ACT State of the Environment 2007

Issue: Resource use


ACT residents use of most resources, except water, has increased. Our reduced water use was achieved under government-imposed restrictions made necessary by the prolonged drought. We are using more energy and expanding the area of land used for urban purposes. The amount of garbage we generate continues to increase, though we are recycling and reusing more of it each year. The ACT is the most wasteful jurisdiction in Australia; each of us spends an average $1475 per year on goods used only for a short time or not at all (mostly food). Our spending is 20% higher than that of other Australians, who average $1226 each year (Planet Ark 2005:viii).

Energy use accelerating, with Green Power takeup low

Consumption of electricity and gas has continued to grow. This is not good news given the contribution of energy to climate change.

While our consumption of gas over the reporting period increased by 2.6%, from 20.56 Gigajoules in 2003–04 to 21.09 in 2006–07, there was a more dramatic rise (10.6%) in electricity use, from 2546 GWh in 2002–03 to 2717GWh in 2004–05.

Domestic green energy use increased in this reporting period, with a per capita rise from 28,692 MWh (0.02GWh) in 2002–03 to 43,463 MWh (0.04 GWh) in 2005–06 however, this is less than 2% of our total electricity use. It will be interesting to see the effect on renewable energy consumption of the ACT Government's climate change action plan that sets a renewable energy target and introduces legislation for Green Power to be offered to new electricity customers in the ACT (Action 5 and 6 of the Plan).

Figure 1 : Volume of electricity sold ACT, 2001–02 to 2004–05

Graph of volume of electricity sold ACT, 2001/02 to 2004/05

Source: Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission 2007

The ACT remains second only to Tasmania in residential use of electricity per person (Figure 2). As Tasmania uses significant amounts of hydro-electricity, the ACT has Australia's highest per person greenhouse gas emissions from residential electricity.

Figure 2 : State and territory comparison of per customer residential electricity consumption, 2004–05

Graph of State and territory comparison of per capita electricity consumption

Source: ICRC 2007.

Vehicle fuel consumption during the reporting period is not known because these data were not collected. From June 2008 an accurate calculation of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions will be possible, under legislation announced in the ACT Government's Climate Change Strategy (released in July 2007) requiring service stations to provide data.

Waste avoidance challenges recycling champions

It is 11 years since we adopted the No Waste by 2010 strategy and, as this is the last state of the environment report before 2010, it is timely to assess implementation of the strategy. Under the visionary No Waste target considerable successes have been achieved even though it is unlikely that the actual target will be achieved. Given its strength and wide appeal, it would be prudent to retain No Waste with a new strategy and achievable but flexible targets.

Under the visionary target of No Waste by 2010 some successes have been achieved, for example, comparison of 1994–95 and 2006–07 reveals that since the strategy was introduced:

  • the resource recovery rate has increased by 315% (136,570 tonnes to 566,633),
  • waste to landfill has reduced by 27% (272,054 tonnes down to 197,425),
  • the highest annual resource recovery rate of 75% (579,440 tonnes) was achieved in 2005–06,
  • 62% of the total waste stream (4.88 million tones out of 7.85) was diverted from landfill for further use.

However, during this same period, total waste increased by 87% (408,624 tonnes to 764,058) yet population growth has been around 10%.

Though the construction industry has reduced waste, waste from household weekly collections, and from businesses (commercial and industrial, educational institutions and government), continue to increase, with business waste the most intransigent. While the government should foster business waste programs, businesses have an opportunity to show leadership by voluntarily and publicly reporting on their waste generation and disposal methods.

Data indicates that the increase in household collections is due to increased consumption rather than population increase, or the increased number of households being serviced.

A 2007 audit suggests that up to 55,000 tonnes of organic waste could be diverted from landfill through the combined effort of the business sector, who send up to 30,000 tonnes of waste to landfill each year, and householders, who send 25,000 tonnes (49% of total household waste). Reducing this large amount of landfill by using organic waste for some other purpose, such as mulch or compost, or by aggressively pursuing the recycling of commercial waste is a potential achievement worth pursuing. Such initiatives could extend the life of the recently completed waste cell at Mugga Lane, constructed at a cost of more than $11 million. At the current rate of waste to landfill the cell has an expected life of no more than seven years.

Although business waste deposited at landfill sites is charged by unit of waste, this sector remains reluctant to embrace recycling. We need a specific program addressing this issue. To further boost recycling there should be more recycling opportunities in public places and at public events in areas under the control of the Territory and/or Federal governments. Giving recycling a higher everyday profile could show Canberra's residents and visitors the importance of effectively managing waste.

E-waste (eg. computer terminals, computer monitors, mobile phones, televisions) is an emerging and significant waste issue that is likely to increase, particularly in Canberra given the large number of government agencies, learning institutions, high level of education and affluence of the population. It is also likely that householders are storing disused domestic e-waste. ACT Government charges for the acceptance of computer monitors and boxes were introduced to pay the costs of transporting and dismantling computers and recycling the independent components. An unintended consequence of the charges has been illegal dumping of computers, particularly at charity stores and clothing bins.

Given the Territory's overall high use of electronic equipment an opportunity exists to form an e-waste consortium to foster actions to address this emerging issue and provide leadership to other jurisdictions. As there are no data on e-waste in the Territory, securing this data would be a logical first step for such a consortium.

The benefits of appropriate movement and treatment of hazardous waste and, in some cases, production of environmentally beneficial by-products are becoming evident. In the reporting period some 385,320 litres (346.6 tonnes) of contaminated transformer oil were treated and resold as a usable product.

The National Environment Protection (Movement of Controlled Waste between States and Territories) Measure for the ACT was fully implemented during the reporting period. There were no breaches, orders or prosecutions at either of the facilities that are authorised in the ACT to treat hazardous waste.

The increase in the movement of controlled waste both into and out of the ACT was in part due to Stericorp ceasing to treat waste at Mitchell for more than half the reporting period. The clinical and pharmaceutical waste moved from a variety of sources into the ACT for treatment was merely consolidated, then transferred to Sydney for treatment, pending new arrangements.

Restrictions moderate water use

Water was a key issue during the reporting period, with a continuing overall decline in Canberrans' water use as in the previous reporting period (2000–03). Water restrictions have been in place and ACTEW has reported satisfactory compliance. With consumption around 50 gigalitres per year, during the reporting period an estimated 93 gigalitres has been saved, the equivalent of 18 months water supply.

Drought and water use restrictions have had a significant effect on our water use; total urban water use dropped from 65,939 ML in 2002–03 (before Stage 3 restrictions) to 52,560 ML in 2003–04 (after Stage 3 restrictions).

The prolonged drought has drawn public attention to sustainability of our water supply. The government adopted a comprehensive long-term water security strategy in 2007 that included effective demand management initiatives, expanding water supply capacity, progressing household water-smart meters, and investigating establishment of a major water recycling plant. The current drought has raised awareness of the risks of unsustainable practices and the community has proved it can reduce water consumption under restrictions.

Canberra commuters top the nation in driving, cycling and walking

Transport in the ACT contributes approximately 23% of our total greenhouse gas emissions and private motor vehicles remain the favoured mode. (The categories of 'public' and 'private' motor transport can mislead as public includes a taxi or a bus carrying a single passenger, while a private car might transport a large family.) In assessing sustainability, the key efficiency ratio is energy used and emissions produced per person per distance travelled.

Compared with other Australians travelling to and from work, Canberrans used their cars more (81%), cycled a little more (2.5%) and walked some more (4.9%), but used public transport less (7.9%; national average 14%). Given Canberra's design, comparatively small population and low density, commuting offers the greatest opportunity for achieving significant improvements in this sustainable travel ratio. The greatest opportunity for significant change is in travel to and from work as it involves large numbers of people travelling at the same time. Such change could be through private cars (car pooling), public transport (fuller buses running more often to demand) or a combination of both (park and ride, walk/bike and bus). Examining commuter resistance to filling empty seats in cars already traveling is important in changing this trend and requires adequate survey data (Mees et al. 2007). In improving the commuter per distance travelled ratio, improving time per journey can be an important incentive.

Given the Australian and ACT governments' strong commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a joint parking policy would be timely. This could offer parking incentives for commuter car-pooling in congested and expensive parking areas, such as Civic and Kingston, as well as the Parliamentary Triangle where parking is currently free.

Although the number of vehicles in the ACT increased from 212,072 to 220,827 over the reporting period, kilometers travelled per vehicle decreased from 15,100 km (2003) to 13,600 km (2006). The ACT is now below the national average of 14,600 km travelled per vehicle in 2006 (at 13,600). Whether this is related to reduced interstate car travel and is accompanied by an increase in air and/or rail transport is not known. Similarly, while freight movement is essential in assessing trends in transport efficiency, specific data on freight tonnage arriving and leaving the ACT by road, rail and air over the reporting period were not available.

Despite a dip in concession and school passenger boardings in 2004–05, ACTION bus use increased, from 16,305,000 boardings in 2003–04 to 16,928,000 in 2005–06. While adult boardings continued to increase in 2006–07, total boardings declined (to 16,764,000), with another fall in concession and school passengers. Canberrans reported that service schedules, routes and travelling time were the key reasons for not using public transport (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006).

The government continues to add to its fleet of compressed natural gas buses (currently 54 of 379; 14% of ACTION's fleet).

Progress in implementing the key actions in the ACT Government's Sustainable Transport Plan for the ACT (TAMS 2004), produced at the end of the last reporting period, suggests that given current trends the targets in this plan are likely to be achieved, refer to Table 1. While this is the case, data was not available on the effect of these targets in actually achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or energy efficiency or progress towards a carbon neutral transport. Accordingly, additional targets and measures are needed to determine the overall effectiveness of the transport system.

Table 1:  Sustainable transport plan targets (journey to work trips)
Mode 2001 Target 2006 Actual 2011 Target 2026 Target
Walking 4.1% 4.9% 6% 7%
Cycling 2.3% 2.5% 5% 7%
Public Transport 6.7% 7.9% 9% 16%
Total 13.1% 15.3% 20% 30%

Source: TAMS 2004

The Sustainable Transport Plan addresses transport needs to 2026 and works towards achieving sustainability by incremental change. Given the current challenges in relation to fuel costs and climate change, it seems timely to question if more needs to be done.

When data are available, it would be appropriate for information to be made public on progress and effectiveness of the government's Sustainable Transport Plan. Achieving a sustainable transport system for the ACT is a challenge, given its planning history, population and comparatively low densities. However, sustainable transport options are a key issue for the ACT.

A paper on long-term innovative sustainable transport options for the ACT could be prepared, and be the basis for a discussion with the community, to inform possible amendments to the ACT Sustainable Transport Plan Options. An independently chaired, multidiscipline taskforce should be charged with developing the options, consulting the community and reporting to government.

Urban development and nature conservation areas increasing

The main change in land use is one of intensification within the urban area; it is important to manage significant urban growth in a sustainable and integrated way.

Substantial redevelopment has occurred in Civic and its immediate surrounds, in accordance with the Canberra Spatial Plan. Braddon, Turner, Acton, Barton and Kingston experienced significant population increases. In 2006, Canberra–Queanbeyan housed 1005 people per square kilometre, a 10% increase from 2001 of 900 people per square kilometre (Gargett & Gafney 2007). While this intensification is significant for Canberra, Australia's highest density area – East Sydney – houses 8100 people per square kilometre.

Urban settlement covers 27,952 hectares (about 13%) of the Territory. Continuation of the land release program increased the urban area by about 450 hectares during 2003–07, mostly in Gungahlin and Dunlop (in the north of the Territory); Conder and Banks (in the south) and in O'Malley. Most is residential development and supporting infrastructure, such as roads and schools. The government is also planning residential development in the Molonglo Valley; care will need to be taken to prevent adverse effects to this area's special environmental attributes. Significant growth has occurred and is likely to continue at the Canberra International Airport.

The Territory's rural lands have decreased due to expansion of urban area and creation of nature reserves. The biggest reserve is Goorooyaroo at 701 hectares. The government is yet to make long-term land use decisions on some of the forestry lands burnt during the 2003 bushfire. Some pre-fire forestry lands are being used for new purposes, notably the Stromlo Forest Park recreation site, which includes worldclass mountain bike facilities.

Infrastructure sustainability

Reflecting good management, planning and resourcing, the Territory's infrastructure for wastewater and water and energy supply are generally in good condition and provide high levels of service compared with other Australian jurisdictions.

By contrast, despite improved asset management systems for roads, maintenance of this asset continues to be a challenge. The Territory's infrastructure for water and energy services includes limited assets for environmentally sustainable alternatives, as does its private motor vehicle dominated transport infrastructure. Improving person-per kilometre, energy and emissions ratios is essential to achieving progress in sustainable travel efficiency.

School infrastructure maintenance is an ongoing challenge for the Territory. At the end of this reporting period all but one of our government schools was assessed as below average in condition, functionality and compliance. Maintenance costs for government schools rose from $4.9 million (2000–01) to $5.4 million (2002–03). Maintenance expenditure declined marginally over the current reporting period ($5.3 million in 2003–04 to $5.293 million in 2006–07); but was higher in 2004–05 ($5.525 million) and 2005–06 ($5.523 million). Expenditure on capital upgrades more than doubled ($8.199 million in 2003–04 to $18.287 million in 2006–07). The ACT Government's Towards 2020 program includes a commitment to implementing a major maintenance program.

Our challenge

The Territory's high and generally increasing use of resources has economic, social and environmental costs. As this trend continues, we risk some resources becoming scarce and prohibitively expensive for which our future generations will pay the ultimate price.

The challenge is clear. All Canberrans – households, businesses and government agencies – must reduce their consumption of resources. We must all change direction in our resource use and achieve decreases that will mark progress towards sustainability.

The choices facing our community are complex and need to be informed by ecological, social and economic considerations. Government has a leadership role but all the community, household, individuals, businesses and non-government organisations have a vital role. Instead of being the most wasteful Australian jurisdiction (Planet Ark 2005:viii), we have the opportunity to become the leader, not only by reducing our consumption, but also in providing creative solutions to apparently intractable problems. We could, for example, devise an environmentally sustainable transport infrastructure that moves beyond the public–private dichotomy to a person-per-kilometre calculus that focused on achieving the energy and emissions efficiencies essential to sustainable transportation.

Energy supply sustainability presents a major challenge as the Territory's energy is still derived from non-renewable sources. Less than 2% of our total domestic energy use is green power; and minimal renewable sources, such as the mini-hydro facility at the Mount Stromlo treatment plant and at Googong Dam, are available. ActewAGL is exploring establishing a solar energy farm, and has wind monitoring towers providing data at sites identified for possible wind power generation. Decisions to support renewable energy projects are to be encouraged.

We have made significant progress in reducing water consumption and sustaining that reduction under restrictions; the challenge is to continue being water wise post-drought and without imposed restrictions.

It is essential to educate households, to publicise examples of government and businesses choosing sustainable options and developing their efficiency, availability and affordability, and to use new technologies, such as smart metering, to empower users to make informed choices.


The following recommendations are made to the ACT Government with a commitment from the Commissioner to assist in advancing their implementation:

1. Use resources more wisely by:

  2. Developing and implementing a sustainability community awareness program(s) on:
    1. waste minimisation and/or avoidance that emphasises this as the fundamental first step (before re-use, recycling or disposal) in effective waste management,
    2. prudent and smart use of water and energy,
    3. better building design, particularly for energy and water efficiency,
    4. the relationship between i., ii. and iii, climate change and sustainability (including the effect on the natural environment).
  3. Requiring all ACT Government agencies to report annually on their use of water, energy consumption, waste generation, and actions they propose undertaking to use resources more efficiently.
  4. Ensuring sustainability criteria are used to guide the assessment, planning and management of new uses for buildings no longer needed for school purposes (as per the Towards 2020 Renewing Our Schools program) and any other buildings disposed of as surplus to Government requirements.

2. Progress sustainable transport by:

  1. Continuing to implement and support the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan by:
    1. finalising and implementing a Territory parking strategy (with supporting actions) for ACT lands and those in the parliamentary triangle (it will be important to ensure that the Australian Government supports this strategy).
    2. developing a pedestrian action plan, in consultation with the community, to foster walking, particularly for commuter trips.
  2. Amending the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan to include greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency and/or carbon neutrality targets for the transport sector, and specific efficiency targets, such as energy efficiency per person or persons per kilometer traveled.
  3. Developing and discussing with the community a paper on long-term innovative sustainable transport options for the Territory. Pending the results of this work, update the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan to include any government-adopted options. An independently chaired, multidiscipline taskforce should be charged with developing the options, consulting the community and reporting to government.
  4. The Commissioner's Office annually assessing the progress made in implementing the Sustainable Transport Plan.
  5. The Commissioner working with the ACT Government and key environmental and business groups to advocate that community travel in a sustainable manner.

3. Manage land effectively by:

  1. Continuing to implement the Canberra Spatial Plan, particularly focusing on achieving higher densities and maintaining ecological corridors.
  2. Determining the long-term use of all forestry land burnt in the 2003 bushfire. (Some significant areas have already had their long-term land uses defined.)

4. Further advance waste management by:

  1. Developing and implementing a waste minimisation/avoidance action plan with specific measurable performance measures; No Waste would be an appropriate inspirational goal rather than being used as a target (e.g. No Waste by 2010).
  2. Progressing a domestic and business organic waste collection system.
  3. Developing and implementing a Business Waste Reduction Strategy that includes:
    1. reducing waste,
    2. recycling and reusing waste,
    3. collecting and reporting on data,
    4. holding a businesses waste forum to encourage innovative and cost-effective approaches for reducing waste.
  4. Increasing community education and promotion to further reduce recyclables in potential landfill waste.
  5. Providing more facilities for recycling in public places and at major events.
  6. Establishing an ACT e-waste consortium, including Australian and ACT Government agencies, universities and CIT, CSIRO, businesses, industry and other major e-waste generators to:
    1. i.    provide data on e-waste ,
    2. ii.    raise awareness about e-waste,
    3. iii.    develop e-waste minimisation and management strategies.
  7. Promoting waste minimisation as a practical way to advance sustainability.

Data sources and references

The indicators drawn on for this issues paper were:

Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003, 2004, 2005 2006d, Survey of Motor Vehicle Use, 2002–06, cat. no. 9208.0, available at <!OpenDocument>

ACT Government 2007, Weathering the Change Action Plan 2007–011, available at <>

Gargett D & Gafney J 2007, Traffic growth in Australian cities: causes,prevention and cure

Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission , 2007, Licensed Electricity gas and Waster and Sewerage Utilities Performance Report for 2004. Report 1 of 2007 available at <>

Mees, Sorupia and Stone 2007, Travel to work in Australian capital cities, 1976–2006: an analysis of census data, University of Melbourne, available at <>

Planet Ark 2005, 10 Years of Recycling: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Report by Planet Ark for National Recycling Week 2005, available at <>

Water Security Taskforce 2007, Next steps to ensure water security for the ACT region, Chief Minister's Department, available at <http://www.thinkwater. >

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