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Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment



Assessment

Progress towards sustainability is an ongoing objective.

Where such progress has been evaluated, it has been towards a Vision (or a concept) of what is seen as desirable by decision-makers of the day. Once the Vision is known, objectives can be proposed, against which the progress towards the Vision can be assessed. As progress is made, the Vision may be modified to achieve always higher ideals.

A significant concern is that there is currently no agreed Vision for the ACT. However, many sectors of the community would suggest that the 'Bush Capital' is an appropriate Vision – a modern city with high quality built environment and infrastucture, high quality air and water, and space to display and protect the biodiversity of the surrounding areas.

We have tentatively assessed the progress towards the sustainability of the ACT as conceptualised by this Vision.

We have accepted the objectives by which we will assess progress towards sustainability as those of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD):

  • to enhance individual and community well-being and welfare (through) economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations
  • to provide for equity within and between generations
  • to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems.

Assessment of the ACT's progress towards sustainable development to 30 June 2000 properly covers social, economic and ecological components, which are interactive and interdependent, and these are incorporated in the components of the NSESD. The assessment is consistent with the shorter term assessment covered in the 'Executive Summary' section of this document, and attempts to take a longer term and broader view.

Unfortunately, our ability to comprehensively assess progress towards sustainability is hindered by the inaccessibility of data on land resources, on water resources, on the amount of fuel used in motor vehicles, on the amount of energy consumed in electricity generation and on ecosystem dynamics. If we are serious in our quest to understand progress towards sustainable development, it is essential that the basic datasets be available.

To more comprehensively assess the ACT's performance in progress towards sustainability, we will have to obtain data relevant to Materials Flow Analysis, and from that, to understand the impact that the ACT has on the places that supply the materials for our way of living. This study would be complemented by the understanding of considerations such as the 'Urban (or Territory) Footprint'.

I would also like to see further development of the concept of environmental accounting, and its adoption, in appropriate format, by all sectors of society.

Despite our limited access to some basic data, it is possible to say that overall, in the ACT we start from a position where many of the native plants and animals and their ecosystems (terrestrial and aquatic) are not irreversibly damaged. There is also the will in the political leaders, the scientists and technologists and the community to seek sustainable development. The missing links may well be commercial operators and availability of resources.

Assessment of the ACT's position with respect to progress towards sustainable development properly covers the social, economic and ecological components, and these are interactive and interdependent. My assessment is summarised in the box below.

Summary of the ACT's progress towards sustainability
To enhance individual and community well-being and welfare through economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations
Overall, the support structures to cater for individual and community well-being and welfare are well established and diverse in the ACT, and particularly in Canberra. They can be expected to further develop with increasing diversity of population and of economic development.

Canberra also has the potential to attract new sectors of commerce and industry, many of which could benefit from the spin-off results of the research of the Universities, CSIRO, ACT Government agencies, the Defence Forces, the Cooperative Research Centres, ActewAGL, and others.

The population of Canberra and of the ACT could increase without necessarily taking more land, and we could apply modern technologies to improve the efficiencies of energy use in the home, at work, and in motor vehicles.
To provide for equity within and between generations
Many social and institutional arrangements are in place to maximise the opportunities for equity within the current generation, but all the opportunities can not be taken by all people. Equity within generations remains a challenge to be addressed, by all societies.

To move towards equity between generations, we must quantify the cost of the materials and services imported to sustain the individual and community well-being and welfare that have been created in the current arrangements.
To protect biodiversity and maintaining ecological processes and life-support systems
From the ecological perspective, it would be desirable to retain the current percentage area of the ACT for conservation, at least until studies show the dynamics and character of the different biological communities. At that time decisions could be made as to whether a greater or lesser area was required for conservation purposes. In the meantime, the Precautionary Principle should apply.

Environmental Flow Guidelines should ensure protection of aquatic systems in the ACT.

All of these factors suggest that the ACT can be managed for sustainable development.

Detailed assessment

Objective: To enhance individual and community well-being and welfare through economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations

Individual and community well-being initially relates to security of employment and the adequacy of income to meet all basic costs. By comparison with other places in Australia the ACT currently enjoys high living standards and overall economic well-being. The 1990s have seen a reduction in the gap between some of the relevant ACT figures and those for Australia as a whole. As a result, several key social and economic indicators suggest that the well-being and welfare of some in the community have diminished in the 1990s. It is beyond the resources of this Office at this stage to predict whether that direction may continue.

The challenge of the ACT Government since its 1989 inception has been to establish the Territory as economically sustainable (and therefore to protect the community's well-being for future generations). To achieve progress towards sustainability it will be essential to ensure that there is no over-dependence on any one sector or industry for employment opportunities.

The ACT Government has deliberately moved to increase private sector employment. The private-to-public ratio has continued to increase throughout the 1990s. However, the percentage employed in the private sector remains below the national average and there is a need for continuing effort to maximise the diversity of employment opportunities.

By utilising both the established expertise in the universities of Canberra and industries that have developed to specifically deal with the environmental challenges of an inland city, Canberra has the potential to develop new industries based on modern technological and biotechnological advances, including communication technologies. Such industries have low demand for natural resources, minimal pollutant output and are consistent with the bush capital character of Canberra. They are also well suited to the demands of a city where the seat of Commonwealth Government is located.

Because of the increased percentage of employment opportunities in the private sector there is a greater range of employment options and a greater range of choices between part-time and full-time employment than was previously the case. In fact one could say that at present Canberra is not following the national trend of inland communities declining in population and with a reduction in basic services. The challenge will be to retain the vitality of Canberra and of the ACT and the well-being that comes from greater choice of employment.

The ACT population enjoys a range of high quality education services. The proportion of the population with completed secondary and tertiary education is higher in the ACT than nationally. Students are achieving above national benchmarks. The recent level of investment in education may result in a lowering of these achievements. The economic and social implications could be far-reaching, and caution should be exercised to ensure that educational quality is maintained. The ACT plays an important regional role in education services.

Health levels of the ACT community remain high in comparison to Australia overall. The median age of the population has increased by three years since 1988. It is almost certain that the ageing of the population will continue, causing an increase in death rates and in the incidence of age-related conditions. Health services in the ACT will require constant attention.

Provision of public health services is not as easy to assess. Our figures on the ability of the system to meet the needs of the community show that the ACT performs better than NSW for urgent admissions, but we still have concerns about the proportion of people who do have to wait extended periods for such attention. We have no comparisons, and cannot assess whether progress is being made. Other reports may well provide this information. The ACT provides an important regional health service.

The availability of sporting, recreational and cultural activities provides a good balanced life. The ACT is well-served in all of these factors. We do not have information that would enable assessment of availability or condition of the facilities over time. Canberra is also well-served by voluntary and community-based organisations, for both provision of human and environmental care. It is felt that a conscious step will be needed to cater for the increasing demands of an ageing population and of the diversity of ethnic groups.

Individual and community well-being has been threatened by an increase in the incidence of crime. During the reporting period there has been such an increase against individuals and their property. Policing in the same period has dropped. A whole-of-community approach may be necessary to overcome any further increase in crimes.

From the health perspective, air quality is generally good with some concern for high levels of airborne particles which are caused by temperature inversion in some parts of the ACT, particularly during colder months when woodfires are burned for heating purposes. There is also some concern in the city for concentrations of carbon monoxide. Water quality for recreation has had some periodic challenges but the situations are manageable. The question of public understanding of the functions of the lakes in the Canberra region will require ongoing education. Drinking water quality remains good.

As a result of the original plan for Canberra, and the 'Bush Capital' image, Canberrans continue to enjoy extensive open space – with more than 12 000 hectares of conservation land interspersed within the urban area, and access to a further 115 000 hectares within up to half an hour's drive. Private open space in older Canberra is much more extensive than in the new suburbs, and some may interpret that as a reduction in well-being at the very local level. This, however, is one area where human well-being has come at some cost to the protection of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological processes. The changes in residential block size must be weighed against a host of variables, including acknowledgement of values associated with biodiversity conservation, and availability of the land resource for population growth in future generations.

The population of the ACT has the third highest rate of passenger vehicle ownership of all Australian States and Territories. Motor vehicle ownership is associated with economic well-being. It is also resource-intensive and increases in motor vehicle ownership and high usage rates do not support ecological sustainability.

Estimated average motor vehicle use per year is still over the Australian average, although it has dropped since 1991 by some 2000 kilometres. Options for variations of gas have only been available for a relatively short time. Finding a replacement transport fuel is perhaps the most urgent item on the energy agenda. The ACT Government Greenhouse Strategy 2000 has targeted transport emissions for reduction, thus raising a somewhat flagging indication of progress towards sustainability.

An alternative cost effective system of public transport is difficult to provide because of a number of features of Canberra. These include Canberra's design, its physical size, the size of its population (around 310 000 for the ACT and the relationship between where people live and where they work. At the same time that average annual motor vehicle use has reduced, so has bus use. People are not moving from motor vehicles to buses. At this stage there is no real rescue. The ACT Government has a difficult situation to manage, but in this regard is not performing particularly well in relation to sustainability.

The waste generated by a society is also associated with economic well-being. In the early 1990s when some standardisation of measurement was starting to be implemented, the ACT had comparatively high per person levels of waste to landfill (more than one tonne per person per year). In 1996, the ACT Government adopted its No Waste by 2010 Strategy – representing a significant intention towards sustainability. More materials are now recycled or reused than are put into landfill. Progress towards the target will be measured. During the reporting period the community appears to have become more conscious of the need to reduce waste whether it be municipal solid waste or waste in water or waste in energy.

Canberra is virtually dependent on places outside the ACT for almost all of its fundamental resources. This includes fuel, electricity, gas, most manufactured goods and vehicles of all types, and nearly all of its food.

Local green energy generation by ActewAGL (hydro-electricity) commenced during the reporting period and also generation of gas from landfill methane emissions. Natural gas generation is proposed to increase, with the amalgamation of ACTEW and Australian Gas Limited in the ACT.

In time Canberra will have to account for the environmental cost of the materials and services it imports. Studies such as those of the urban footprint and urban metabolism will be necessary to assess the full cost of living. This consideration highlights the need for Canberra to analyse its place in the regional and national picture of sustainable development as well as calculations as an isolated community or Territory.

If heavy industry continues to be excluded from the ACT, and higher technology industries continue, the welfare of future generations will be enhanced by reduced levels of pollutants associated with high technology industries. In addition to targeting emissions from transport, waste and energy supply, the ACT Greenhouse Strategy 2000 targets reductions of carbon dioxide from the residential sector, through design requirements and incentives, from the commercial sector, Government sector and land management, through revegetation programs.

In this component of progress towards sustainability I feel that the following points require specific attention:

  • on-going efforts to diversify employment opportunities in the ACT
  • specific planning for the distinctive needs of an ageing population
  • the air quality of closed spaces (such as the home, the workplace and transport vehicle)
  • stimulation of efforts to achieve reduction in the use of fossil fuel
  • stimulation of whole-of-society commitment to the No Waste By 2010 strategy and to the avoidance and reduction of waste in all activities
  • reduction in crimes against individuals and their properties.
Objective: To provide for equity within and between generations

If we are to achieve inter-generational equity we will have to demonstrate that we can conserve scarce resources better than we have in the past two decades and we will have to be able to develop alternative fuels to the fossil fuels, and alternative energy sources in general. The energy and fuel use per capita is very high and inadequate funds are committed to research on renewable energy.

The better we are at creating and maintaining the conditions to provide current equity within generations, the better will be our ability to cater for equity between generations. To provide equity within generations requires careful assessment of the extent of our natural and built resources and the structures of our social systems.

It also requires learning to share resources and to care for the environment in its broader sense – as defined in the ACT legislation.

Many strategies and management plans are in place to provide for current management requirements, as well as equity between generations. A detailed analysis of each of these may be required in terms of the extent to which they address the objectives of sustainability.

Resources: Energy – Both total and per capita electricity consumption continue to rise, although we are not able to access absolute data for reporting purposes for commercial-in-confidence reasons since deregulation of the industry. There is some generation of electricity from renewable sources, but the majority of electricity generated in Australia, and the majority used in the ACT, is from coal – a non-renewable fossil fuel. While there are long-term quantities of coal available in Australia, a shift in electricity generation to cleaner production methods from renewable sources will reduce the emissions associated with power generation and better ensure good air quality for future generations.

Resources: Waste – Waste has been mentioned in the previous objective. It is a matter of concern for all societies. The amount of waste disposed on in landfill has implications for landuse and quality, and possibly for groundwater and surface water quality, if toxins from the waste leach into the groundwater system. The strategy of the ACT Government of zero waste to landfill by 2010 is laudable, but it cannot be achieved by Government alone. Thousands of tonnes of material that would otherwise have gone to landfill have already been diverted for reuse or recycling. The achievement of the no-waste goal would be a significant bequest to future generations.

Resources: Land – Land release programs for residential and commercial activities are available for up to five years ahead of the present. The area of land suitable for development is diminishing. A mix of 'greenfields' (new) land and urban consolidation is currently used for residential development. The ACT has been an Australian leader in the mix of medium-density housing and single-residential developments. A typical feature of medium-density and higher-density housing is the extent to which limited space between buildings is hard-surfaced. This has implications for management of urban streams and drains and dispersal of water through the ground. In the ACT recent drainage design is believed to minimise risk of dryland salinity.

In the 1990s the location of some residential housing on old sheep-dip sites and old landfill sites created a need for relocation in some instances and site remediation in others. Site remediation means land is cleaned up and either used for other purposes or is suitable for current and future generations. Past agricultural could result in problems for future generations. However, land capability studies for residential purposes are now likely to identify such circumstances.

Resources: Water – Water management has emerged as priority issue. The ACT has comprehensive legislation, Environmental Flow Guidelines and management planning in place to meet Council of Australian Government guidelines and future needs. However, the question of water security both in quantity and quality is one of on-going concern, and the State of Environment Report recommends on developing a better understanding of the quantity and quality of the groundwater of the ACT. Also, if populations rise to 450 000 by 2050, unless there are dramatic changes in use patterns, this may have major implications for water supply capacity. The process of then ACTEW Future Water Supply Strategy averted the need for construction of a new dam around 2005 and projected water conservation targets to 2020. There is a need for this strategy to continue to be reviewed and community commitment and ownership renewed.

The ACT is committed to ensure environmental flows in the rivers and streams of the ACT. The Environmental Flow Guidelines are designed to ensure extractions do not exceed requirements for protection of aquatic biodiversity. The Water Resources Management Plan sets out estimates of total water resources, environmental flow requirements in accordance with the Environmental Flow Guidelines, and the remaining water available for non-environmental uses. Provision for allocation is predicted for up to 10 years in advance.

As a full member of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, the ACT is now in a better position to contribute to management of the Murrumbidgee catchment, and also to protect the ACT's interests in water supply and quality.

The quality of the water coming in to and out of the ACTis protected through legislation passed by the Commonwealth when the ACT was created.

In-stream salinity is a problem in the surrounding region, particularly to the north of the ACT, where there is also significant dryland salinity. It is not a problem in the ACT, nor is it foreseen as a problem for future generations.

Atmosphere – Currently, the number of times any ambient air quality standards are exceeded at the monitoring stations in Canberra is minimal. Since the introduction of lead-free petrol, the incidence of airborne lead in Civic has dramatically fallen from frequently exceeding the then guideline. One pollutant of concern is particles (currently measured as 10 microns or less – PM10) mainly from woodsmoke. With Canberra's topography and climate, it will be important for the current Government's program about effective use of woodfires to be successful. If alternative fuels are adopted, concerns should cease for carbon monoxide, which occasionally have high concentrations at the Civic monitoring station.

Infrastructure – The ACT has a network of roads, stormwater drains, water supply and sewerage across the urban area. All parts of Canberra have stormwater, water supply and sewerage connections. Comprehensive data on condition of the water supply and sewerage systems are maintained; risk management and environmental management systems and strategic plans are in place. Water supply needs are projected up to 50 years into the future.

Comprehensive data on condition of roads and stormwater system are only now being put in place.

Biodiversity and community well-being are dealt with under the other two objectives.

While considerable data exist on equity within generations, collection for the State of the Environment has not focussed specifically on that aspect, and therefore, are unable to provide any comprehensive assessment of intra-generational equity.

Based on data we have, the signals are mixed with respect to the intra-generational equity, and we believe a closer examination of all aspects of the circumstances should be undertaken before firm conclusions could be drawn about equity within current generations.

Some examples include –

In the 1990s a noticeable change has occurred in income equity. The number of households on low incomes (less than $300 gross a week) has increased, and at the same time the number earning $2000 and above has increased. This was associated with increasing numbers seeking assistance from charity organisations as reported in our 1997 SoE Report. ACT Council of Social Services would have more data on this shift, and the social implications associated with it.

The adequacy of public housing to meet demand is more difficult to track. There continues to be a strong Government commitment to housing people without the means to purchase or rent in the open market, and it is important that for social access and equity reasons, this continue. The number of houses owned by Government and available for tenanting is decreasing as part of a changing policy. Properties include public housing, community housing, properties leased from the private sector, crisis accommodation program properties and properties leased to community organisations. They also include public housing for people with disabilities and an increasing number for the aged, to better meet demand. Tenants of public housing in the ACT now pay either a maximum of 25% of their income in rent or the market rent, whichever is lower. Figures for 1998 indicate some pressure on services with more than half applicants not being satisfied within six months of submitting an application.

Despite the fact that the community of Canberra would be largely regarded as 'educated' there is still a significant number of people who can not share the same benefits as those who enjoy secure social and financial conditions.

The number of ACT residents relying on the aged pension increased by 4% in the year to June 1999. The aged population in the ACT still represents a lower proportion than the Australian average.

The number of people receiving disability support and the number of persons relying on the single parent payment also increased. On the other hand there has been a substantial decrease in the number of persons relying on labour market payments.

If we can convince all of society to be even environmentally responsible there is a chance of inter-generational equity.

Objective: Protecting biodiversity and maintaining ecological processes and life-support systems

The 54% of area set aside for conservation gives the ACT an advantage position. Conservation Management Plans and Strategies of ACT Government for ecodiversity conservation are significant and new methods of vegetation classification offer exciting possibilities for a truly national approach to vegetation management. It appears that significant efforts are being made to protect biodiversity and maintain ecological process is important to the survival of native animals and plants. However not all types of biological communities are represented in the major conservation area, notably grasslands and some woodlands.

Competition remains for land for farming for residential use and for conservation. There is an urgent need for understanding of the dynamics of native plant and animal communities, their interactions and their interpendencies. At this time land quality and the susceptibility of land degradation of different types such as salinisation, erosion and acidification is not comprehensively mapped.

When considering the ways to address intra-and inter-generational equity the needs for biodiversity protection and for maintenance of ecological processes and life support systems should be automatically considered, not just those relating to threatened species and communities.

Nationally, land clearance and related activities are regarded as the single largest threat to biodiversity. Environmental arguments are often seen as not strong because scientists cannot be precise about the details of the biodiversity and its dependence on habitat. It is this very uncertainty that requires the implementation of the Precautionary Principle and the minimisation of destruction of remnant vegetation types.

Other factors that can influence biodiversity and ecological processes include catchment erosion and non-point discharge of nutrients which may adversely affect water bodies. This is particularly relevant to the wetlands that exist naturally and those that have been created artificially in the ACT.

Throughout the ACT sustainability of biodiversity is threatened also by the impacts of introduced species – both plants and animals. They affect both production and maximising yield of crops from farm lands and may threaten many native species in protected areas.

The overall assessment of this component is that within the 54% of the ACT set aside for conservation there is a great opportunity to minimise human interference with natural biological processes and with the natural change of ecosystems. Outside of the conservation area the ACT Government needs to remain alert to the value of remnant stands of native vegetation.

Background

Sustainable development is an objective for most Australian States and Territories and this section provides an opportunity for NSW Local Governments to meet requirements to report on their progress towards that objective.

Reporting on progress towards sustainability allows Local Governments to take full advantage of the information collected and analysed within State of the Environment reporting indicators. All three components of sustainable development (social, ecological and economic well-being) can then be considered, integrated where appropriate, and assessed and incorporated into holistic management plans.

For the ACT, the opportunity is similar, and is made more obvious than in the case for the NSW LGAs, by reason of the comprehensive definition of the Environment in ACT legislation.

For the Australian Capital Region, reporting on progress towards sustainability allows an assessment of the value of the Regional concept, and how different activities are influencing social, ecological and economic well-being.

The questions to be addressed in assessing progress towards sustainability derive naturally from the consideration of each of the five Themes that we discuss in State of the Environment reporting (Atmosphere, Biodiversity, Human Settlement, Land and Water) and specifically from the 'Implications' section of each of the Issues within each Theme.

We foresaw the value of this system in the analyses we conducted after the 1995 State of the Environment Report. If the condition of the environment is properly assessed, the change in that condition is going to be the best overarching indicator of our progress towards – or away from – sustainability.

It is timely to recall the structure of the State of the Environment reports, where there are a small number of Themes, which represent the topics under which most environmental matters of concern can be discussed. Once a Theme is identified, one has to consider the Issues that are significant within each Theme, and, when the Issues are agreed, one considers what Indicators (Condition, Pressure, and Response) must be addressed to bring all the necessary information together, to understand the Issues.

There will often be Indicators that are relevant to the understanding of several Issues.

An always-present challenge is to recognise that a change within one or more Themes may have an impact on or within another Theme or other Themes. The interactiveness and the interdependencies among and within Themes must always be considered:

Table 1. Themes and issues
Themes Issues
Atmosphere Air quality
Climate and climate variability
Biodiversity Conserving biodiversity
Human Settlement Community well-being
Infrastructure and services
Resources: Inputs and outputs
Land Land quality
Landuse and management
Water Water quality and ecology
Water use and allocation

Linking local and regional vision and goals to national and global factors

One of the fundamental objectives of our State of the Environment reporting process has been, as far as is practicable, to use a framework for analysis which is compatible with those used nationally and internationally.

In this way, we adapted – since our first State of the Environment Report in 1994 – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Pressure–State–Response Model to the slightly changed emphasis on 'Condition' (as a synonym for 'state') so that we called it the Condition–Pressure–Response Model. We also illustrated how closely that related to the sensible management of our own human health.

We also adopted the Themes of Atmosphere, Biodiversity, Human Settlement, Land and Water as a first step for analysis, and from those Themes, derived appropriate Issues and Indicators.

Once all those basic considerations were recorded, there was – and there remains – the challenge to analyse the interactions and interdependencies which must be considered to assess the State of the Environment.

In that way we also foresaw a situation where Local and Regional State of the Environment Reports could lead into State and National SoE Reports.

Our involvement in 1999–2000, (with financial support from the Federal Government, and in collaboration with member LGAs of the Australian Capital Region), in the development of a template for State of the Environmentreporting is illustrative of that philosophy, as is the effort to achieve standardisation of data to be used in State of the Environment Reports.

The incorporation of this chapter in 'Towards Sustainability' continues that challenge, while recognising that different regions and different Local Government areas will be starting their quest for progress towards sustainability from different levels of development.

Linking with the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD), commits all levels of Australian governments to the following three core objectives:

1. To enhance individual and community well-being and welfare by following a path of economic development that safeguards the welfare of future generations
2. To provide for equity within and between generations (In fact, all the Issues relate to this aspect.)
3. To protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems

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