ACT State of the Environment 2007/08

Overview and recommendations


During this reporting period the Territory has been responding to a drought, continuing to recover from the 2003 bushfire and, with the rest of the world, confronting the challenges of climate change. Like most affluent western cities, we have enjoyed a high standard of living; however, we are starting to see the consequences of this good life on our environment, health and community. We are consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate and, while efforts are being made to address this, more needs to be done as a matter of urgency, particularly given the correlation between consumption of resources and climate change.

Previous state of the environment reports have raised some similar concerns to this report, including our increasing resource use, our increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the need for ongoing monitoring and data gathering about the state of our natural systems and the need for integrated management of our river catchments. Although some progress has been made, all still require attention.

Report structure

The State of the Environment Report 2007/08 provides an assessment of our environment through six issues papers – climate and greenhouse, air quality, conserving biodiversity, catchment quality, community wellbeing and resource use. Underpinning the issues papers are indicators that provide measurements, analysis and interpretation of specific attributes. There are also two overarching papers, Progressing Sustainability and Overview and Recommendations (this paper).

New to this state of the environment report is the inclusion of a compendium of Snapshots that highlight some of the key programs and activities undertaken in the ACT. An ecological footprint is also included in this report (see Progressing Sustainability Paper).

Figure 1: Structure of the ACT State of the Environment Report 2007/08

Graph of ecological footprint per capita the ACT

A responding City – a resilient Region

Like the rest of the Murray–Darling Basin, the ACT has been functioning under drought conditions during the entire reporting period. In response to this, a major water security program has been adopted to provide long-term water security for the ACT region.

The Territory has made a significant recovery from the 2003 bushfire, with houses rebuilt and native vegetation regenerating. The Lower Cotter Catchment became a significant focus for rehabilitation during the reporting period, in an effort to protect the Territory's water supply. The bushfires destroyed the pine forest and native vegetation in this area and exposed bare soils thereby creating prime conditions for erosion. As a result, tens of thousands of tonnes of additional sediment entered the Cotter Dam reservoir, which adversely affected water quality. Due to the importance of this catchment in supplying the Territory's drinking water, an extensive science-based rehabilitation program, using native plants, is being implemented. While significant progress has been achieved, it will take decades before this catchment fully recovers. The social issue of long-term recreational activities compatible with catchment management objectives is yet to be resolved.

In response to the challenge of climate change, the ACT Government developed the Weathering the Change strategy. It is important that this strategy receives full commitment from the government and community if we are to be effective in addressing climate change. A number of actions that support sustainability have already been put in place; for example, in this reporting period 1457 hectares of Territory land have been added to its conservation estate. We have also slightly increased our urban density (Canberra–Queanbeyan population density increased from 900 people per square kilometre in 2001 to 1005 in 2006) (Gargett and Gafney 2007). While this intensification is welcomed, and is important, Canberra is still a city with generally low population density.

During this reporting period, the ACT has also been confronting the challenges of an increasing urban footprint with the growth of areas such as Gungahlin, and potentially the Molonglo Valley. Balancing the need for commerce and employment, infrastructure and accommodation – including affordable housing – with the impacts of urban expansion on the natural ecosystems and our river systems, is a vexed issue. Transport has continued to be a key concern in urban areas of the ACT. While along with the rest of the nation the ACT is responding to skills shortages and housing affordability, how we address these challenges will significantly affect the future sustainability of the ACT.

The ACT is not yet 100 years old, yet we have some fine examples of 20th century architecture, natural landscapes and evidence of Aboriginal occupation, all of which need to be protected. The Territory's heritage assets are facing future challenges due to changes in planning structures and national legislation. The Australian and ACT Governments should work together to ensure that icons of Canberra's past are protected.

This reporting period has seen the community, government and businesses respond to our current challenges in innovative and creative ways as illustrated by the Sustainability Snapshots.

Lasting effects of the current drought

During the reporting period, the prolonged drought affected our behaviour, our land and our infrastructure. It has made individuals, businesses and government more aware of the significance of water to our community, and wiser in the use of this precious resource. Under water restrictions, we have reduced our urban water consumption by about 20% (from 65 939 ML in 2002–03, before Stage 3 restrictions, to 52 560 ML in 2003–04, during Stage 3 restrictions). The drought has been the catalyst for devising innovative mechanisms such as water trading, for enhancing demand management, and for expanding our traditional infrastructure to improve our future water security. Our gardens are also increasingly being redesigned to be more water efficient, as are many of our homes and work places. Importantly, catchments are becoming more valued in their natural state, and water is being viewed as a dynamic, limited and high-value resource.

The drought has had an impact on our open spaces and natural estates. Urban trees and parks have suffered – 15,000 urban trees have been removed in the past five years due to the direct and indirect effects of the drought, and watering of open spaces has been severely reduced. Natural areas have not recovered from the 2003 bushfire as quickly as they might have under non-drought conditions. What is more, under the combined effect of drought, feral animals and weed infestations, coupled with overgrazing by native animals (in particular Eastern Grey kangaroos), even natural areas not fire-affected have been significantly challenged. There has been an increase 38.01% in (from 563 in 2005–06 to 777 in 2006–07) in motor vehicle accidents involving kangaroos.

Sustainable consumption – our big challenge

With the exception of water, Canberrans use of most resources has increased. Our gross household disposable income is 60.7% above the national average at $49 923 per capita in 2006–07; ($31 061 nationally, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007b; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007c). Moreover, the fact that each of us spends an average $1475 per year on unused items (mostly food) makes us the most wasteful jurisdiction in Australia (Planet Ark 2005: viii).

Our per capita use of both electricity and gas continues to increase. Our use of these energy sources to heat, cool and light our buildings accounts for 72.2% of our greenhouse gas emissions (in 2005). While green power use has increased, it remains at less than 2% of our total electricity use. With a climate that is hot in summer and cold in winter, we need to be smarter at developing more energy–efficient ways to provide comfortable temperatures in our houses in order to reduce our energy consumption. We also need to be conscious of and more vigilant with the energy use of the many electrical appliances in our homes.

Transport makes up 22.8% of our greenhouse gas emissions (in 2005) and is another significant source of energy consumption. We are a city too dependent on cars, with 81% of Canberrans using their cars to get to and from work; we use public transport to get to and from work at a lower rate than the national average, but we cycle and walk more (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006).

A high level of car use and a low level of public transport use is not sustainable. Achieving sustainable transport is a key challenge for the ACT and must be explored in an integrated, innovative way by examining, for example, alternative forms of public transport, greater use of car pooling, parking pricing, vehicle technology as well as an even greater use of cycling and walking.

Canberrans have led the way in recycling waste, with the resource recovery rate increasing by 315% compared with the years before the 1996 introduction of the NoWaste Strategy. Despite this, Canberra's total waste has increased by 87% (408 624 tonnes in 1994–95 to 764 058 in 2006–07) while population growth has been around 10%. With our office-based business and education facilities, electronic waste (computers, printers and copiers, televisions, mobile phones) is likely to be an issue. However, there is no data on the total electronic waste generated in the ACT. There is an opportunity to form a consortium in the ACT to foster leadership in recycling and managing electronic waste.

All this points to a city that is living and purchasing in an unsustainable way, with most of our goods being transported into our city. Individual's decisions can play an important role in improving the Territory's sustainability. We need to better understand that our daily choices about housing, food, clothing, transport and other purchases and activities have a direct effect on our climate and environment and this in turn affects us and our quality of life. We need to become smarter in our choices and use and re–use of resources.

Challenges of the good life

On average, Canberrans are still as healthy, wealthy and well educated as in the last reporting period; however, there are challenges that come with this good life. Not all Canberrans share these advantages, with distinct inequalities in our community – in 2006, 16,000 (13%) Canberra households were in the lowest Australian income group.

Notwithstanding our affluence, we are struggling to eat and live healthily, with mental illness, obesity, alcohol and drugs affecting significant numbers in our community. Despite our high incomes and education levels, only 10.3% of ACT adults consume the recommended daily serves of vegetables, and just under half consume the recommended daily serves of fruit. The ACT has a greater proportion of obese adults than the national average, although we also have a higher rate of people in a normal weight range (but still less than half our population). Mental illness ranks only behind cardiovascular disease and cancer as the greatest disease burden for both the ACT and Australia and alcohol and drugs are placing many Canberrans at risk.

Increasing technology and high disposable income have played a role in our high consumption of resources. Noise complaints increased during the reporting period, primarily attributable (at the domestic level) to external air conditioners and music systems. Increasing temperatures as part of climate change will almost inevitably fuel further growth in the demand for air conditioners and for the energy to run them, at a time when we should be reducing our energy consumption. For both reasons – noise and energy reduction – we need to build, and retrofit, our houses to make them more comfortable through passive energy management and ensure that all new buildings are required to achieve the highest energy efficiency standards. Entertainment venues in commercial and mixed-use residential areas, where appropriate, need to have noise attenuation measures built into them as part of their construction.

Our lifestyle is likely to also have an effect on our important waterways. It is estimated that about 5000 tonnes of salts are released into the Murrumbidgee each year from Canberra household greywater, in particular from the detergents we use in our homes. Each of us can play a role in reducing this simply by using low salt products in our washing machines, dishwashers, shampoos and other detergents. However, there is also a need to determine the sources and loads of salts entering the wastewater treatment networks, in order to identify the most cost-effective strategies to reduce salt discharges to the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee rivers.

There are also effects on our catchments about which we do not currently have adequate data. For example, we know that our increasing urbanisation is having an impact on the hydrology and quality of our waterways. However, to fully understand and address these issues, we need more information. High quality data are essential for evidence based decision making and planning for our catchments. Building a strong knowledge base to help us understand our catchments is vital to developing a sustainable Territory.

The Bush Capital

Canberra has long taken pride in being the Bush Capital. Only around 13% of the ACT is in urban lands, and of these, around 20% is open space; as well, 54% of the ACT is held in nature reserves. In 2006, the ACT received a 'Triple A' assessment from the World Wildlife Fund in recognition of the considerable achievements made by successive ACT Governments in developing a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of protected areas. Ecological monitoring in Namadgi National Park has demonstrated the remarkable powers of recovery that many natural ecosystems have, although there are areas that will show evidence of the 2003 bushfire for many years. Yet while we have significant reserves throughout the ACT, it is important to maintain their quality through effective on-ground management, and to ensure we have a strong system of corridors and connections between these reserves. Connectivity is particularly important given potential climate change as it affords the opportunity for species to be able to move in response to changes.

A primary reason for establishing and maintaining reserves is to protect key ecosystems and habitats, and this in turn is part of ensuring a resilient natural environment and securing long-term sustainability. The Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands at Goorooyarroo is one area that has been afforded protection in this reporting period. It and the abutting Mulligans Flat reserve constitute the largest area of this ecosystem protected in public ownership. Given this, it may be worth considering designating this area as a national park in and of itself, or as part of a network of high quality urban reserves, or including it under some other designation. A decision on this issue will require consideration of the overall designation of all existing (and proposed) urban nature reserves that are part of Canberra Nature Park. While areas in Canberra Nature Park were selected for various reasons, such as regional landscape character, local amenity or ecological qualities, there seems to be an expectation that all areas in Canberra Nature Park can be used, and managed, in a similar manner. This often creates conflict between various user groups. Demarcating use according to ecological values may address this issue.

We should celebrate the progress made in developing our natural estate. However we need to recognise that there is more work to be done to ensure that our Bush Capital's ecological condition is protected. There are still 17 species listed as vulnerable, and 14 species and two ecological communities listed as threatened under the Nature Conservation Act 1980 (ACT). Our unique grasslands continue to be under pressure, with several under threat from kangaroo overgrazing. Weeds and feral animals also continue to impact widely on our nature reserves. The spread and impact of pest species in our natural reserves needs to be controlled, with species like rabbits, deer, pigs, horses, European wasps, Chilean Needlegrass and African Lovegrass being of particular concern.

Strong community engagement and volunteering

We are fortunate in the ACT to have an active and engaged community. A 2006 survey (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2007a) showed that 34% of the Australian population aged 18 years and over participated in voluntary work, with the ACT and Queensland (38%) having the highest proportion of their populations volunteering. During the reporting period, the ACT Government began implementing Priority 3 of the Canberra Social Plan 2004: 'a strong, safe and cohesive community'. Among the initiatives were grants targeting wider community participation in sport, multicultural affairs, heritage and environmental activities, and the arts.

Not only do we volunteer at our museums, galleries, sporting venues and events, but the community volunteers are also essential for the management and conservation of the Territory's natural resources. We are lucky to have access to people with a wide range of scientific and technological expertise, enthusiasm, time and energy who engage in tree planting, bird observations, frog watching and many other environmental activities. A significant and exciting shift in this reporting period has been the emergence of strong community sustainability groups. Groups such as SEE-Change, Go Zero CO2 Farrer and Concerned Residents of West Kambah (CROWK) have provided strong leadership on sustainability issues at a local level.

The community played a significant role in shaping key decisions during this period, for example, the future of Albert Hall, restoration of the Lower Cotter Catchment following the 2003 bushfire, creation of a sanctuary at Tidbinbilla, the Gunghalin Drive Extension, and the shaping of the Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools initiative.

Government policies are well placed

Over the reporting period, the ACT Government has either developed or progressed policies around major and complex issues in our city. Some of these policies and plans include the ACT NoWaste Strategy, ACT Sustainable Transport Plan, The Spatial Plan, Building our Community – The Social Plan, Weathering the Change: the ACT climate change strategy2007–25, Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools, Affordable Housing Action Plan, A New Way – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Family Wellbeing Plan 2006–11, ACT Lowland Woodland Conservation Strategy, ACT Lowland Native Grassland Conservation Strategy and ACT Aquatic Species and Riparian Zone Conservation Strategy.

These policies and plans work to address many of the challenges of sustainability in the ACT and, if fully implemented, have the potential to place the ACT in a strong position to address some of the key issues confronting our society.


The following recommendations are made to the ACT Government with a commitment from the Commissioner to assist in advancing their implementation.

Climate and greenhouse

1. Ensure an effective response to climate change by:

  1. Giving a high priority to implementing the ACT Government's Weathering the Change strategy and action plan.
  2. The Commissioner's Office annually assessing the progress made in implementing Weathering the Change, in particular the ACT Government's progress towards carbon neutrality.
  3. The Commissioner, working with the ACT Government and key environmental and business groups, advocating climate change actions and community involvement.
  4. Asking the Australian Government to establish a new weather station in the ACT and ensuring data is adequately correlated with previous data from the weather station at Canberra International Airport.

Air quality

1. Make outdoor air quality data and information available to the public through an annual air quality report prepared by the Environment Protection Agency.

2. Gain a better understanding of indoor air quality to inform building design, maintenance and use by:

  1. Monitoring selected public and private buildings with the results being made public and used to inform management of the buildings.
  2. Providing information to the community on the importance of regularly introducing fresh air into buildings.
  3. Advising occupants of new or renovated buildings and those with new furniture and fittings (such as carpet and underlay) to air the house as much as possible in the first few days following installation.

Conserving biodiversity

1. Strengthen the nature conservation estate by:

  1. Completing the Territory's nature conservation estate by protecting the few remaining areas of high conservation value including natural temperate grasslands (in the Majura and Jerrabomberra valleys), Yellow Box-Red Gum Grassy Woodlands (at Kinlyside, Kama–Molonglo Valley) and the Snow Gum–Candlebark Tableland Woodland. This must include full assessment and recording of the location and condition of remaining examples of Snow Gum–Candlebark Tableland Woodland.
  2. Protecting lands identified for nature conservation under the Territory Plan in a timely manner. Priority should be given to Jerrabomberra East native grassland nature reserves.
  3. Considering Goorooyarroo and Mulligans Flat nature reserves (Yellow Box–Red Gum Grassy Woodlands) for designation as a national park. It may be that Goorooyarroo–Mulligans Flat should be part of a network of areas considered for designation as a national park or be given additional protection and recognition by some other overarching designation.

2. Strengthen partnerships by:

  1. ACT Government agencies working with qualified community groups (such as the Canberra Ornithologists Group) to ensure data collected are made available for use in planning and managing the Territory's natural resources.
  2. ACT Government and Australian Government agencies, and private landholders responsible for managing native grasslands cooperating with the scientific community and community groups in developing management actions that will ensure survival of threatened grassland communities and the species they support.

3. Achieve effective nature conservation management by:

  1. Finalising, implementing and monitoring management plans, with all stakeholders participating and progress being publicly reported, particularly for:
    (i)  Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve Management Plan,
    (ii)  Lower Cotter Catchment,
    (iii) Namadgi National Park,
    (iv) Googong Foreshores.
  2. Finalising, implementing and monitoring the ACT Weeds Strategy.
  3. Maintaining and enhancing connectivity between core nature conservation areas. This needs to be given a high priority in planning greenfield and urban renewal developments and major infrastructure projects.
  4. Developing and implementing an interim policy to allow for limited commercial seed collection on selected unleased sites, pending completion of the review of the Nature Conservation Act.
  5. Assessing and implementing mitigation actions on the potential impact of illegal fishing on the remnant population of the threatened Macquarie Perch (Macquaria australasica) in the Cotter Reservoir and the Cotter River between the reservoir and Pierces Creek junction.
  6. Finalising, implementing and monitoring the kangaroo management plan for the whole Territory. Consultation with the community is to occur at the planning stage.

4. Improve the scientific knowledge of managers and custodians of the ACT nature conservation estate by:

  1. Continuing existing research, monitoring and evaluation programs.
  2. Ensuring threatened species and communities, and river biodiversity are the subject of research and monitoring programs, with results from these informing management actions.
  3. Monitoring and evaluating fire fuel management effectiveness and its effects on ecological and catchment conditions. A central and uniform source of information on all ACT fuel reduction activities, research, monitoring and evaluations should be created.

5. Effectively control pest plants and animals to minimise adverse affects on nature conservation by:

  1. Continuing existing programs to manage known pest animals (foxes, dingoes/wild dogs, pigs, rabbits, feral horses) and plants (Serrated Tussock, St John's Wort, Chilean Needlegrass, African Lovegrass). Given the significant increase in rabbits, existing rabbit control programs may need to be enhanced.
  2. Monitoring and controlling emerging pests, such as European wasps and deer. Given that European wasps affect humans as well as biodiversity there is a need to give priority to this species.
  3. Evaluating the effectiveness of pest animal and weed control programs in achieving pest control, biodiversity conservation and catchment management objectives. This information should be used in the ongoing management of such programs, and be made public.

Catchment quality

1. Improve catchment management by:

  1. Developing an ACT integrated water supply catchment management policy and strategy to guide, among other things, coordination of:
    (i)    scientific research,
    (ii)   data collection,
    (iii)  monitoring and reporting (including public information).
  2. Monitoring the effects of urbanisation on the ACT region's water catchment and using the information in developing and implementing strategies in response to specific issues (for example, development of greenfield sites).
  3. Monitoring the effectiveness of the Gross Pollutant Trap network (including its supporting maintenance program) to identify ways to improve its overall effectiveness in protecting surface water quality.
  4. Determining the sources and loads of salts entering the wastewater treatment networks and using the information to develop strategies to reduce salt discharges to the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee Rivers.
  5. Ensuring the key indicators in the State of the Environment Report, Natural Resource Management Plan and other relevant ACT Government reports are reviewed and aligned.

2. Further progress restoration efforts in the Lower Cotter Catchment by:

  1. Continuing the science-based approach to management with an emphasis given to monitoring and publicly reporting on recovery of this catchment.
  2. Further reducing water turbidity in streams through targeting areas of greatest vulnerability that have high rehabilitation potential.
  3. Clearly defining recreational activities, with protection of water being the highest priority.

Resource use

1. Use resources more wisely by:

  1. Developing and implementing a sustainability community awareness program(s) on:
    (i) waste minimisation and/or avoidance that emphasises this as the fundamental first step (before re-use, recycling or disposal) in effective waste management,
    (ii) prudent and smart use of water and energy,
    (iii) better building design, particularly for energy and water efficiency,
    (iv)  the relationship between i., ii. and iii, climate change and sustainability (including the effect on the natural environment).
  2. Requiring all ACT Government agencies to report annually on their use of water, energy consumption, waste generation, and actions they propose undertaking to use resources more efficiently.
  3. Ensuring sustainability criteria are used to guide the assessment, planning and management of new uses for buildings no longer needed for school purposes (as per the Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools program) and any other buildings disposed of as surplus to Government requirements.

2. Progress sustainable transport by:

  1. Continuing to implement and support the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan by:
    (i)  finalising and implementing a Territory parking strategy (with supporting actions) for ACT lands and those in the parliamentary triangle (it will be important to ensure that the Australian Government supports this strategy),
    (ii)  developing a pedestrian action plan, in consultation with the community, to foster walking, particularly for commuter trips.
  2. Amending the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan to include greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency and/or carbon neutrality targets for the transport sector, and specific efficiency targets, such as energy efficiency per person or persons per kilometer traveled.
  3. Developing and discussing with the community a paper on long-term innovative sustainable transport options for the Territory. Pending the results of this work, update the Territory's Sustainable Transport Plan to include any government-adopted options. An independently chaired, multidiscipline taskforce should be charged with developing the options, consulting the community and reporting to government.
  4. The Commissioner's Office annually assessing the progress made in implementing the Sustainable Transport Plan.
  5. The Commissioner working with the ACT Government and key environmental and business groups to advocate that community travel in a sustainable manner.

3. Manage land effectively by:

  1. Continuing to implement the Canberra Spatial Plan, particularly focusing on achieving higher densities and maintaining ecological corridors.
  2. Undertaking a Territory-wide land degradation assessment of erosion and soil salinity, and mapping the results.
  3. Determining the long-term use of all forestry land burnt in the 2003 bushfire. (Some significant areas have already had their long-term land uses defined.)

4. Further advance waste management by:

  1. Developing and implementing a waste minimisation/avoidance action plan with specific measurable performance measures; No Waste would be an appropriate inspirational goal rather than being used as a target (for example, No Waste by 2010).
  2. Progressing a domestic and business organic waste collection system.
  3. Developing and implementing a Business Waste Reduction Strategy that includes:
    (i)  reducing waste,
    (ii)  recycling and reusing waste,
    (iii) collecting and reporting on data,
    (iv) holding a businesses waste forum to encourage innovative and cost-effective approaches for reducing waste.
  4. Increasing community education and promotion to further reduce recyclables in potential landfill waste.
  5. Providing more facilities for recycling in public places and at major events.
  6. Establishing an ACT e-waste consortium, including Australian and ACT Government agencies, universities and CIT, CSIRO, businesses, industry and other major e-waste generators to:
    (i) provide data on e-waste,
    (ii) raise awareness about e-waste,
    (iii) develop e-waste minimisation and management strategies.
    (iv) promoting waste minimisation as a practical way to advance sustainability.

Community wellbeing

1. The community is kept informed and engaged in progressing the implementation of key government community strategies including:

  1. Affordable Housing Action Plan
  2. A New Way – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Family Wellbeing Plan 2006–11
  3. Towards 2020: Renewing Our Schools. Associated environmental and social equity implications need to be monitored in the long-term.

2. Community wellbeing and safety is strengthened by:

  1. Encouraging community health programs, particularly those aimed at exercise, healthy eating, mental wellbeing and minimising excessive alcohol consumption.
  2. Implementing an ongoing awareness program aimed at preventing vehicular collisions with kangaroos.

3. Noise management is improved by:

  1. Informing the community, at point of sale, of ways to mitigate the noise impacts from air conditioners with external fans. (Information on energy consumption should also be supplied at point of sale.)
  2. Ensuring entertainment venues provide appropriate noise attenuation. In so doing they will need to meet planning and environmental conditions. The effectiveness of conditions that the Planning and Environmental Protection agencies impose should be monitored.

4. The Territory's heritage be better protected by:

  1. Asking the Australian Government to take account of the need for adequate heritage protection in the ACT when making changes to National Capital Authority responsibilities, including requiring the Authority to observe and comply with ACT heritage legislation.
  2. Asking the Australian Government to ensure heritage places affected by changes to federal legislation (due to take effect in 2012) are given the appropriate level of protection (for example, the Yarralumla Woolshed).


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