ACT News

ACT State of the Environment Report reveals Canberrans have largest ecological footprint

Canberrans' taste for luxury is making them the country's biggest consumers each needing an average of 8.9 hectares to support their cashed-up lifestyles - three and a half times the world average - the latest ACT State of the Environment Report reveals.

The 572-page report, launched on Thursday by Environment Minister Simon Corbell and ACT Sustainability and the Environment Commissioner Ann Lyons Wright, assesses the condition and management of the ACT's atmosphere, biodiversity, land, water and heritage every four years.

Minister for the Environment Simon Corbell said water quality remained a big challenge for the ACT after the release of ...
Minister for the Environment Simon Corbell said water quality remained a big challenge for the ACT after the release of the State of the Environment report. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

While the size of the ACT's ecological footprint – an estimate of the amount of land and water needed to support each person - has dropped slightly since the last report when it was 9.2 hectares per person, it remains 14 times larger than the territory's land area and above the Australian average of 8.2 hectares.

Mr Corbell said Canberra's high levels of disposable income and highly dispersed population were the main causes of the ongoing challenge and the government would seek to tackle it with its urban renewal policies including light rail and improvements in resource recovery.

"[High incomes] lead to high levels of consumption particularly around luxury goods and the choices that people on higher incomes are able to make on the things they buy," he said.

"It's not about saying to people 'you can't live well'... the increasing trend globally is that we can maintain high living standards and strong economic growth without impacting the environment."

When the last report was released in 2012, the territory's then environment commissioner Bob Neil said the ACT would have to reduce its footprint to 1.8 hectares per person to live within the current capacity of the world.

Ms Lyons Wright said she was hopeful the figure could be reached if Canberrans embraced gradual changes and avoided "throwaway" purchases.

"Think about fresh and local… our buying power is really quite strong and the more we demand products with minimal packaging, biodegradable, and from recycled material the more they'll be supplied to us," she said.

The last report had been a damning assessment calling on drastic action to improve sustainability, but Ms Lyons Wright said "better frameworks" were in place and strong action had been taken on climate change, nature conservation, planning, water, waste and transport.

The majority of the 10 new recommendations called for better monitoring, reporting and evaluation of data and the government's environmental initiatives.

Ms Lyons Wright said the ACT's enviable record on climate change and renewable energy targets were "well reported" but the public remained in the dark over the state of other aspects.

Mr Corbell said the "glowing report card" showed "significant progress" had been made on previous problem areas including population growth, climate change and waste.

But the report said waste generation had increased by 10 per cent and could even be higher as some was taken outside the ACT.

"We're not increasing that level of recycling because we're at that point where we need better infrastructure in place for waste disposal," Ms Lyons Wright said.

Mr Corbell said the government was working on a new waste management strategy and had passed tighter laws to regulate the sector.

The ecological condition of the ACT's waterways was "poor", the report said, and could degrade further if rainfall decreases.

Water quality remained "one of the greatest challenges", Mr Corbell said, but would be tackled by the $80 million of work starting later in the year to reduce toxic algae blooms and remove nitrogen from urban lakes and creeks.

After an 8 per cent rise in the last report, greenhouse emissions per person had dropped back 8 per cent and Ms Lyons Wright said they would continue to "reduce dramatically" as more large scale renewable energy projects came online.

Mr Corbell indicated the government would look to continue its focus on urban renewal rather than embrace more high-rise dwellings to help restrict "unsustainable urban sprawl".

The report said the percentage of greenfield sites (55 per cent) remained higher than infill development (45 per cent), but was "significantly lower" than the previous reporting period when 75 per cent of development was on greenfield sites.