ACT State of the Environment 2007/08

Issue: Progressing sustainability


This paper complements the 2007/08 State of the Environment Report Overview and Recommendations paper, and these should be considered together.

Our progress so far

Our progress towards sustainability is revealed in:

  • the trends reported in the 2007/08 State of the Environment Report (summarised in the Overview and Recommendations paper),
  • the change in the Territory1  ecological footprint (Appendix 1), and
  • the changes in the National Sustainability Indicators, applied for the ACT (Appendix 2).

In general, Canberra's community wellbeing is robust with respect to our standard of living, education levels, health services, life expectancy, and general safety are high and we are economically well off. However, housing affordability and skills shortage are both challenging problems for Canberrans1, as they are in most major Australian urban centres. And although we are wealthy some sections of our community are disadvantaged.

While we have contained our water consumption under government-imposed water restrictions, this is not the case for our energy use, which has increased. Our residential electricity consumption is higher than the national average and second only to Tasmania that uses significant amounts of hydro-electricity; this means the ACT has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person from residential electricity in the country. We also have poor uptake of renewable energy; less than 2% of our total energy use.

The changes in the National Sustainability Indicators, applied for the ACT (Appendix 2), indicate that overall we are doing well in terms of our social and economic wellbeing; however, the environmental indicators are of concern. Pressures on our environment are also evident in our latest ecological footprint (2004; Appendix 1) which has increased by 15% per person since the first ecological footprint for the ACT was calculated in 1998–99. An ecological footprint is a measure of the area of land needed to support the lifestyles of urban residents; it includes raw materials for food, building, energy and so on, as well as the area required to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from our consumption of resources. In 2004 the average ACT resident had an ecological footprint of 8.5 global hectares2. This is nearly four times higher than the global average, and 17% higher than the Australian average of 7.3 global hectares.

While this is clearly unsustainable, the intent of Canberrans to live more sustainability is strong. A 2007 survey (TAMS 2007) in Canberra found that over 95% of respondents believed they had a moral responsibility to do something and take personal actions to make a difference, while 90% claimed to be doing something (such as recycling, reducing water and energy use) to be more sustainable and climate friendly. Our high consumption of resources correlates with increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

We may also have a false sense of long-term security, as we are currently able to maintain a wealth of natural assets, clean air, high quality drinking water, and a well-established system of protected areas, all seemingly unthreatened. However, as protected as the local environment is, it is nonetheless threatened; 17 species are listed as vulnerable, and 14 species and two ecological communities are listed as threatened. In 2003, the ACT Government released People, Place, Prosperity – a policy for sustainability in the ACT. Indeed, over this reporting period there have been a number of government policies relating to sustainability. Of particular relevance to our use of resources and climate change are Weathering the Change: the ACT climate change strategy 2007–25; Sustainable Transport Plan; Think water, act water; Turning waste into resources; ACT Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy; ACT Lowland Native Grassland Conservation Strategy; and ACT Aquatic Species and Riparian Zone Conservation. While these policies provide a framework for actions by the ACT Government and by the community, the challenge lies in ensuring that actions are implemented as quickly as possible, and sustained.

Our challenges

Our latest ecological footprint tells us that in Canberra we are consuming at an unsustainable rate. The consequences of high levels of consumption are being felt world-wide from the effects of climate change – weather patterns are changing, ecosystems are changing, human disease patterns are changing, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate and there are warnings that peak oil3 may have been reached.

Scientists and other researchers are warning of the need to urgently accelerate ameliorative actions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Claims are also made that deferring actions will have adverse economic consequences. There are some who question that human actions are exacerbating the greenhouse effect, however they do not always disagree that we are over-consuming or that we need to change behaviours for example, Don Aitkin (2008).

Apart from climate change and an imperative to reduce consumption for environmental reasons, the recent increases in the price of crude oil and its derivates indicate that it is time to start very seriously considering how we can dramatically reduce our dependence on this non-renewable energy source. In a city like Canberra, so heavily dependent on transport fuelled by non-renewable sources, we are vulnerable to changes in costs. For future security and prosperity, we need to start considering innovative sustainable transport options so we can stay connected both within and beyond our city. We also need to consider our future energy sources, and how we can make the transition to powering our city from renewable energy.

We do not readily make the links between our lifestyle and its effects on the environment. This is particularly so in the ACT as we import nearly all the goods we use (food, clothing, energy, building materials, household and luxury items).

While the following has been said about issues on a national scale, the proposed actions are equally relevant to the ACT.
Australia ... by 2020, significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur ... by 2030, water security problems are projected to intensify ... by 2030, production from agriculture and forestry is projected to decline (IPCC 2007:11).
The evidence shows that ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth. Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century ... The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be (Stern 2007:ii).
Australia must now put in place effective policies to achieve major reductions in emissions ... Policy-makers will need to eschew short-term responses that seem to deal with immediate problems but contribute to the building of pressures for future policy change (Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008:3).
Nonetheless, somehow we have to change the way we do things, if only because we will be unable to afford our present way of life. My strategy is to encourage a shift from what I call materialism ... to creativity. There are three good reasons for doing so. One is that materialism ultimately doesn't work. The second is that creative people tend to be interested in life, happy in what they do, and productive. The third is that the footprint of the creative ... is likely to be a lot fainter than those who search for fulfilment through buying things ... a thriving, creative society will sit a little more lightly on the planet than an acquisitive, materialistic one (Aitkin, D. 2008).

Capacity for change

The Canberra community has a great capacity to embrace sustainability and make our city and community more sustainable. Groups in our community are already making these changes. Over 80% of our schools have joined the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative, ACT, and are working to make their schools more sustainable. Community groups such as the SEE-change groups, CROWK, and Go Zero C02 Farrer are providing leadership in their local areas.

We have a wealth of knowledge upon which to draw in our universities, CSIRO and ACT research centres. The government has policies on sustainability and the business community is recognising the importance of sustainability and climate change to their future. These are strong building blocks upon which to progress change.

Many exemplary sustainability projects are underway in the ACT as illustrated in the Snapshots in this state of the environment report.

Accelerate our actions

Given the findings in this state of the environment report, it is evident that we need to significantly:

  • reduce our overall consumption of resources,
  • replace non-renewable resources with renewable ones,
  • reduce the waste we generate,
  • reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and
  • avoid unnecessary purchases and items made of unrecyclable materials.

While this is a challenge, ACT residents have stated their commitment, and shown their capacity to make a difference. However, we need to accelerate the rate at which we undertake actions. We need to explore new approaches, particularly with respect to innovative sustainable transport options (22.8% of our greenhouse gas emissions comes from our transport sector, where the energy used is primarily non-renewable; we only achieve a 7.9% public transport patronage with private motor vehicles dominating). However, the impact of recent and projected fuel price rises and uncertainty of future supplies may force some change.

Concurrently, we need to strive for:

  • more efficient buildings (72.2% of our greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the energy we use in heating, cooling and lighting our buildings; we use less than 2% green power),
  • integrated sustainable planning (continue to implement the Canberra Spatial Plan, particularly with respect to achieving higher densities and protecting ecological connectivity; work towards achieving greater integration between Territory and airport developments; create subdivision layouts and building regulations that foster passive solar housing designs; contain the urban footprint; protect areas of conservation value), and
  • reduced waste and enhanced waste management practices (only buy items we need or will definitely consume; further reduce waste to landfill through removing compostable waste and better managing business waste).

We also need to continue to:

  • improve our management of native ecosystems (in 2006 the World Wildlife Fund gave the ACT a 'Triple A' assessment in recognition of achievements, yet we have 17 species listed as vulnerable, and 14 species and two ecological communities listed as threatened), and
  • maintain community wellbeing (overall we have a high standard of living, although some sectors are disadvantaged).
Four dimensions of resilient communities
People – Residents' beliefs, attitudes and behaviour in matters of leadership, initiative, education, pride, cooperation, self-reliance and participation.
Organisations – The scope, nature and level of collaboration within local organisations, institutions and groups.
Resources – The extent to which the community builds on local resources to achieve its goals, while drawing on external resources strategically.
Community process – The nature and extent of community economic development planning, participation and action.

Source: Centre for Community Enterprise

Government leadership

Within the ACT several key decision makers have the potential to significantly affect our progress towards sustainability – the ACT Government in terms of its overall governance of Territory controlled lands, the National Capital Authority with respect to designated areas, particularly the Parliamentary Zone and the Australian Government for national lands, including the airport. Being the nation's capital presents an opportunity to give strong leadership on sustainability. Accordingly, key decision makers need to be strongly encouraged to foster best practice sustainability initiatives.

At the Territory level it is essential that the ACT Government continue to provide support, resources and leadership on sustainability. While there has been strong policy development across sustainability issues, the ever-present challenge is functional cross-agency integration, and effective implementation. Strong government leadership provides the example for businesses and the community to follow.


Population is an issue often raised in relation to sustainability but debate is limited, as it evokes strong emotional responses. Addressing population policy is likely best done at international and national levels, and there is a need for a national debate on this issue. This would clarify issues, and highlight the complexities associated with developing a population policy.

A regional approach to sustainability

Canberra is the largest urban settlement in the region, with which it shares many resources, including water catchments, energy and water infrastructure, and labour. Regional partnerships and forums are an important way to address issues of regional urban development, transport and natural landscape; and to strengthen regional approaches to sustainability. Some such partnerships, for example, the Regional Leaders Forum, already exist. These types of forums should be fostered.

The future ... with strong community debates shaping directions

In considering the future, we must continue thinking about and debating what we want for our region, our Territory, our city, our ecosystems, our community and ourselves. Debates on the future of our city allow us to examine the fundamental values that bind us as a society. We need to further draw on the intellectual wealth of our community to explore, together, how we can build our community's resilience to meet future challenges, create new kinds of wealth, ensure social equity and create a future  sustainable city that is at least as liveable as today's.

The future is not somewhere we are going, it is something we are creating ... you might well feel that this view Ian Lowe's of the future – a world of stable population, stabilised consumption, zero waste, low-carbon energy turned efficiently into innovative products, new social and political institutions to make sound decisions about the future – is so remote from where we are today that it is utopian. In one sense it is, but as I keep reminding people, all of the significant social reforms throughout human history were once considered utopian ... all desirable features of modern life were once utopian visions made real by visionaries who worked systematically to achieve their dreams of a better world ... anyone who thinks about the impact of our choices ... has a moral responsibility to work towards a sustainable future (Lowe 2005:108)

The ACT 2020 Summit, in April 2008, canvassed community ideas on the future of Canberra. Ideas included:

  • Canberra will be characterised by a culture of active citizenry enabled by social inclusion.
  • Building on the resources we have in our educational and other institutions, Canberra will be recognised as a city of excellence and innovation.
  • Canberra will have strong links to other communities internationally, nationally and regionally, which will be enhanced by a modern transport system.
  • Planning and design will be future focused and based on principles of sustainability.
  • It will be easy for all community members to participate and make informed choices.
  • Through increased engagement and connectedness among residents, there will be fewer 'lost' or disconnected people.

A natural progression of the 2020 Summit would be to engage all sectors of the community in debate on specific sustainability issues likely to affect all Canberrans. Given the impending fuel issues and climate change, innovative sustainable transportation, integrated with sustainable land use planning, seems a logical first topic.

Taking personal responsibility

Each day we make choices about what we consume, from selecting the foods we eat to buying a new house. Most of these types of decisions are likely to involve the use of natural resources, either directly or indirectly. In general, by such actions we generate greenhouse gas emissions and consume resources. This gives us the opportunity to discriminate in what we consume to minimise our impact.

While governments may provide incentives or penalties to influence desired behaviours, given our democratic society, and market economy, significant power resides with us as individuals to make a difference. We need to take personal responsibility for progressing sustainability. To this end, Canberrans are strongly encouraged to take action to be sustainable by, for example:

  • reducing consumption and saving money (on average we spend $1475 per year on unused items – mostly food)
  • reusing and recycling
  • purchasing green energy
  • using renewable energy by, for example, installing a solar hot water service
  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions by, for example, making our homes more energy efficient through insulation, double glazing, creating breezeways for summer cooling
  • car pooling, walking, cycling or taking a bus, even if we, initially, only do these things once a week.

Data sources and references

ACT Commissioner for the Environment, 2003, State of the Environment Report 2003, Key Findings, available at <>

ACT Government 1996, No Waste by 2010: turning waste into resources – Action Plan 2004–07, available at <>

ACT Government 2003, People, Place Prosperity – a policy for sustainability in the ACT, Canberra, available at <>

ACT Government 2004a, Building our Community – The Canberra Social Plan, Canberra, available at <>

ACT Government 2004b, Woodlands for Wildlife: ACT Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy, Action Plan No. 27, Environment ACT, Canberra, available at < native_plants_and_animals/threatened_species_and_ecological_communities_in_the_act/woodlands_strategy>

ACT Government 2005, A Vision Splendid of the Grassy Plains Extended: ACT Lowland Native Grassland Conservation Strategy, Action Plan No. 28, Arts, Heritage and Environment, Canberra, available at < threatened_species_and_ecological_communities_in_the_act/grassland_conservation_strategy>

ACT Government 2006, A New Way – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Family Wellbeing Plan 2006–11, Canberra, available at <>

ACT Government 2007a, Affordable Housing Action Plan 2007, Canberra, available at <>

ACT Government 2007b, Ribbons of Life: ACT Aquatic Species and Riparian Zone Conservation Strategy, Action Plan No. 29, Department of Territory and Municipal Services, Canberra, available at <>

ACTPLA ACT Planning and Land Authority 2004, Canberra Spatial Plan, ACT Government, available at <>

Aitkin D 2008, A Challenge to Global Warming Orthodoxies, Part 2, on ABC Radio – Ockham's Razor, 4 May 2008, transcript available at <>

Centre for Community Enterprise, 'The Community Resilience Manual', Making Waves, 10:4 British Columbia, available at <>

Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis (The University of Sydney), 2008, The 2003–04 Ecological Footprint of the population of the Australian Capital Territory, Report on consultancy work carried out for the Sustainability Policy and Programs within Territory and Municipal Services and the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment.

DET Department of Education and Training 2006, Towards 2020 Decisions, ACT Department of Education and Training, Canberra, available at <>

Garnaut Climate Change Review 2008, The Garnaut Climate Change Review Interim Report to the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments of Australia, Canberra, available at < MicrosoftWord-GarnautClimateChangeReviewInterimReport_ExecutiveSummary_-Feb08/$File/Microsoft Word - Garnaut%20Climate Change Review Interim Report _Executive Summary_ - Feb 08.pdf>

IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007, Climate Change 2007, Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers, Spain, available at <>

Lowe I 2005, A Big Fix - Radical Solutions For Australia's Environmental Crisis, Black Inc., Australia

Stern N 2007, The Economic of Climate Change, the Stern Review, London, available at < stern_review_economics_climate_change/stern_review_Report.cfm>

TAMS Territory and Municipal Services 2004, Sustainable Transport Plan for the ACT, ACT Government, available at <>

TAMS Department of Territory and Municipal Services 2007, Weathering the Change: the ACT climate change strategy 2007–25, Canberra, available at <>

TAMS Department of Territory and Municipal Services 2007, 2007 Sustainability Community Attitudes Survey, Canberra, available at <>

WCED World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, New York, available at <–02.htm#I>

Appendix 1: The Territory's ecological footprint

An ecological footprint is a measure of the amount of renewable and non-renewable ecologically productive land area required to support the resource demands and absorb the wastes of a given population or specific activity. The ecological footprint provides a means by which to determine relative consumption for the purpose of drawing attention to the unsustainability of global resource consumption.

It is an easily communicated unit of analysis, which enables comparison of human consumption both between nations and directly to nature's limited productivity.

The ecological footprint is expressed in 'global hectares', where one hectare of biologically productive space with 'world average productivity' is equal to one unit.

Calculating the size of this 'footprint' provides a rough measure of the extent of human impact on the earth.

An ecological footprint helps us understand the link between our lifestyles and the land and ecology that supports us. The average world ecological footprint in 2003 was 2.2 global hectares per person. Under the current global footprint, it would take 1.25 years to regenerate the resources that the global population uses each year.

An ecological footprint is the land required to support the ACT population in its current activities including the raw material for food, building, energy, etc. as well as the area needed to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted due to ACT residents' consumption. This includes land inside the ACT such as offices and homes, as well as land outside such as that used to grow food consumed in the ACT.

Key findings of ACT footprint:

  • In 2004 the average ACT resident had an ecological footprint of 8.5 global hectares. This is nearly four times higher than the global average and 17% higher than the Australian average of 7.3 global hectares.
  • The total footprint of the ACT is 2,677,000 global hectares or 11 times the geographical area of the ACT.
  • The per capita ACT footprint has increased by 15% since 1998–99 from 7.4 global hectares to 8.5 global hectares. While an ecological footprint has not been developed for 2008, indications are that it would have continued to grow.
    • The highest contribution to the Territory's ecological footprint comes from:
    • what we use, (e.g. phones, banking, entertainment and government services),
    • what we eat and where is comes from,
    • transport,
    • the energy we use, and
    • the things we buy and where they come from.

If these data are further broken down into categories, we can see that our energy and houses have the greatest impact on our ecological footprint (Table 1).

There are often differences in the ecological impacts of what we buy and how much we spend on them. Figure 2 compares the footprint of each consumption category (in blue) to the expenditure in each consumption category of ACT residents (in red).

So, while we spend only 10% of our money on food, the growing, making and delivering of the food to the ACT accounts for 20% of our footprint. This difference is particularly concerning with electricity. The ACT has relatively cheap electricity and we spend less that 5% of our income on energy use, yet it makes up nearly 15% of our ecological footprint. The issue of cheap electricity in the ACT, coupled with the environmental impact of the considerable carbon emissions, is particularly concerning for future sustainability and climate change impacts.

Figure 1: Comparison of ecological footprint per capita the ACT, 1999 and 2003–04

Graph of ecological footprint per capita the ACT

Source: Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, 2008

Table 1: Top commodities in relation to their impact on the ecological footprint
Rank Commodity Impact (gha/capita) % of total
1 Electricity supply 1.1 13
2 Residential building construction 0.5 6
3 Retail trade 0.4 5
4 Hotels, clubs, restaurants and cafes 0.4 5
5 Petrol 0.3 4
6 Air and space transport 0.3 4

Note: gha = global hectares
Source: Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, 2008

Figure 2: Comparison of consumption categories by ecological footprint and expenditure, ACT 2003–04

Graph of consumption by categories by ecological footprint and expenditure, ACT

Source: Centre for Integrated Sustainability Analysis, 2008

Appendix 2: National Sustainability Indicators with figures for the ACT, 2000–03 and 2003–07

Values ACT equivalent to national headline sustainability indicator Results of 2000–03 Results for 2003–07 Desired trend Actual trend
Living standards and economic wellbeing 1. Real GSP per capita $45,794 $62,793
Up Up
2. Gross household disposable income per capita $36,831 $49,923
Up Up
Education and skills 3. Percentage of people aged 15 and over who attained post-secondary qualifications including vocational training (2001) 46.3% 51.6% Up Up
Healthy living 4. Life expectancy at birth 78.5 male
82.9 female
79.9 male
84.0 female
Up Up
Air quality 5. Number of occasions where concentrations of pollutants exceeded NEPM standards for ambient air quality 22 31 Down Up
6. Total NOx and particulate emissions 9.5 million kg 8.4 million kg Down Down
Economic capacity 7. Growth in multi-factor productivity (gross product per combined unit of labour and capital) for latest year No ACT data No ACT data Up Unknown
Industry performance 8. Real GSP per capita $45,794 $62,793
Up Up
Economic security 9. Average household net worth $308,965 $573,126
Up Up
Management of water 10. Proportion of water management units with use within 70% of sustainable yield for (i) groundwater and (ii) surface water (i) 88%
(ii) 97%
(i) 100%
(ii) 100%
Management of forests 11. Total area of all forest type Not applicable due to fire extent 123,000 ha
Management of fish 12. Percentage of major Commonwealth managed harvested wild fish species classified as fully or under-fished n/a n/a
Management of energy 13. (i) Renewable energy use – Greenchoice customers as a proportion of total customers (ActewAGL only) 3.2% Current data is not comparable Up Unknown
(ii) Total renewable energy sold (ActewAGL only for 2002–03) 51.4 GWh 43.5 GWh
(for all retailers)
Up Down
Economic and gender equity 15. Adult female full-time average weekly earnings as a proportion of adult male full time average weekly earnings 82.2% 84.6% Up Up
Economic and education equity 16. Percentage difference in Year 12 completion between average of top three deciles and total population 2% n/d Down Unknown
Economic and health equity 17. Percentage difference in burden of life years lost due to disability or mortality between bottom and top socioeconomic quintile n/d n/d Down Unknown
Locational equity 18. Percentage difference in the Year 12 completion rate between urban and remote locations n/a n/a
Biodiversity and ecological integrity 19. (i) Proportion of bio geographic sub regions with greater than 30% of original vegetative cover 100% 100% Up Steady
(ii) Proportion of bio geographic sub regions with greater than 10% of the sub region's area in protected areas 100% 100% Up Steady
20. (i) number of extinct, endangered and vulnerable species 20 31 Down Up
(ii) number of endangered ecological communities 2 2 Down Steady
Climate change 21. Total net greenhouse gas emissions (Mt CO2-e) 3.98 4.45 Down Up
Coastal and marine health 22. Estuarine condition index n/a n/a
Freshwater health 23. Proportion of assessed sites that are with high in-stream biodiversity, based on macro-invertebrate community structure assessed using AUSRIVAS 8% (1 of 13) 15% (2 of 13) Up Up
Land health 24. Proportion of assessed ACT subcatchments that are in moderate or good condition 0% No data; but improved Up Unknown

Notes: NEPM = National Environment Protection Measure; NOx = mono-nitrogen oxide (NO & NO2); GSP = Gross State Product; n/a = not applicable to the ACT; n/d = no data; AUSRIVAS = Australian River Assessment System
Source: ACT Commissioner for the Environment 2003; TAMS and Indicators for State of the Environment Report 2007


1 For the purposes of this report, the terms Canberran and ACT resident are interchangeable.
2 A global hectare is where one hectare of biologically productive space with 'world average productivity' is equal to one unit. See Appendix 1.
3 Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum production is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.

living sustainably

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