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People and the Environment

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People and the Environment chapter 1

1.6 Social trends

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People and the Environment

1.6 Social trends

Research shows that the people of New South Wales continue to be concerned about the environment, particularly the use of energy and water, climate change and the protection of the environment.

The most recent 'Who Cares About the Environment?' survey has shown that water management, energy issues and climate change rank as major environmental issues for the people of NSW. Water management and biodiversity have both decreased in importance since the last survey in 2006 but still rank among the top eight environmental issues.

The drivers behind public concern over energy efficiency have changed from mainly environmental in 2006, especially climate change, to being more focused on cost in 2009.

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Social research has underpinned a range of practical government-funded education and engagement programs to help communities learn about and adopt sustainable behaviours and engage in local environment protection. These programs support the use of innovative strategies by business, government and non-government agencies that save costs through more efficient use of energy, water and resources; improve waste management; and adopt sustainable practices in general.

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Status and trends

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Community attitudes and actions

Who Cares About the Environment?

Every three years since 1994, the 'Who Cares About the Environment?' program has surveyed the environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of NSW people. The research shows that people in NSW generally have high levels of concern about environmental issues, although the 2009 survey indicated a slight fall in interest.

In 2009, 78% of the people surveyed indicated they were concerned to some degree about environmental problems, a decline from 87% in 2006; 22% indicated they were not concerned at all, an increase from 13% in 2006.

The longitudinal nature of the surveys has shown steady increases over time in knowledge about particular environmental issues. For example, the proportion of people able to correctly differentiate the greenhouse effect from the hole in the ozone layer has increased from 24% in 1994 to 51% in 2009. However significant knowledge gaps continue: for example only about one-third of respondents in 2009 knew about the water- and energy-saving benefits of recycling.

Water-related issues and climate change continued to be the most prominent environmental issues for NSW people in 2009, although those nominating water issues decreased from 57% in 2006 to 42%, while climate change mentions rose from 13% to 23% (Figure 1.25). Energy- and fuel-related issues were the third most nominated environmental issues in 2009, increasing to 17% from 12% in 2006. Furthermore, in 2009 energy- and greenhouse-related initiatives were also identified as the most important action the NSW Government could take to protect the environment, replacing water initiatives which was the most mentioned in 2006.

The proportion of people who reported that they had often taken active steps to reduce energy consumption rose from 73% in 2006 to 82% in 2009. The main reason given for reducing energy consumption was to save money, although other commonly mentioned reasons included environmental awareness and education through advertising and media reports. In contrast, the proportion of respondents who said they had often reduced water consumption fell from 75% in 2006 to 70% in 2009. Overall, engagement in environmental behaviours declined slightly between surveys: 51% of respondents in 2009 said they had often adopted six or more of the 10 environmental behaviours surveyed in the previous 12 months compared with 58% in 2006.

Figure 1.25: Environmental issues 'most important' to NSW respondents, 2006 and 2009 Who Cares? surveys

Figure 1.25

Download Data

Source: DECCW 2009b

Energy efficiency survey

Research by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) indicates some positive changes in the NSW community's views and practices relating to energy efficiency. Since a pre-campaign benchmark survey for the Save Power scheme in 2009 more households:

  • have become 'very' or 'extremely' mindful of the amount of electricity they use (58% in 2011 compared with 53% in 2009)
  • think the community in general is becoming more aware of energy efficiency (31% in 2011 compared with 23% in 2009).

This is a strong indicator of the development of 'social norms' around energy efficiency and is also supported by the results of OEH qualitative research in 2010. There has also been a positive shift in energy-efficient behaviours across the NSW community with 62% of people surveyed in January 2011 claiming positive behaviours to try to reduce their electricity use. Of 10 everyday energy-saving behaviours, the average number that people say they perform 'mostly' or 'sometimes' increased from 7.8 at the benchmark in 2009 to 8.3 in January 2011.

Drivers of energy efficiency have shifted over time from a mix of financial and environmental motivations to being predominantly cost-focused. The $63-million Home Power Savings Program offers assistance and advice to 220,000 lower income households across NSW to help them reduce their use of power by up to 20% and help the environment (see also People and the Environment 1.2).

Food waste

In December 2009, the Love Food, Hate Waste program studied 1200 NSW households to better understand their attitudes towards food waste and associated behaviours. The research found that NSW households waste over $2.5 billion in uneaten food each year. This is comprised of $848 million in fresh food; $694m in leftovers; $372m of packaged and long-life food; $231m in drinks; $231m in frozen food; and $180m of home delivered/take away food. This translates to the average NSW household throwing away $1036 of edible food and drink each year.

The most common reasons for edible food being wasted include that too much is bought, too much is cooked, and people are unsure how to store food correctly.


Education and engagement are key tools to achieving sustainability in NSW. They help people to understand and share knowledge about complex environmental issues and build their ability to take positive action at home, work and play to live more sustainably and protect the environment.

NSW environmental education priorities and approaches have been coordinated through successive NSW Environmental Education Plans, the most recent being Learning for Sustainability: NSW Environmental Education Plan 2007–10 (CEE 2006). In late 2010, research commenced to review the current status and uptake of sustainability education and engagement strategies across all sectors in NSW and investigate the best support framework for learning for sustainability into the future. This work has included collection of data and feedback from the community, education, government and business sectors through in-depth interviews and an on-line survey, which engaged more than 300 respondents. The research has identified the attitudes and opinions on learning for sustainability as discussed below.

The top four goals of sustainability education mentioned by respondents in the on-line survey were:

  • building knowledge about sustainability
  • influencing people to adopt practices or behaviours
  • developing skills for the workplace or daily life
  • developing positive attitudes.

Based on key informant interviews, the emphasis of sustainability education should be on enabling behaviour change and actions at the local and 'place-based' level. Sustainability education and engagement tools and strategies are still regarded as important in achieving the key goals of sustainability in NSW: to support the community to protect the environment and live more sustainably.

The context and drivers for sustainability education and engagement have been evolving ever since the first Environmental Education Plan in 2002–05. Business and industry consider it important for sustainability to be linked to broader business innovation and to see sustainability as a means of securing business advantage. Seventy-one per cent of survey respondents favoured the government providing some strategic direction and coordination to help organisations with education and engagement of internal and external colleagues, staff, clients and customers.

Respondents to the survey indicated that:

  • Sustainability education and engagement need to be actively integrated with other sustainability approaches and programs, such as infrastructure planning and the use of economic instruments.
  • New alliances are needed to reflect the growing diversity in sustainability education which is now being practised and promoted across sectors, ranging from business and industry to formal education to community organisations.
  • All sectors need more help to build their own understanding on how to both develop and deliver effective programs, including forming support networks and alliances, and integrate learning for sustainability with all other tools for change.
  • Rigorous research and evaluation about what works is needed, including showcasing best practice and sharing knowledge and approaches in sustainability education and engagement using, where appropriate, new communications technologies and channels.

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Many factors influence social behaviour and community attitudes towards taking positive environmental action, including values, knowledge and intrinsic motivation. The status or condition of the environment may also influence social behaviour.

The 'Who Cares About the Environment?' survey in 2009 shed light on why people take this type of action and the factors that discourage them. This research found that people are more likely to protect the environment if they have both an awareness and understanding of the positive and negative consequences of their behaviour.

Legislation appears to be a powerful driver for people taking up positive environmental behaviours. Whether a peer or social group regards behaviour as normal can also encourage or deter behavioural change. Local community education and engagement is also being increasingly recognised as a key factor to equip and support community members with the knowledge, skills and motivation they need to manage their property, household, business and lifestyle in a more sustainable way. Councils and community organisations are in a unique position to engage with and educate at the local level.

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Established responses

A range of new projects to reduce the use of water and energy and increase sustainability reflects the NSW Government's responses to increased public concern about water shortage and climate change. A number of long-running programs have also been reoriented similarly. Programs are focusing on creating partnerships between the NSW Government and local government, communities and businesses to achieve common and beneficial environmental outcomes. Education and information resources are increasingly being made available through on-line channels, including websites, e-newsletters, SMS, website banners and Twitter, to support partnerships with local government, community organisations, businesses and individuals across the state.

Sustainability Advantage

Medium-to-large organisations can draw on the support provided by Sustainability Advantage to identify and implement environmental projects that also add business value. This program helps participants identify and implement projects in practical areas, such as resource efficiency (energy, water, waste and raw materials); supply chain; staff engagement; and carbon management. It provides support in the form of workshops and training, technical advice and facilitated networks.

By December 2011, the program had 605 members drawn from industry sectors as diverse as agribusiness, building products, aged care, education and government. Members were reducing emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by 194,000 tonnes per year and saving over $80 million a year as a result of productivity gains, reductions in the use of energy, raw materials, water and fuel, and improved waste management.

NSW Energy Efficiency Strategy

In 2008, the NSW Government announced the NSW Energy Efficiency Strategy (see People and the Environment 1.2), which includes the following programs targeting business and community actions:

The $15-million Energy Efficiency Community Awareness Program provides the NSW community with information and practical advice to reduce electricity use at home and work. The program provides an umbrella for other government programs targeting energy efficiency for households, business and the community, including through the media campaign Save Power: What can you do in your world? The program has three key components: social research and evaluation; education and training; and communication and engagement.

Love Food, Hate Waste

Food waste is a complex environmental, social and economic problem. The Love Food, Hate Waste program aims to raise awareness about the environmental and economic consequences of food waste in NSW and reduce the 1.1 million tonnes of good food being sent to landfill. By promoting easy and practical solutions for buying, cooking and storing food, the program will help the NSW community to waste less food, save time and money, and reduce environmental impacts (see People and the Environment 1.3 for more information on waste programs). While Love Food, Hate Waste primarily focuses on household food waste at the moment, there are plans to also address commercial food waste in the future. The core elements of the program include research, communications materials, and an education grants program.

Other programs

NSW Home Saver Rebates: This program was funded under the NSW Government's Climate Change Fund and provided rebates to encourage residents to make their homes more water- and energy-efficient. Before the program ended on 30 June 2011, it was adopted by one in eight households across NSW. The program helped NSW households save approximately 46 billion litres of water and $347 million on household water and energy bills over the life of each installation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 4 million tonnes.

Environmental Trust grants are offered to community groups, schools, universities and state and local government agencies to support exceptional environmental projects that do not receive funds from the usual government sources. In the 2010–11 financial year, almost $91 million was made available for projects, including those focusing on urban sustainability, restoration and rehabilitation, support and restructuring, education, Eco Schools (see 'Education' below) and research.


Educational programs continue to be delivered to support communities, schools, government agencies and businesses in adopting more sustainable practices. Some highlights are outlined below.

The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage coordinates a number of Discovery programs under the banners 'Discovery for schools', 'Walks, talks and tours' and 'Aboriginal discovery'. The Discovery programs run in NSW national parks provide an important vehicle for environmental education and a unique opportunity for community participation in learning activities focused on understanding and appreciating the conservation of nature, cultural heritage and historic heritage in NSW. Since Discovery was established in 1993, annual community participation has increased from 40,000 to 290,561 in 2010–11.

Half of all NSW schools are now participating in Sustainable Schools NSW which helps them to be more energy- and waste-efficient and supports teachers, students and school communities to adopt sustainable practices. The program takes a whole-school approach and works across curriculum, school grounds, management and the schools community.

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 180 Eco Schools projects were funded between 2009 and 2012, totalling $450,000.

The NSW Government has also funded the $20-million School Energy Efficiency Program and the $20-million Rainwater Tanks in Schools Program as part of the Climate Change Fund.

Water for Life

Water for Life is an integrated educational component of the 2010 Metropolitan Water Plan (NSW Government 2010b). 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 People and the Environment 1.4).

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Developing responses

In responding to feedback from the broader community, the education sector, other government agencies and business, the NSW Government will focus on further building the capacity of business, the community and individuals to act locally on their priority environmental issues. Programs will be improved with offerings customised to stakeholder needs, providing better and easier access, and delivering an integrated and effective mix of education, infrastructure, regulation and economic tools.

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Future opportunities

A continued focus on social trends and support for integrated community engagement and action programs will ensure that the community is well supported to address its environmental concerns. Ongoing monitoring of social trends will assist in the development of timely and effective government policies and programs. Key challenges persist about how best to motivate people to commit to and maintain sustainable actions within the context of an ever-growing range of pressing economic and social issues, including employment, health, raising a family and paying the bills. This is true for businesses as well as individuals, households, government and community organisations.

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Contents SoE 2012 View printable page Last modified: December 2012