Sydney's footprint is growing despite more efficient resource use
"Rebound effect" ... experts say our footprint is growing as a direct result of increased consumption. Photo: Domino Postiglione
WHILE Sydneysiders are saving more water, cutting energy use and recycling more rubbish than they were a decade ago, their environmental footprints could actually be bigger.
The release of the State of the Environment 2012 paints a picture of a cleaner, greener society evolving across NSW, with measurable improvements in most categories of sustainable living.
But the truth is likely to be less heartening. Experts point to a phenomena known as ''the rebound effect'' under which people use resources more efficiently, then eliminate most of the benefits by consuming more.
''For example, people are saving more water because they've got more efficient shower heads, but at the same time we've also got a desalination plant that's really energy intensive, so the energy intensity of everybody's cup of tea goes up,'' said Associate Professor Damien Giurco, a director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney.
Since 1990, household spending has risen by an average of 82 per cent, even as many consumption practices became less wasteful, the report said.
While fossil fuel use has dropped 3 per cent since 2006, it still makes up 94 per cent of all the state's energy use, partly because car ownership has gone up, meaning more petrol is burned. People are also buying more imported goods, which exports the environmental cost of creating them.
''The value of the dollar has gone up, so people are filling their homes with lots of stuff, including a lot of electronic stuff made in China,'' Professor Giurco said.
''We might only use one, highly-efficient phone charger, but we've got 10 old phone chargers lying around unused in cupboards, which is not a great outcome … Basically, I think it means we think we are getting more efficient by having more efficient processes, but overall we're not having a lower impact.''
A CSIRO report into resources use, Resource Efficiency: Economics and Outlook for Asia and the Pacific, identified the disconnect between some improvements in sustainability and the overall pressures on the environment.
The average Australian consumes about 45 tonnes of resources per year - including biomass, fossil fuels, metals, industrial, and construction materials - compared with an average across Asia of 8.6 tonnes.
''This modelling indicates that potential efficiency gains will not reach far enough and will not keep pace with growth in population and per-capita demand sufficiently to avoid significant resource depletion and emissions consequences,'' the report said.
Part of the problem is developing an accounting system that draws an accurate picture of the total environmental impact of the decisions we make, said the director of the Wentworth Group of concerned scientists, Peter Cosier.
''To some extent, we've spent hundreds of millions of dollars collecting environmental data, but not a lot of it can actually be used to assess the condition of the whole environment, and the impact you make,'' Mr Cosier said.
''Just because someone uses water more efficiently on the central coast, it doesn't make any difference to the Murray-Darling Basin, and we need to account for that disconnection.''
The Wentworth Group is attempting to do so as part of holistic water management trial that spans 10 of Australia's 56 water catchment management areas. The results, to be released later this year, will try to refine a more intelligent and sustainable method of managing water resources.
''We want to provide policymakers and everyone else with the best accounting tools, so they can make informed decisions about total environmental impacts,'' Mr Cosier said.