Chapter 1: People and the Environment

1.5 Social trends

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1.5 Social trends

Public concern over issues related to climate change and water shortages has grown rapidly since 2003. While New South Wales communities and households have actively responded by reducing their consumption of water, behavioural change that lowers fuel and energy consumption has yet to substantially occur.

The focus on environmental issues by the NSW community is becoming more discerning with increasing attention paid to climate change-related issues, including water availability, greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. The NSW Government has responded to public concern about climate change and water availability by targeting projects and actions that address water and energy issues. The Government has also encouraged positive environmental change through economic incentives, community and business partnerships, and targeted regulation.

Education plays a central role in building communities that are informed about environmental issues. The NSW Environmental Education Plan 2007–10: Learning for Sustainability guides the implementation of education for sustainability programs across all levels of the community. A review of the implementation of the plan in April 2009 shows a diverse range of environmental education programs are being offered throughout NSW and that environmental education is increasingly being integrated into environmental and natural resource management programs.


It has become clear that positive community attitudes and actions are instrumental in achieving positive environmental and natural resource outcomes. By monitoring and assessing social trends the Government is able to identify issues of concern to the community and to target programs accordingly. People's capacity to participate in environmental action is enhanced through government measures such as the provision of financial incentives and support for environmental groups and their social networks. Education directed at all levels – government, business, schools and the broader community – also plays a key role in shaping community attitudes and encouraging public action.

Status and trends

Community attitudes and actions

Who Cares About the Environment?

Every three years since 1994, the environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of NSW people have been surveyed in the Who Cares About the Environment? program. These surveys have shown consistently high levels of concern about environmental problems since they began: in 2003 and 2006 over 90% of those polled declared that the environment was an important life value to them. While the 2006 survey identified increased environmental knowledge and better understanding of areas such as the greenhouse effect and biodiversity loss, significant information gaps have persisted. For example, the majority of those surveyed in 2006 were still unable to distinguish between the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer and only one-third knew about the water- and energy-saving benefits of recycling (DEC 2006b).

A supplementary survey in 2007, focusing specifically on climate change and water issues, provides the most recent data about the NSW community's environmental attitudes (DECC 2007b).

People who considered water supply, conservation and drought as a major State Government issue increased substantially from 12% in 2006 to 31% in 2007. In the same survey, these issues were also nominated by 67% of respondents as one of the two most important environmental issues for NSW.

This change in community attitudes has also translated into community action: 79% of respondents in 2007 said they often make an effort to reduce water consumption, compared with 65% in 2003 (Figure 1.12). The main reason for reducing water consumption was a greater awareness of drought-related water shortages, with regulation and education also seen as influences.

In the past few years, the community has also shown an increasing awareness of climate change. In the 2007 supplementary survey, 7% of respondents nominated climate change as one of the two most important issues for the State Government, whereas no one had nominated it in 2006. In addition, the number of respondents nominating climate change as one of the two most important environmental issues rose substantially from 5% in 2003 to 13% in 2006 to 26% in 2007.

This increased awareness of climate change has not yet been reflected in other proactive behaviours. The increase in the number of people who frequently act to reduce their consumption of energy and fuel has been minimal (Figure 1.12). Respondents indicated the main reason for taking active steps to reduce consumption in these areas was to save money, although there is evidence that education through advertising and media reports, and concern for the environment is having a growing impact.

Figure 1.12: Frequency of activities to reduce consumption in the last 12 months

Figure 1.12

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Source: DECC 2007b

Environmental issues survey

Since 1994, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has released a number of publications presenting information on the environmental behaviour and practices of Australian households. These publications have focused on three themes: energy use and conservation; water use and conservation; and household waste management and transport use.

The 2008 survey on energy use and conservation identified a number of trends towards increased environmental awareness (ABS 2008e). GreenPower is a federal accreditation program for electricity retailers' renewable energy products, first established in NSW in 1997. Awareness of GreenPower has risen in NSW from 26% of households in 2005 to 49% in 2008. Willingness to pay extra per annum to buy GreenPower electricity has risen from 22% to 31% in the same period. However, the number of NSW households actually paying for GreenPower in March 2008 was 5%.

Some other environmentally proactive behaviours have increased substantially in recent years. The percentage of NSW households using energy-saving light bulbs rose from 37% in 2005 to 66% in 2008. Over the same period, the household use of solar energy to heat hot water systems increased from 2.5% to 5% (ABS 2008e). The number of households with rainwater tanks increased from 13% in 2004 to 16% in 2007, the main reason for their installation being to save water. A total of 58% of households had a water-efficient shower head in 2007 compared with 43% in 2004, while the number of houses with dual-flush toilets rose 8% over the same period to 76% in 2007 (ABS 2007c). Since 1996, the percentage of NSW households engaging in some form of waste recycling or reuse activities at home has increased from 90% to 99% (ABS 2006c).


Positive community attitudes towards the environment are shown by the large number of volunteers who participate in environment-related activities in NSW. The State Government supports the NSW Landcare Committee, which plays an important role in natural resource management. Landcare groups work with catchment management authorities (CMAs), particularly to involve the community in implementing CMA catchment action plans (see Responses below). As of May 2009, NSW had 1985 active Landcare groups with a total of 56,940 members, most of them involved in on-ground works and awareness and education (Landcare NSW 2009).

Other volunteer groups, such as Coastcare, Bushcare and Conservation Volunteers Australia, are equally valued. Clean-Up Australia Day has had consistently high numbers of participants over the last decade, with more than 600,000 volunteers turning out nationally in 2009.

NSW also has over 33,000 Crown reserves that have been set aside for public use, with more than 700 of them managed through reserve trusts. Nearly 3500 volunteers serve on reserve trust boards, while many others give their time in support activities. These volunteers make a significant contribution to the environmental, social and economic welfare of NSW.

Business attitudes and actions

In 2007 an industry survey by the Australian Industry Group analysed business understanding of environmental issues and commitment to environmental practice (AIG 2007). In NSW, 12% of the companies surveyed reported that they were well informed on risk management associated with climate change and Government programs to help reduce greenhouse gases. While 27% of businesses said they understood the concept of an emissions trading scheme, only 7% indicated that they understood what its impacts would be. Very few of the NSW companies surveyed (3%) were aware of the volume of greenhouse gases they emitted. Overall, large firms were generally more informed on environmental issues than smaller firms.

While 78% of the firms surveyed believed they had a responsibility to lower carbon emissions, only about half reported that they had adopted measures to lower greenhouse gases.


The NSW Government is committed to ecologically sustainable development as a means of meeting the challenges of environmental sustainability. Environmental education has a vital role to play in achieving this goal as it helps people to understand complex environmental issues and builds their capacity to take positive action.

NSW environmental education efforts have been integrated through the NSW Environmental Education Plan 2007–10: Learning for Sustainability (NSW Council on Environmental Education 2006). The plan guides the implementation of education for sustainability programs across all levels of the community by focusing on seven key outcomes for environmental education. The first annual review of the implementation of Learning for Sustainability produced the following preliminary findings for each outcome:

  • Most of the major new environmental and natural resource management programs introduced in NSW have incorporated a substantial component of environmental education.
  • Significant progress has been made in coordinating sustainability education for schools, with 21% of NSW schools registering on the Sustainable Schools NSW website by the end of June 2008 (see Responses below).
  • Partnerships and collaborative delivery of environmental education activities are widespread.
  • Programs addressing the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, youth and specific local government areas are being offered by NSW organisations, as are initiatives that target the general community. Programs also exist that are tailored to the needs of the disabled and disadvantaged communities.
  • Professional development and training for environmental educators is being offered through a range of providers. Environmental training opportunities at universities are particularly numerous, with an estimated 10,000 places in environment-related courses offered by universities in NSW in 2007–08.
  • Environmental education programs are being evaluated by businesses, governments, community groups and tertiary institutions with about half of those for 2007–08 indicating they had been formally evaluated.
  • The ultimate aim of the Environmental Education Plan and the preceding six outcomes is increased active and informed participation of NSW people in creating a sustainable future. Who Cares About the Environment? surveys show strong progress in this area (see Community attitudes and actions above).

Natural resource management and communities

Natural resource management (NRM) is the sustainable use and management of natural resources such as land, water, plants and animals, and the systems that they form. Sustainable management of natural resources is vital to achieving ongoing environmental, social and economic wellbeing.

The condition of natural resources depends on people and their interaction with the landscape (NLWRA 2004). There are fundamental interrelationships between natural resources, and social and economic outcomes. The community's capacity to achieve natural resource outcomes is directly affected by economic sustainability and social wellbeing, which in turn are fundamentally dependent on the underlying condition of natural resource assets (NRC 2005).

Under Priority E4 of State Plan 2006: A new direction for NSW (NSW Government 2006a), the NSW Government seeks better outcomes for native vegetation, biodiversity, land, rivers and coastal waterways. Two targets under Priority E4 focus on the community, with the Government aiming:

  • to ensure natural resource decisions contribute to improving or maintaining economic sustainability and social wellbeing
  • to increase the capacity of natural resource managers to contribute to regionally relevant natural resource management.

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

Economic sustainability and social wellbeing

Natural resource decisions and outcomes underpin human activities and contribute to economic sustainability and social wellbeing. Determining the impact of improved resource condition and availability is difficult, however, due to the more intense and immediate effects of population changes, drought, market forces and changes in land use.

Natural resource decisions are felt most strongly in communities where the local economies are highly dependent on primary industries. This is especially true for drought-affected areas in NSW where natural resource decisions noticeably and directly affect the local communities. This can be contrasted to the larger coastal urban areas where recognised benefits from natural resource condition centre largely on recreational pursuits.

Throughout NSW, community cohesion is strengthened by natural resource management networks, environmental education and community involvement that improve local environments. Better quality local ecosystems strengthen both local industry and community values: improving water quality, for example, benefits fisheries and local tourism, as well as community recreation and aesthetics.

Natural resource management capacity

The capacity of private landholders to manage natural resources underpins sustainable land management in NSW. Like the previous target of economic sustainability and social wellbeing, measuring any increase in the capacity of natural resource managers is difficult. Capacity to sustain and improve natural resources at the landholder level is dependent on a number of drivers of behaviour, ranging from human characteristics, such as motivation, education and attitude, to social, cultural, financial and physical considerations which affect people's ability to develop and implement management strategies and action.

Landholder capacity is enabled by more and stronger social networks, increased access to information and positive community attitudes toward natural resource management. Consistent Government programs and continuity in programs, agencies, staff, funding and priorities also increase landholder capacity and commitment to NRM. Constraining factors include drought, uncertain financial markets and increasing pressures from noxious weeds and feral animals. Refer to Appendix 2 for further analysis.


Pressures affecting social behaviour and community attitudes towards environmental action are complicated and varied. Decisions about whether to engage in positive environmental behaviours are affected by people's values, their knowledge and their intrinsic motivation.

The Who Cares About the Environment? survey in 2006 analysed in detail the drivers and barriers to behavioural change (DEC 2006b). The likelihood of adopting specific behaviours is influenced by people's awareness and understanding of the environmental consequences of those behaviours. Limited awareness and lack of understanding may act as a barrier to behavioural change.

Positive environmental behavioural change often relies on an individual linking the behaviour to a good environmental outcome. In many cases, it also depends on the individual not being personally 'inconvenienced' by adopting the behaviour, in terms of economic cost, time or effort. Behaviours are also often entrenched and the perceived value of the behavioural change must also be great enough to shift the status quo.

Legislation appears to be a powerful driver for people taking up positive environmental behaviours. Whether a peer or social group regards a behaviour as normal can also encourage or deter behavioural change. The level of engagement in positive behaviours may be affected by such everyday factors as a person's workplace or their place of residence.


The NSW Government has responded to increased public concern about water shortage and climate change by directing a number of new projects to reduce the use of water and energy and increase sustainability. A number of long-running projects have also shifted in direction to target the current issues. These projects often focus on creating partnerships between the NSW Government and local government, communities and businesses to achieve common and beneficial environmental outcomes. Continuation of the statewide community education campaign, Our Environment – It's a Living Thing, also supports partnerships with local government, community organisations, businesses and individuals across the state.

Community attitudes and actions

Sustainability Advantage Program

Since early 2007, the Sustainability Advantage Program has been supporting medium-to-large organisations to identify and implement environmental projects that also add business value. By December 2008, the program had 280 participants drawn from industry sectors as diverse as agribusiness, building products, aged care, education and government. Sustainability Advantage provides support in the form of workshops and training, technical support and facilitated networks. To the end of December 2008, participating members had reduced emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by 6000 tonnes overall and saved $3.6 million by cutting their use of energy, raw materials, water and fuel, and improving their management of waste.

Energy Efficiency Strategy

In 2008, the NSW Government announced the NSW Energy Efficiency Strategy, which includes the programs below targeting business and community actions (see Climate Change 2.2).

The Energy Saver Program is a $20-million expansion of the existing Sustainability Advantage Program for businesses. This initiative is enabling Sustainability Advantage to grow to 1000 companies and increase its focus on energy efficiency by adding a Resource Efficiency Module.

Another NSW initiative, the Energy Efficiency for Small Business Program, encourages small businesses to implement energy-efficient improvements by assisting them to develop energy action plans and offering rebates. The program is open to organisations that use up to $20,000 of electricity per year or employ up to 10 full-time staff. It offers an assessment of the energy used by the business and a brief action plan outlining energy-saving opportunities, together with a rebate of up to $5000 towards the costs of implementing the actions in the plan, based on the levels of electricity used.

The Energy Efficiency Training for Trades and Professionals Program, which is linked with the NSW Green Skills Strategy, aims to increase the supply and uptake of energy-efficient tradespeople and professionals who are able to implement energy efficiency practices in industry, government and the community.

The Energy Efficiency Community Awareness and Information Program provides practical advice on how to save energy at home and at work.

Other programs

Residential Rebate Program: This is part of the NSW Government's Climate Change Fund (see Climate Change 2.2) and provides rebates to encourage residents to make their homes more water- and energy-efficient.

Environmental Trust grants are offered to both community groups and state and local government agencies to support exceptional environmental projects that do not receive funds from the usual government sources. In 2008, over $35 million was made available for projects, including those focusing on urban sustainability, restoration and rehabilitation, education and research.

NSW Sustainability Compacts are voluntary negotiated agreements between the NSW Government and leading Australian businesses that operate in NSW. Generally signed at Ministerial and CEO level, the compacts commit the parties to work together to improve the environmental performance of the business signatory, its supply chain and its industry sector as a whole.

Biodiversity Banking and Offsets Scheme or 'BioBanking' establishes a market-based approach to help address the loss of biodiversity and threatened species (see People and the Environment 1.4 and Biodiversity 7.2).

NSW BikePlan: The Premier's Council for Active Living is finalising this plan to encourage more people across the state to use bicycles as a clean and healthy transport choice. The plan will update and replace the NSW Government's Action for Bikes: BikePlan 2010 (RTA 1999).


Green Skills NSW

The NSW Government is putting in place development strategies to ensure that the NSW workforce has the skills and knowledge to support the transition to a low-carbon and more sustainable economy. Under Green Skills NSW, a newly established taskforce, with members from government, industry, unions, environmental advocates and training providers, is putting in place a plan of action to support a future green economy in NSW. From July 2009, Green Small Business Incentives has been offering subsidies for specific training that provide the skills to manage small businesses more sustainably, as well as adapt to a low-carbon economy.


The NSW Government understands that it is important for NSW schools to adopt sustainable practices and deliver sustainability education programs. The Sustainable Schools NSW website was developed in late 2007 and provides support for schools, their partners and the community in realising a positive environmental vision. Teachers' kits have also been developed to educate students about biodiversity, national parks, historic sites and wetlands.

The NSW Government has developed specific programs to educate school children about environmental issues. Examples include:

  • Active for Air, which provides primary school students with a range of knowledge and skills to help them and their school community reduce their reliance on motor vehicles for short trips and replace them with healthy physical activity
  • AirWatch, which educates secondary students about the factors affecting air quality, how it affects their lives and what they themselves can do to improve it.

With funding from the Environmental Trust, the Eco Schools Program provides grants to schools to involve their students and community in developing and implementing environmental management projects. A total of $150,000 was made available for the Eco Schools Program in 2009.

As part of the Climate Change Fund (see Climate Change 2.2), the NSW Government announced the $20-million School Energy Efficiency Program and the $20-million Rainwater Tanks in Schools Program.

Water for Life

Water for Life is an integrated educational component of the NSW Government's Metropolitan Water Plan. Community campaigns, innovative on-the-ground water education projects, and training and resources are being delivered as part of Water for Life to secure Sydney's water supply (see Human Settlement 3.1).

Natural resource management and communities

Catchment management authorities

The NSW Government has created a regional model for natural resource management to maintain healthy rivers, productive soils, diverse native species and thriving communities throughout the state. Thirteen catchment management authorities (CMAs) have been established under the Catchment Management Authorities Act 2003 to devolve operational, investment and decision-making natural resource functions to the catchment level. Key roles for CMAs include preparing catchment action plans (CAPs), managing incentive projects to implement the plans and assisting landowners to prepare property vegetation plans (see Biodiversity 7.1). CAPs provide a strategic framework for natural resource management in the catchment and direction for future investments.

The Natural Resources Commission (NRC) was established to provide independent advice to the NSW Government on managing the state's natural resources in an integrated manner so that landscapes continue to be resilient, function effectively, and support environmental, social, economic and cultural values. In 2008 the NRC began an ongoing program of audits to assess whether CAPs are being implemented effectively, in compliance with the NSW Standard for Quality Natural Resource Management and the statewide targets for natural resource management in State Plan 2006 (NSW Government 2006a).

Future directions

Focusing on social trends, community engagement and community action will assist the NSW Government to continue to respond to issues of rising environmental concern. While community environmental concerns will always be influenced by concurrent social and economic concerns, continued monitoring of social trends will assist development of sustainable policy.

Further development and analysis of indicators of social trends will allow the Government to gauge community attitudes more accurately and plan appropriately. Monitoring business attitudes will also be important in strengthening partnerships with business.

The latest social data shows increasing levels of public awareness and knowledge of important environmental issues. It will also be important, however, to strengthen links between the community identifying the environmental issue and then committing to appropriate actions that address it. This is true for businesses as well: companies need to commit to sustainable behaviours. A willingness to participate in positive environmental behaviour needs to translate into actual participation in the behaviour through educational programs, government, community and business partnerships, and regulation.