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New South Wales State of the Environment
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People and the Environment

SoE 2009 > People and the Environment > 1.3 Sustainability and consumption

Chapter 1: People and the Environment

1.3 Sustainability and consumption

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People and the Environment

1.3 Sustainability and consumption

The ecological footprint of New South Wales has increased from 6.35 hectares per capita in 1998–99 to 7.02 ha in 2003–04. Over the same period, Sydney's ecological footprint grew from 6.67 to 7.21 ha per capita. While the growth of the ecological footprint of Sydney has slowed, ongoing increases in aggregate consumption in NSW continue to put pressure on resources.

The calculation of the ecological footprint is based on the latest available Household Expenditure Survey from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2003–04. For the state as a whole, the growth in the ecological footprint reflects a steady increase in consumption and waste generation over the past 10 years. The growth in Sydney's per-capita ecological footprint has stabilised recently.

Total NSW household consumption expenditure has increased from $161 billion in 1999–2000 to $206 billion in 2008–09, reflecting a per capita increase of 17% over the period (adjusted for inflation). The greatest percentage increases in expenditure were on recreation and communications, as well as rent, household services and energy.

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Definitions of 'sustainability' are many and varied. However, a widely accepted definition of 'sustainable development' is 'development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' (WCED 1987). This recognises that populations will continue to grow and development will still occur; however the focus of sustainable development is to ensure this ongoing growth and development is accomplished without limiting the resources available for future generations.

Sustainability is inextricably linked to consumption, especially in the context of non-renewable resources, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas. The challenge of sustainability is to reduce the ecological impact of consumption, while maintaining or improving the living standards of society.

The NSW Government recognises the need for ecological sustainability and reflects this in its policy and legislation. Section 6(2) of the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991 broadly describes the principles of ecologically sustainable development, stating that it 'requires the effective integration of economic and environmental considerations in decision-making processes'.

This section focuses on the assessment of sustainability as well as consumption trends.

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Status and trends

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Measuring sustainability requires a thorough assessment of environmental, social and economic indicators weighted to reflect the relative importance of the various components. One commonly used measure, the ecological footprint, estimates sustainability by converting consumption into a single index: the land area that would be needed to sustain a state's population indefinitely. Other measures, such as the Environmental Sustainability Index and the Environmental Performance Index, are also useful for providing comparisons on a global scale. Ecological sustainability should be considered alongside other economic and social measures. A number of economic methodologies used to measure sustainable development are summarised in Appendix 1.

Ecological footprint

The 'ecological footprint' of a population is the notional amount of biologically productive land required to produce the ecological resources the population consumes and absorb the waste it generates. First conceived in 1992 (Rees 1992), the ecological footprint of the state has been discussed in all NSW SoE Reports since 1997.

The ecological footprint for NSW has been calculated using the latest available Household Expenditure Survey (HES) data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) for 2003–04. While different datasets may be used, the footprint analysis using the HES is the most accurate as the ABS data is based directly on surveyed expenditure data. This differs from the ecological footprint reported in SoE 2006 which was calculated using the 1996 and 2001 Australian Censuses, which provided estimated expenditure data. As a result, the 2006 and 2009 measures are unable to be compared.

The per-capita ecological footprint of Sydney is higher than that of NSW, while the latter is above that of the average Australian ecological footprint. This is probably due to the greater affluence of households and populations in Sydney compared with NSW, and NSW compared with the average Australian household. According to Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW) data, the ecological footprint of Sydney in 2003–04 was 7.21 hectares per capita and the NSW footprint 7.02 ha per capita, while the footprint for Australia was 6.90 ha per capita.

The per-capita ecological footprint of Sydney and NSW increased during the study periods shown in Figure 1.4, most likely due to an improving living standard. The footprint of NSW as a whole, however, has increased more than Sydney's in recent years, meaning that the footprint of regional NSW is growing at a faster rate. This is probably the combination of a relative increase in total expenditure in households outside Sydney, which has reduced the difference in spending patterns compared with Sydney, and a large growth in mortgage and housing-related costs in Sydney over the past decade, resulting in less disposable income for its citizens. The most recent 2006 Australian Census indicates that Sydney's ecological footprint is continuing to stabilise (DECCW data 2009).

Figure 1.4: NSW ecological footprint

Figure 1.4

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Source: DECCW data 2009

Notes: Figures are independent of inflation.

Sydney (HES) refers to the Sydney Statistical Division.

The most significant components of the NSW ecological footprint are retail trade; hotel, clubs, restaurants and cafes; fresh meat; and meat products. The percentage contribution of these components has not changed since NSW State of the Environment 2006 (DEC 2006a). Most of the total ecological footprint is due to land disturbance and not greenhouse gas emissions. Indirect upstream ecological footprint contributions are more important than on-site ecological footprints.

Environmental Sustainability and Performance Indexes

A global comparison by the Global Footprint Network found that Australia has the fifth-highest ecological footprint of all nations, which is over three times the global average (Ewing et al. 2008). While the ecological footprint is perhaps the most widely used measure of sustainability, other broad measures such as the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) and the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) are able to provide further global context.

The ESI benchmarks the ability of nations to protect their environment into the future (Esty et al. 2005) and is a long-term measure of a country's capacity for ecological sustainability. The ranking is based on 21 indicators from five broad categories: environmental systems; environmental stresses; human vulnerability to environmental risk; social and institutional capacity to respond to issues; and global stewardship.

The most recent ESI calculation in 2005 ranked Australia's performance 13th overall out of 146 countries, which reflects the country's good environmental systems, low vulnerability and high capacity to respond.

The EPI measures a country's current environmental performance, based on 25 indicators across six policy categories: environmental health; air pollution (effects on ecosystems); water (effects on ecosystems); biodiversity and habitat; productive natural resources; and climate change. Australia's performance in 2008 was ranked 46th out of 149 countries, a drop from the 2006 ranking of 20th (Esty et al. 2006; Esty et al. 2008).

While Australia performed relatively well in environmental health, productive natural resources and biodiversity, its overall ranking suffered due to poor assessments of its policies and performance on air pollution, water and climate change. These lower rankings were related to pressure on Australia's water resources, high greenhouse gas emissions per capita due to high fossil fuel energy consumption and exports, and failure to implement ambitious national greenhouse gas emission reduction policies (Esty et al. 2008). This ranking differs from the ecological footprint ranking as 50% of the EPI score came from the environmental health assessment, a measure not included in the footprint calculation. The 2008 EPI also weighted climate change more heavily, which is reflected in the drop in Australia's overall ranking.

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Consumption is an important component of economic activity (see People and the Environment 1.4). It is essential, however, that the ecological impact of consumption is minimised.

On a global scale, Australia has a history of high consumption, which has developed due to a high standard of living, a wealth of natural resources and an agricultural industry largely reliant on irrigation. Compared with other Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Australia has:

  • the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions (Garnaut 2008)
  • the second-highest per capita water consumption and sixth-highest primary energy supply per capita (OECD 2009)
  • the third-highest per capita generation of waste (ABS 2007a).

General NSW consumption trends

Total NSW household consumption expenditure rose from $161 billion in 1999–2000 to $206 billion in 2008–09 (figures for the year ending 31 March and independent of inflation) (see Figure 1.5). Taking population growth into account, this reflects a per capita increase of 17% since 1999–2000 (ABS 2009a; ABS 2009b).

Expenditure increased across a broad range of categories, with steep rises in recreation and communications, and rent, household services and energy (ABS 2009b). However, the recent impact of the 'global financial crisis' on consumption is apparent, with per capita expenditure on food and clothing, cigarettes and alcohol, vehicles and transport, recreation and communications, and other goods and services all decreasing in 2008–09 from the previous year.

Figure 1.5: Total NSW household consumption expenditure

Figure 1.5

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Source: ABS 2009b

Notes: Figures are independent of inflation.

Time periods are for the year ending 31 March.

Water consumption trends

Water consumption has fallen in NSW in recent years, largely due to limited water availability, as well as successful water-savings programs. In 2000–01, total water use in the state (including the Australian Capital Territory) was 8783 gigalitres (GL). By 2004–05, this had fallen to 5978 GL, a reduction of 32% over the four-year period (ABS 2006b). In Sydney Water Corporation's area of operations, total water consumption has dropped to levels similar to those in the 1970s. Per capita consumption in this area of operations between 2005 and 2008 decreased 11% from 343 litres per person per day to 306 L. These residential savings are largely the result of water recycling and efficiency programs, reduction in leaks from the supply system, water restrictions and positive community response to water savings (SWC 2008) (see Human Settlement 3.1 and Water 6.1).

Energy consumption trends

The consumption of energy from non-renewable sources has consistently increased over the past 40 years: energy consumption from coal has risen from 350 petajoules (PJ) in 1960–61 to 807 PJ in 2006–07, while that from petroleum has grown from 174 PJ to 567 PJ over the same period (ABARE 2008a). Consumption of energy from renewable sources has had a minimal increase over the last 40 years (see Figure 3.5 in the Human Settlement Chapter). Primary energy consumption in NSW is projected to increase from 1544 PJ in 2005–06 to 2086 PJ in 2029–30 (Syed et al. 2007).

See Human Settlement 3.2 for a more detailed discussion on energy production and use.

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The need for ecological sustainability must be considered in the context of other competing needs, including economic prosperity and social improvement. People and the Environment 1.4 shows that these needs do not exist in isolation and pressures on sustainability are linked to economic and social pressures.

The need to reduce the state's ecological footprint is also discussed in People and the Environment 1.4. This concept can be broadly applied to overall consumption. It is important that new technologies and land-management practices are developed and refined so that increasing consumption of energy, water and land does not have a negative impact on the state's environment and natural resources. This is a clear imperative in current patterns of energy use, which rely largely on high greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. It is less evident, although the same principles apply, in often expansive land-use practices which place increasing pressure on our natural resources and biodiversity.

Positive community attitudes and actions are critical to achieving sustainable environmental and natural resource outcomes. Community attitudes, actions and education are discussed in People and the Environment 1.5.

Discussions on sustainability are often linked with those on climate change because increases in consumption frequently result in greater greenhouse gas emissions. Climate Change 2.2 analyses these and NSW responses to them.

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Responses to the issues of sustainability and consumption are found throughout SoE 2009. Some specific examples that directly focus on sustainability are provided below.

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State Plan 2006

State Plan 2006: A new direction for NSW (NSW Government 2006a) lists a number of priorities for the NSW Government that have specific sustainability components:

  • Priority E1: A secure and sustainable water supply for all users, which will improve water efficiency, increase water recycling and restore water extraction to sustainable levels
  • Priority E2: A reliable electricity supply with increased use of renewable energy, which will reduce the environmental impact of energy production
  • Priority E3: Cleaner air and progress on greenhouse gas reductions, which is linked to Priority E2, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by lowering consumption of fossil fuels
  • Priority E4: Better outcomes for native vegetation, biodiversity, land, rivers and coastal waterways, which aims to make our natural resource industries sustainable.

A review of State Plan 2006 commenced in August 2009 and this may adjust some of the plan's priorities and targets.

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NSW Government Sustainability Policy

The 2008 NSW Government Sustainability Policy outlines how the Government will lead by example by ensuring that all Government agencies:

  • consider sustainability in their decision-making
  • reduce their greenhouse gas emissions
  • are more efficient in their use of energy and water, and reduce wider environmental impacts associated with that use
  • meet the challenge of rising prices expected for energy, water and waste management
  • are more efficient in their use of vehicles
  • produce less waste and increase recycling in their activities
  • use purchasing power to drive efficiency and environmental sustainability.

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Other programs

The Sustainability Advantage Program encourages medium-to-large businesses to adopt sustainable business practices, while NSW Sustainability Compacts are agreements for government-business partnerships designed to improve environmental performance (see People and the Environment 1.5).

The $150-million NSW Greenhouse Energy Efficiency Strategy targets high energy users to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by using energy more efficiently (see Climate Change 2.2).

The 2006 Metropolitan Water Plan (NSW Government 2006b), the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX), and the NSW Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2007 (DECC 2007a) all focus on reducing consumption (see, respectively, Human Settlement 3.1; Human Settlement 3.2; and Human Settlement 3.4), while other programs are targeting sustainable land management (see the Land Chapter).

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Future directions

While the NSW Government has developed a range of programs to reduce water and energy consumption, overall per capita consumption in NSW has continued to increase. With the added effect of population growth, the total consumption of the population of NSW is increasing at a rate that may no longer be sustainable in the future.

The relationship between ecological sustainability, economic prosperity and continued social improvement is complex. People will continually strive for economic growth and aim to increase their standard of living, but it is essential that this growth is environmentally sustainable. This can be achieved through innovative programs improving the efficiency of resource use. However, as well as Government action driving improvements in energy and water efficiency, a shift in social attitudes and actions is required (see People and the Environment 1.5). The true cost of consuming fossil fuels needs to be considered, with the Government using educational tools, market-based instruments and focused regulation to actively drive sustainable outcomes.

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