Preparation and release of a State of the Environment (SoE) Report for New South Wales every three years is a statutory requirement under the Protection of the Environment Administration Act 1991. SoE 2009 reports on the state of the environment across all of NSW for the three-year reporting period 2006–2009. It does this using 86 environmental indicators within 30 environmental issues across seven broad themes. SoE 2009 provides credible, scientifically based, statewide environmental information to inform and assist the community, government and private sector involved or interested in environmental policy- and decision-making and management of the state's natural resources.

In November 2006, the NSW Government released State Plan 2006: A new direction for NSW. State Plan 2006 sets clear priorities and targets across five areas of Government activity including 'Environment for living' and 'Delivering better services'. The plan identifies measurable priorities for Government action to guide outcomes in the priority areas to 2016. SoE 2009 has aligned issues and indicators with relevant State Plan measures and targets where appropriate to ensure consistency of purpose and efficiency in government monitoring and reporting.

State Plan 2006 recognises that healthy and resilient natural resources are the foundation of our primary industries, tourism and recreational activities, as well as providing habitat for unique native fauna and flora. The plan's Priority E4 addresses natural resource management (NRM) and incorporates the 13 natural resource management targets presented in SoE 2006 for themes including native vegetation, biodiversity, land, rivers, wetlands, groundwater and coastal waterways. The NRM Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Strategy has been used to provide the baseline information to measure the 13 targets in SoE 2009.

An update of State Plan 2006 was released in October 2009 and future SoE Reports will take into account the revised plan's priorities and targets where appropriate.

Although SoE 2009 has been prepared by the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW), much of its content is the result of extensive input by a wide range of state and local government agencies, other organisations and individual specialists, who provided data, information, analysis and interpretation, and reviewed the assembled content of the report. DECCW relies heavily on receiving such support from contributing agencies. The specialist input also includes the advice and support of independent experts as well as members of the NSW State of the Environment Advisory Council, which in 2007 was formed as a subcommittee of the Environment Protection Authority Board.

1. People and the Environment

This chapter provides some broad context for environmental issues in NSW and, along with the Climate Change chapter, discusses some of the key drivers that can affect the state of the environment in NSW.

In June 2008, the resident population of NSW was estimated to be 6.97 million people and this is projected to increase to 9.1 million people by 2036. Seventy-five per cent of the population lives in the Greater Metropolitan Region, while coastal regions outside this area are growing the fastest. Population growth, as well as changes in age and household structure, will place increased pressure on the environment and natural resources into the future. Management and planning that balances the needs of both the environment and population growth into the future is essential. The NSW Government is planning for this growth through the 25-year Metropolitan Strategy: City of Cities – A plan for Sydney's future, along with regional strategies across the state.

Intrinsically linked with a growing population is an increasing ecological footprint. The 'ecological footprint' is a measure of the environmental impacts of populations: it uses an input-output approach based on national population and expenditure data. Effectively, the ecological footprint measures changes in consumption over a period of time. The ecological footprint of NSW increased from 6.35 hectares per capita in 1998–99 to 7.02 ha in 2003–04. Per capita household consumption expenditure independent of inflation has increased 17% over the past 10 years. NSW faces the challenge of ensuring that increasing consumption of energy, water and land does not negatively impact on our environment and natural resources.

The NSW State of the Environment Report has a unique requirement to consider the trends in economic analysis and the costs and benefits of environment protection. Development of market-based instruments in areas such as air and water quality, salinity, waste and more recently biodiversity has helped to improve the relationship between economics and the environment.

Positive community attitudes and actions are instrumental to achieving improved environmental and natural resource outcomes. Increased concern by the public in recent years, particularly about issues such as climate change and water availability, has seen communities and households take affirmative action by both direct and indirect means. Education continues to play a pivotal role in empowering communities.

Increased knowledge and information gathering will continue to improve the protection of our valuable cultural and heritage assets and values through a range of tools, such as regulation, programs and non-statutory agreements and partnerships. Land protected for Aboriginal cultural values has significantly increased over the last three years and heritage listing continues to be the main mechanism for managing heritage across NSW.

2. Climate Change

Since SoE 2006, climate change has become a key area of policy development with increased public awareness and scientific certainty regarding the potential impacts of climate change.

Over the last century Australia has experienced an average warming of about 0.9°C. CSIRO projections indicate that by 2030, average temperatures in Australia will rise by about 1°C from the current average. In NSW, higher temperatures are likely to shift rainfall patterns, and increase evaporation and sea levels. Over the last 100 years global sea levels rose by 195 millimetres, with the rate accelerating over the 20th century. Based on a NSW-specific study, the State Government has adopted sea level rise benchmarks of 0.4 metres by 2050 and 0.9 m by 2100, relative to 1990 levels. Climate change will have further impacts on NSW, including increased coastal erosion and inundation, a decline in water resources, and impacts on health, biodiversity and agriculture.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that it is now more than 90% certain that most of the observed increases in global temperatures are caused by increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Since 1750, the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 parts per million to 379 ppm in 2005. Much of this increase was in the second half of the last century, with measurements from Cape Grim, Tasmania, showing that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased there from 328 ppm in 1976 to 383 ppm in 2009.

The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is markedly influenced by a growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by more than 70% since 1970. NSW greenhouse gas emissions, however, have remained relatively steady since 1990 while NSW per capita emissions have decreased. Recent growth in energy and transport emissions in NSW will mean overall emissions will rise in the near future if no cap or reduction measures are in place.

NSW Government responses to climate change focus on two broad areas:

  • minimising the severity of climate change through emissions reduction, renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainability
  • preparing NSW to adapt to those changes that are unavoidable.

The proposed federal emissions trading scheme will be the primary mechanism for emission reduction in NSW and Australia. Through its Climate Change Action Plan, however, the NSW Government will continue to address climate change by providing leadership and education, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preparing to adapt to the impacts of climate change and maximising prosperity in a low carbon economy.

3. Human Settlement

Urban water issues include water quality, recycling and water consumption. Drinking water quality standards are being met in regional and metropolitan areas. New strategies designed to secure water supply for the future have seen water consumption per capita decrease since 2006. Mandatory water restrictions, water efficiency programs and water reuse from recycling have significantly contributed to this reduction. Continued population growth and the ongoing drought will need to be considered when managing water supply. Strategies implemented through the Metropolitan Water Plan and State Plan 2006 will aim to secure a sustainable supply of urban water into the future.

While there have been improvements in reducing demand for water, energy use has continued to increase with energy from both fossil fuels and renewable sources maintaining their share of supply. Fossil fuels currently provide the majority of NSW energy demand with one quarter of the total production being used to generate electricity. The transport sector has the strongest growth in energy demand and is the largest consumer of energy. Demand for electricity has continued to rise with an increase in the number of households. Both energy production and energy use can have significant implications for the environment, with demand for energy being managed through tools such as the implementation of renewable energy targets, the NSW Energy Efficiency Strategy and diversification of electricity production to include a greater share of renewable sources.

There are increases in the use of public transport for travel to and from work, in the diversity of transport modes and in transport energy consumption. Over the longer term, vehicle kilometres travelled, the number of trips and the length of trips have increased in line with population growth. The NSW Government is continuing to integrate land-use with transport planning in addition to other programs targeting the use of bus and rail services, and walking and cycling.

Recycling across NSW has increased, in particular kerbside household recycling. Waste disposal rates per capita in the Sydney Metropolitan Area have been stable for the five years to 2007–08 and remain below 2000 levels even as population and the economy have grown. While still marginally lower than disposal rates across Sydney, the waste disposal rate per capita and total waste disposed of in the Hunter, Central Coast and Illawarra regions both continue to rise. Avoiding the creation of waste remains the best strategy for dealing with the problems of resource consumption and waste generation. Major objectives of the Government's waste strategy include waste minimisation as well as recycling.

Noise pollution is an ongoing issue and, while it is difficult to assess the total impact of noise pollution, amendments to policies and regulation help to manage this sensitive issue.

4. Atmosphere

Air quality in NSW meets four out of six national air quality standards, with exceedences in the standards for ground level ozone and particles. The National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) for Ambient Air Quality sets the air quality standards and goals for six pollutants: ozone, particles, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead. Emissions of air toxics remain at levels in accord with those set under the Air Toxics NEPM.

Ground level ozone (or photochemical smog) is particularly problematic in high density metropolitan areas such as the Sydney and Illawarra regions and there can be several exceedences during the year, although this number decreased over the reporting period. Particle pollution generally meets standards in the Sydney metropolitan area, but parts of regional NSW face considerable challenges in meeting the particle standards. Bushfires, dust storms, burning of agricultural stubble, and domestic woodheaters are the major emission sources for particles in these areas.

The major sources of air pollution and air toxics are being addressed through a range of policies and programs such as Action for Air, the Cleaner Vehicles and Fuels Strategy and the Woodsmoke Reduction Program. The Protection of the Environment Operations (Clean Air) Regulation 2002 provides the framework for managing air pollution from industry.

The status and impacts of indoor air quality are not well known and this is considered to be an emerging issue.

5. Land

Healthy soils are necessary for landscape health and provide the basis for the productive capacity of the land. NSW soils continue to be under pressure from changes in land use compounded by years of drought. However while degradation is continuing, improved land management practices over the years have helped slow this decline. Across NSW, gully and sheet erosion continue to be the least problematic of the soil health indicators, but an overall deterioration of organic carbon and soil structure continues. Potential acid sulfate soils are of significant concern in some coastal and drying inland riverine areas.

While current land management across NSW is, on average, within capability limits, continued pressures on soil condition through management practices or natural processes, such as drought, are likely to have an impact on capability limits in the future.

Contamination of land and food and produce can occur through the use of chemicals either directly or as a by-product of manufacture. Over the past three years, the pace of remediation of industrially contaminated land has increased and fewer sites are being listed. Changes to current legislation implemented in 2009 aim to streamline and strengthen the management framework for contaminated sites.

There is a strong framework of intergovernmental and industry cooperation on reducing the risk of environmental harm from chemicals, including setting maximum residue limits, conducting regular compliance testing, and controlling the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

6. Water

Over the reporting period drought has significantly affected all water users as well as the environment, severely limiting the availability of water and having a major impact on inland river health and the condition and extent of wetlands.

Water storages dropped to historic lows and, coupled with limited flows in most inland rivers, this required the temporary suspension of some water sharing plans in NSW. Only limited releases of water for environmental purposes have been possible during this time, but additional water entitlement for the environment has been obtained over the last few years through water saving efficiencies and the purchase of water licences. Limited surface water availability has increased the demand on some groundwater resources, but water sharing plans for these subterranean resources are also being implemented to better manage extractions.

Most inland river systems and wetlands are presently in poor ecosystem health due to the historic impacts of water extraction, flow regulation and catchment disturbance, as well as the effects of drought. Coastal rivers are in better health overall. Major waterbird breeding events in the Paroo and Narran Lakes systems following significant floods in 2008, highlight the resilience of inland wetland systems where their underlying integrity remains sound. However, the overall extent and condition of wetlands continues to decline due to ongoing disturbances and prolonged drought. In addition to the benefits of increased environmental flows from water sharing plans, a range of programs is being implemented to assist in the restoration of various aspects of river and wetland health, including revegetation of riverbanks and catchments, fish passages and improved water quality and catchment management practices.

Population growth and coastal development continue to put pressure on estuaries and coastal lakes, the condition of which varies widely, from near-pristine to highly disturbed. As more people move to settle along the coast, managing population growth while maintaining the health of estuaries requires a delicate balance. To achieve these outcomes, improvements in catchment management practices, integrated planning and sensitive urban design are ongoing, but more effective management of diffuse runoff and urban stormwater is still needed.

The pressures in the coastal zone, coupled with the potential impacts of climate change, also have the potential to affect the status of the NSW marine environment, which is currently good. Recreational water quality in coastal waters has improved and algal blooms are becoming less frequent. Continued management of marine habitats and fisheries resources, together with pollution discharges from point sources, will ensure that NSW marine waters and ecosystems remain in good condition into the future.

7. Biodiversity

The current condition and extent of native vegetation is considered to be fair. New native vegetation legislation implemented in 2005 has helped improve the management of native vegetation, including marked reductions in approved clearing and substantial amounts of restoration and revegetation through the implementation of property vegetation plans. The total extent of woody vegetation appears to have remained stable since 2003. Ongoing pressures on vegetation condition, such as the impacts of climate change and invasive species, need to be carefully monitored to ensure that the current status is improved or maintained.

The diversity and richness of native species remains under threat, particularly vertebrate fauna that are vulnerable to invasive species and habitat loss. Since 2006 one species has been listed as presumed extinct (green sawfish) and, although the number of threatened species has increased only slightly, the number of listed populations and communities has increased. Birds, which have been the most resilient vertebrate group, have suffered declines in distribution since 2000. Significant legislative and policy reforms have been introduced since 2004 to enhance the protection of biodiversity, largely focused on addressing threats and improving habitats. Practical outcomes for the protection of biodiversity are being achieved by directly addressing the main threats through better targeting of the management of invasive species, the maintenance and improvement of native vegetation, and conservation in reserves.

There has been an increase in the area of the reserve system with significant additions to previously underrepresented terrestrial areas. A greater focus on conservation on private and public lands is helping to provide improved connectivity across landscapes and complements the public reserve system. The finalisation of zoning plans for the Port Stephens–Great Lakes and Batemans marine parks means that all marine protected areas, covering 34% of NSW waters, are now subject to management. Marine protected areas, in addition to existing aquatic reserves, cover areas in the six bioregions in NSW waters.

Over half of all listed key threatening processes relate to invasive species, and pests and weeds have been identified as a threat to over 70% of all threatened species in NSW. Widespread invasive species, such as foxes, feral cats, rabbits and goats, and an increasing number of weeds, are difficult to eradicate once they are established. Control is most effective when targeted towards the protection of environmental assets, such as native species, regional ecosystems and ecological communities, where the benefits will be greatest.

The incidence of fire varies from year to year and continues to be a significant threat to ecosystems. Altered fire regimes can have major detrimental effects on ecosystems and the populations of many endangered species. Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and an understanding of its role in ecosystems is increasingly being factored into decision-making.

Fisheries management addresses impacts of fishing on target fish stocks as well as environmental impacts such as effects on bycatch species. The refinement of harvesting controls, including licensing and amendments to bag and size limits for recreational fishing, and implementation of share management for commercial fishing, has stabilised commercial wild fish catches and the overall number of recreational anglers.