversity of the ACT.

During this reporting period the ACT Government has produced a number of documents that are broadly concerned with goals and visions, and which draw on sustainability principles, to guide the ACT into the future.

However, a clear, concise vision for the ACT is yet to be decided. A formal decision is also yet to be made as to whether future reporting on progress towards sustainability is to be independent as part of independent State of the Environment reports, or an assessment by Government.

This assessment of progress towards sustainability uses the objectives of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development as a framework, as did the assessment for the 2000 State of the Environment Report. This time we applied the National Headline Sustainability Indicators (see box) adapted for the needs of the ACT. We supported that assessment with data from indicators that have been developed for ACT State of the Environment reporting since 1994. The table lists the results (see the sustainability indicators page).

The ACT's sustainability - progress and challenges

An analysis of the current data (see table on the Sustainability Indicators page) available from State of the Environment reports suggests that the ACT is not sustainable in some important sectors.

While key measures of earnings, education and economic development are continuing in a positive direction, there is a lack of reliable, long-term data to measure the cost to the Territory’s natural and human resources.

Reliable monitoring methods are still being developed for land and water, and comprehensive data for groundwater are not available. Also lacking are data for sectoral energy use and sources and data from the results of socio-economic analyses of health outcomes.

Even without these key data it is already clear that there is an ongoing increase in Canberrans’ use of most resources, emissions of Greenhouse gases, and volumes of domestic and commercial waste taken to landfill. These trends suggest that without behavioural or technological change future generations may not have access to some natural resources that are available to people now. However, robust indicators of intergenerational equity are needed for an accurate assessment.

It is also clear that the relative wealth of the ACT community hides a level of disadvantage—the poor, disabled, unemployed, Indigenous, aged, mentally and chronically ill all experience lower levels of support and wellbeing. Recent trends towards reduced access to health services and higher property prices may be challenging any positive trend towards equity within the current generation.

It is of concern that some areas containing valuable ecological communities continue to be at risk from activities such as urban development. In such an affluent society, it should not be contentious to take the more sustainable option of protecting these ecological communities from any further clearing and meet the ACT’s regional obligations. Continuing land degradation, such as soil erosion from urban areas, is of concern for much the same reason.

Yet there are positive signs that Canberrans care more for the environment than they did a decade ago. Legislative and management advances have been described in all ACT State of the Environment reports since the first one in 1994. During this reporting period the ACT Government created an Office of Sustainability to facilitate adoption of sustainability practices within both public and private enterprise, with an analysis of some of the different methods of assessing progress towards sustainability an early and important step.

The natural events of bushfires and drought have stimulated broad recognition throughout the community of the need to work together for a sustainable future.

What progress has the ACT made?

Enhancing individual and community wellbeing and welfare

Indicators 1 to 6 in the table (see sustainability indicators)

As the Nation’s capital, Canberra has been well-planned from the aesthetic and community wellbeing aspects. The air quality is generally good, apart from short-term problems from bushfires and dust storms, and temperature inversions in some areas during winter. Some 53% of the ACT was set aside for conservation many decades ago.

The ACT community is better educated, healthier, more likely to live longer, and enjoys high living standards compared with other parts of Australia. However, these advantages are not shared by all Canberrans (see the Community Wellbeing issue).

Although it is not measured by the National Headline Sustainability Indicators, a significant challenge facing the ACT is the increasing age of an otherwise high quality infrastructure that was inherited by the ACT Government from the Commonwealth Government. Maintenance and enhancement of infrastructure present a significant challenge for future ACT Governments (see the Resource Use issue).

The water supply system, for example, was considered secure until 2002–03. However, its future and its quality have now been seriously threatened by the combined effects of drought and intense fire damage in the water supply catchment. Although extra treatment was needed, drinking water quality remained good, and additional water treatment facilities are already under construction.

Following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations

Indicators 7 to 14 in the table (see sustainability indicators)

The National Headline Sustainability Indicators do not allow a full evaluation of this objective because they do not adequately address the availability of key resources for future generations. Supplementary information from ACT State of the Environment reports is used to give a more comprehensive, yet still incomplete, picture.

The ACT appears to be performing well economically. Real Gross State Product (GSP 1 ) per person is increasing. Average household net worth is also increasing and it is currently the second highest in Australia, although the extent to which this is tied to property value increases is unclear. Also unclear is the impact these prices have on housing affordability for future generations (see the Community Wellbeing issue).

A significant challenge for sustainability, as it is currently measured, is the lack of diversity in the ACT’s economic and natural resource base. The ACT was deliberately set up as the seat of the Commonwealth Government. As such, the ACT’s economy is still heavily reliant on the Commonwealth Government as a direct and indirect employer, client, and funding source. After taking into account revenue for the ACT Government from local land sales and taxes, other sectors are less significant. For example, agriculture, fisheries and forestry together contributed only 0.1% of GSP in the ACT for 2002–03.

One consequence of this economic structure is a very high level of imports into the ACT of almost everything that is part of the average Australian lifestyle, such as food, clothing, energy, building materials, household items and luxury items. The result is that, with few exceptions, the ACT community is unaccountable for its current patterns of use of most natural resources and is therefore unlikely to be safeguarding the welfare of future generations.

On the other hand, the contribution made by the ACT community to the overall sustainability of Australia through policy, research and development is not accounted for in any indicator. It is the intellectual property of this kind that is the major export for the ACT, and indicators that account for this must be developed.

Waste is not specifically assessed in the National Headline Sustainability Indicators, but solid waste management and the No Waste by 2010 Strategy are significant objectives of the ACT. They also serve to remind us of the need to avoid waste of all types, such as of water, energy, and materials including packaging, as well as synthetic chemicals. Waste is at the core of the challenge of achieving progress towards sustainable development.

Comprehensive data on groundwater and energy are not available, and that is not acceptable. Estimates of recharge rates suggest that the rate of extraction from most subcatchments may be within 70% of the estimated sustainable yield. However, the lack of precise data on groundwater resources makes it impossible to determine the true sustainable yield and the impact of current extraction rates. Given the increase in groundwater use in recent years, it is particularly important these data are obtained.

It is not even practicable to measure the probable increase in fossil fuel (petrol and oil) use, which is of great environmental concern. Any upward trend could adversely impact on many aspects of the ACT’s progress towards sustainability.

(See the Climate and Greenhouse issue and the Resource Use issue.)

Providing for equity within and between generations

Indicators 15 to 18 in the table (see sustainability indicators)

Within generations, the ACT appears to be relatively equitable compared with other States and Territories, but this generalisation does mask some significant inequities in the ACT community (see the Community Wellbeing issue).

There are many disadvantaged groups in the ACT community, including the poor, the disabled, the unemployed, the mentally ill, and the aged. Many of these groupings are interrelated in that the profoundly disabled (for example) may be more likely to be unemployed, and employment status is closely linked with poverty. A number of studies and inquiries into the circumstances of these groups have drawn attention to the need for improved support services.

Even in the ACT, which does not appear in the lowest groups in the ABS Index of Relative Socio-economic disadvantage, there is a tentative link in the data used to assess the National Headline Sustainability Indicators between socio-economic status and education. Estimated completion rates of year 12 for high socio-economic groups were marginally (about 2%) higher than for the ACT as a whole. Special education programs are arranged for children who are disadvantaged.

On the basis of international, national and local research that suggests clear links between poor health and socioeconomic disadvantage, ACT Health is exploring options for reporting on health by socio-economic status.

There is no discernible trend in gender equity over the decade, as shown by average weekly full-time wages for males and females. While figures show an improvement in the late 1990s this was subsequently cancelled out.

The question of inter-generational equity is not easy to resolve. The equitable access by future generations to community services, such as health services, and to other resources that are available to this generation is a difficult question that this ACT community must urgently address.

Protecting biological diversity and maintaining essential ecological processes and life-support systems

Indicators 19 to 24 in the table (see sustainability indicators)

The ACT has faced the significant challenges of natural disasters such as extended droughts and very severe bushfires in early 2003. They had an adverse effect on almost every part of the environment, as revealed in the majority of indicators used in the 2003 ACT State of the Environment report and in this assessment (see also the Conserving Biodiversity issue and the Catchment Quality issue).

In some respects the bushfire-induced ‘decline’ in most indicators is not long-term. In the case of biodiversity, many burnt areas may have the seed stock to allow recovery of fire-damaged ecological communities. However, there is no clear understanding of this regeneration path, and of what community structural change will occur. Initial post-fire surveys suggest that there is concern for particular ecological communities and component species, and for threatened native fish species in the upper Cotter River catchment.

Similarly the decline in water quality—as measured by ‘freshwater health’ and chemical measures such as turbidity—is not expected to persist, although it may be some time before the previously good quality of stream water in fire-affected areas is restored. For example, the condition of at least 840 kilometres of streambank has been changed as a result of fire damage to vegetation and soils.

It is therefore important to take the opportunity to monitor the long-term response of both the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Apart from the fires, there is evidence that there are ongoing threats to ecological processes and life-support systems in the ACT.

The impact of human activity on possible climate change is indicated by Greenhouse gas emissions. In the ACT these have increased by 12% since 1990, leaving the ACT with little prospect of reducing emissions to 3.557 million tonnes (the 1990 emissions amount) by 2008. As suggested in the ACT Greenhouse Strategy: 2002 Review of performance and options for the future , only with new ways of reducing emissions can the target level be achievable (see the Climate and Greenhouse issue).

More than half the ACT’s emissions are due to the use of electricity from coal-fired power stations, with emissions from transport coming a distant but significant second as a result of the ACT community’s dependence on the private motor vehicle. The Sustainable Transport Plan 2 aims to redress this situation to some extent.

Concern remains for the increase in the number of extinct, endangered and vulnerable native species, and of endangered ecological communities. Some of these are already well below the levels considered to be sustainable. In the last decade, 24 species and two ecological communities have been declared threatened and action plans prepared. Action plans for one endangered ecological community—Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands—and its threatened species were combined into a more strategic approach to management and recovery in 2003. A similar process for Natural Temperate Grasslands and its threatened species has also started (see the Conserving Biodiversity issue).

The continued development pressure on grasslands and lowland woodlands, including the threatened and endangered ones, is of concern. It would be desirable for the proposed Canberra Plan to take into account opportunities presented by the January 2003 fires and seek alternative urban development in other, less ecologically valuable areas such as former pine plantations.

The ACT's management of natural resources has improved over the last decade with significant achievements such as willow and broom control, preventing the establishment of pest water plants, additions to the Canberra Nature Park, changing the planned location of Gungahlin township to meet the habitat needs of threatened species, and the bush-friendly commercial nursery scheme. Surveys have been conducted for threatened species and threatened ecological communities, in the ACT; key areas for protection have been identified, and government agencies are now moving on to implement appropriate management for biodiversity conservation outcomes. Also ACT and New South Wales agencies are collaborating to improve our knowledge of the regional context of threatened species and communities, particularly as this relates to ACT land planning and development opportunities.

Community participation in National Resource Management has remained strong. Indigenous people, formally recognised as the traditional owners of Namadgi National Park have shared their National Resource Management expertise on the Interim Namadgi Advisory Board, and groups such as Landcare, Parkcare, Catchment Management, Canberra Ornithologists and the many 'Friends of' groups contribute to a better stewardship of the ACT's natural resources.

With community–Government collaboration, a more comprehensive and outcome-driven approach to many resource management issues has been developed through setting goals, targets and evaluating the implementation and effects of management plans, such as the ACT Natural Resources Management Plan.

Into the future

The ACT has attributes that suggest that it can become sustainable and make a net positive contribution to progress towards national and global sustainability.

The challenge for the ACT is to develop indicators which take into account the ACT’s assets and adequately assess the Territory’s contribution to the quest for sustainable development on a regional, national and world-wide basis.

With its intellectual capital and advanced research and technology, the ACT is ideally placed to play a leading role in the quest for sustainable development. Yet as an inland island within New South Wales, the ACT is most likely to achieve progress towards sustainability as part of a regional effort.

Many resources are shared among the ACT and surrounding Shires—roads, energy and water infrastructure and even labour are but a few examples; strong regional affiliations have already been established at government, business and at community levels. Those affiliations have the potential to facilitate the introduction of environmentally progressive plans that benefit the entire Australian Capital Region.

A holistic approach will be necessary to accommodate the interactions and interdependencies of social, aesthetic, cultural, economic and ecological wellbeing. These interactions and interdependencies are a key element of the ACT Government’s definition of the environment.

Transforming plans into actions to which the whole community will be committed will be an ongoing necessity to achieve progress towards sustainability.

End Notes
GSP is the State and Territory equivalent of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP
The Sustainable Transport Plan is part of The Draft Canberra Spatial Plan.

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