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What pressures can we influence

We cannot control natural phenomena such as drought, flood and bushfire, and we also have limited control over some human-made drivers of environmental change.

However, there are several important areas where we can influence the pressures on our environment. These are typically highly contested areas, and include population, energy, trade, urban development and natural resource management. An overarching area of influence is community understanding, attitudes and behaviour. 


We are growing

Australia's population as on 9 November 2018 was estimated to be 25,129,807, increasing  by 1 person every 1 minute and 23 seconds. With almost 30% of the population born overseas, the Productivity Commission concluded Australia’s immigration policy is its ‘de facto’ population policy.

Nearly 7 million people have migrated to Australia in the last 7 decades. If immigration continues at this rate, another 13 million will be added by 2060. With immigration making up such a large part of Australia’s population growth, and by implication SA’s, it is a key policy lever that should consider environmental impacts.

Population growth is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for environmental degradation; it is, however, a strong predisposing factor. Cocks (1996:133)

The Australian Government’s 2015 Intergenerational Report has the following population projections:

  • 2025 – 28 million
  • 2035 – 32 million
  • 2045 – 35.8 million
  • 2055 – 39.7 million.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Future Dilemmas report describes the environmental effects of a growing population. These include increases in carbon dioxide emissions and land salinity, and declines in stocks of marine fish, air quality, water quality and biodiversity.

The report acknowledges these changes are not solely related to population effects, but result from a complex set of interactions between population, infrastructure, lifestyle and personal consumption, energy, international trade, inbound tourism and technological innovation.

Managing these changes requires multiple coordinated approaches targeted at each of these environmental effects and the interactions between them.

More is not necessarily better

The Australian Government’s 2011 Population Strategy did not focus on a particular population target and emphasised an approach aimed at maintaining and improving wellbeing of the Australian population.

A sustainable population strategy is not only about population size and growth; we need to look at all aspects of our population:

  • our household structures and location
  • who we are: our age, health, education, values and cultural diversity
  • how we engage with society and the opportunities we have to be included in our communities
  • how we participate in the economy.

Most importantly, it is about ensuring all members of our community share in the economic and quality of life benefits that characterise Australia, and improving the wellbeing of our population into the future.

Some researchers suggest a stable population level for Australia of 15 million, using ‘wellbeing’ to indicate optimal population size. Others support a ‘big Australia’ with a future population of more than 30 million. Based our current share of the national population, these two positions would mean a population of between 1 and 2 million for SA.

Every person has an impact

It is not just the total population that determines the impact on the environment, but also the impact per person. Australia’s per capita energy, water use and waste generation are among the highest in the world, including most other developed countries. In addition to the demand for natural resources to support our own consumption, we export a large amount of products that rely on the same natural resources.

The need for analysis, planning and public debate is clear. For now, the environmental impacts from SA’s population remain a factor of national immigration policy, domestic migration patterns and per capita consumption and waste.

In terms of domestic migration, SA has had an average net annual loss of 3,300 people due to interstate migration over the last 10 years. This was more than offset by immigration, with average net annual population growth of almost 16,000 people over the same period.


Leading the way

Australia lacks a comprehensive national climate strategy and energy plan. However, individual states have taken the lead and implemented ambitious policies to reduce emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. South Australia’s achievements in moving to a low-carbon future are documented in the SA Climate Change Action timeline.

In 2007, SA was the first Australian state to legislate a specific target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state's emissions are 9% below 1990 levels, and on track to meet the target of at least 40% of 1990 levels by 2050.

In 2009, the SA Government pledged a target of 33% of the state’s electricity generation to come from renewable energy by 2020. This target was exceeded in 2014, and SA now generates nearly 40% of electricity from renewables, aiming for 50% by 2025. This has been supported the Australian Government's Renewable Energy Target, abundant wind and solar resources, and building of the world’s largest (100-megawatt) lithium battery near Jamestown, north of Adelaide in late 2017.

This leadership extends to international cooperation on climate action with other governments.

A key focus area for SA for the immediate future is to be responsive to new and evolving energy solutions, and to build resilience to any unavoidable, less favourable changes already fixed in the climate system.

Trade and economy

Between 1990–91 and 2016–17, SA’s gross state product almost doubled to more than $100 billion. Our exports make up more than 14% of this, mostly as agricultural products and minerals.

In 2016–17, SA’s agriculture, food and wine industries made up 6 out of the state's top 10 major exports, with wine and wheat at the top the list. Wheat, as the staple food of almost half the world’s population, is one of Australia’s most valuable exports. Following cropping of the first 8 hectares in 1838, wheat growing in SA quickly expanded to 7,592 ha by 1844. It now covers nearly 2 million hectares, producing more than a tonne of wheat per hectare. Wheat is mainly produced in SA’s Mid North, Flinders Ranges, Eyre Peninsula and South East.

Agriculture, food and wine industries account for almost 1 in 5 jobs in SA. These industries are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and adverse environmental change because of reliance on healthy soils and adequate water. They feature prominently in SA’s climate adaptation planning.

Mineral and petroleum production reached $5.5 billion in 2015–16, with copper leading as SA’s highest export earner. Being energy intensive, resource industries contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. They also typically rely on large amounts of water and have direct impacts, such as clearing of native vegetation, air pollution and noise. The scale of these impacts is variable, being subject to global market fluctuations. For example, mining exploration expenditure peaked at over $300 million in 2011–12 and is now less than $50 million per annum.

To manage trade-related environmental impacts, effective regulation of environmental risks and impacts must occur. This includes compliance with best practice environmental management through licensing by the EPA, as part of the development assessment process, and by regulation under natural resources management, mining and petroleum legislation.

Effective regulation delivers important and measurable public value in the form of reducing harm to the environment, encouraging more efficient production processes and creating a level playing field. 

Urban development

South Australia’s population is highly urbanised, with 84% (1.43 million) of our 1.7 million people living in the Greater Adelaide region and 75% in the Adelaide Metropolitan region. Greater Adelaide (Figure 5) includes 23 local government areas, makes up less than 1% of SA’s total area and consists of a combination of urban, agricultural and industrial land uses.

soer2018_metro_adelaide_map2Figure 5: Map showing boundaries of Adelaide

Urban sprawl, air pollution, noise, waste and loss of biodiversity are environmental issues typically associated with cities. Recently, liveability of cities has been a particular focus in the face of a changing climate. This includes responding to the urban heat island effect.

The SA Government’s primary policy for managing urban development is The 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide complemented by a new planning system established through the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016. This Act introduced Environment and Food Production Areas to protect, among others, environmental resources.

The 30-Year Plan is updated annually, with the 2017 targets including:

  • containing our urban footprint and protecting resources where:
    • 85% of all new housing in the Adelaide Metropolitan region will be built in established urban areas by 2045 (baseline 75%)
    • 90% of all new housing in the Greater Adelaide region will be built in established townships and designated urban development areas (baseline 88%).
  • having a green, liveable city where:
    • urban green cover to increase by 20% in the Adelaide Metropolitan region by 2045 (baseline 27%).

Other targets in the 30-Year Plan also have environmental benefits, such as public transit-oriented development and an increase in active transport.

Specific policies


  • Having more trees and water sensitive urban landscaping, creating cooler, shady and walkable neighbourhoods with access to nature.
  • Delineating and maintaining areas with significant environmental values to protect landscape health, conserve biodiversity, and improve development certainty and transparency.
  • Supporting enhancement of the urban biodiversity of the Adelaide Metropolitan region through greenways in transit corridors, along major watercourses, linear parks and the coast, and in other strategic locations.
  • Ensuring greenways are landscaped with local indigenous species where possible, to contribute to urban biodiversity outcomes.
  • Protecting the natural and rural landscape character of the Hills Face Zone and ensuring land uses in this zone contribute to this landscape backdrop and area of significant biodiversity.
  • Supporting enhancement of the urban biodiversity in the Adelaide Metropolitan region through a connected and diverse network of green infrastructure.
  • Minimising or offsetting the loss of biodiversity where possible, and avoiding such impacts where these cannot be alleviated.


  • Increasing the proportion of low-rise, medium-density apartments and attached dwellings that support carbon-efficient living.
  • Promoting green infrastructure (including green roofs, vertical gardens and water-sensitive design) in higher density and mixed-use developments to assist with urban cooling, reduce building energy use and improve biodiversity.
  • Creating a more liveable urban environment through establishing a network of greenways, bicycle boulevards, tree-lined streets and open spaces, which will have a cooling effect on nearby neighbourhoods and buildings.
  • Providing opportunities for neighbourhood-level alternative energy supplies, which may include embedded and distributed renewable energy, cogeneration and smart grid/green grid technology.
  • Promoting energy efficiency, use of renewable energy sources and neighbourhood-level alternative energy supplies and storage in new developments to reduce energy costs and carbon footprint.
  • Encouraging establishment of electric vehicle charging points in new higher-density developments, large public and private car parks, activity centres and employment lands.


  • Incorporating water sensitive urban design in new developments to manage water quality, quantity and use efficiency, and to support public stormwater systems.
  • Protecting and securing regional water resources in the region including Mount Lofty Ranges Watershed, prescribed water resources, recycled wastewater networks and stormwater harvesting.
  • Increasing stormwater infrastructure (including water sensitive urban design) to manage and reduce impacts of runoff from infill development, urban flooding from increased short-duration intense rainfall events associated with climate change, and pollution from roads and other developed areas.


  • Protecting coastal features and biodiversity including habitats that are highly sensitive to the direct impacts of development, important geological and/or natural features and landscapes of very high scenic quality.
  • Protecting key coastal areas where critical infrastructure is at risk from sea level rise, coastal erosion and storm surges, and ensuring new coastal development incorporates appropriate adaptation measures.


  • Working towards a zero-waste culture by reducing the waste footprint of new developments.
  • Encouraging best practice waste management design and systems in high-density residential and mixed use developments.

Landuse planning

  • Incorporating information about nature protection areas, complementary developed areas and coastal features within the South Australian Multiple Land Use Framework. This supports land users and the wider community in considering benefits and consequences when making decisions about land use.
  • Delivering a more compact urban structure that:
    • protects valuable primary production land
    • reinforces the Hills Face Zone
    • preserves character districts and Environment and Food Production Areas
    • conserves nature protection areas
    • safeguards the Mount Lofty Ranges Watershed
    • reduces vehicle travel and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The policies outlined above are consistent with the following recommendations of the 2016 Australia SOER to improve our cities’ environmental quality through:

  • reducing:
    • per person use of land at the urban fringe
    • energy use
    • water use
    • waste generation
    • car use.
  • improving urban green space
  • reducing urbanisation areas at high risk from climate change
  • reducing the diverse and varied pressures facing the built environment
  • improving coordination and integration of urban management between the 3 levels of government.

The 30-Year Plan has an annual implementation plan that will be monitored by the recently formed State Planning Commission. It will produce an annual report card on the progress. Achievements to date include:

  • a shift away from relying on housing growth at the urban fringe to infill (from 50:50 to 70:30 split) within the existing urban footprint. This reflects changing preferences for where people want to live
  • reducing our carbon footprint by containing and managing urban sprawl
  • protecting the special character of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions
  • closer integration of land use and transport planning and an expanded future tram network identified through the Integrated Transport and Land Use Plan process.

It is inevitable that any comprehensive urban development strategy will have some competing objectives, such as between a more compact urban form and increasing biodiversity and tree canopy cover. It is too soon to evaluate the effectiveness with which these trade-offs can be managed.

Case study

Water sensitive urban design



Figure 6: Rain garden in Tarragon Street, Mile End

Water sensitive urban design (WSUD) promotes the environmental use of water in urban settings. This incorporates the water cycle into construction and development through storage, treatment, use of runoff and landscaping. 

South Australia’s water security plan, Water for Good, and planning strategy, the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, put WSUD forward as an important aspect to ensure delivery of more sustainable urban environments. In addition to a specific WSUD policy, the principles and objectives of WSUD are also joined together in SA’s Stormwater Strategy, the Adelaide & Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Plan and the Adelaide Coastal Water Quality Improvement Plan.

Catchment to Coast, an Australian Government-funded project from 2015 to improve coastal water quality, helped roll out WSUD across Greater Adelaide. This included developing demonstration sites and providing grants to local councils, community groups, schools, sports clubs, groups and individuals to build rain gardens (Figure 6). The Kaurna people are closely involved in the project to ensure appropriate rain gardens are built at culturally significant sites.

Natural resources management

In the past, environmental issues on farmland were considered in terms of how they affected agricultural production. Weeds, pests and erosion were of concern in terms of how they affected the land’s profitability. More recently, farming landscapes have started to be recognised as important habitats for native plants and animals.

A loss of biodiversity

Our national parks and reserves do not adequately protect biodiversity, which is declining at a high rate. About 29% of SA is in formally protected areas, with more than a third of this used for non-conservation purposes such as grazing. Of the remaining 71% of SA’s land area, most is used for various forms of agriculture.

Livestock grazing is the most extensive land use. The South Australian Arid Lands Natural Resources Management region covers the largest total area of livestock grazing (almost 43 million hectares, or 72% of all livestock grazing in SA).

About 70% of the estimated global loss of terrestrial biodiversity can be attributed to agriculture. In addition to habitat loss, farming practices such as tillage, burning, livestock introduction, and nutrient and chemical usage have had negative impacts on biodiversity as well as soil, water and air quality. Increases in intensive farming lead to higher fertiliser and pesticide use. 

Compounding factors include a growing global population that, together with changes in diets from a growing middle class, will lead to large increases in the demand for food. This in turn further increases expansion and intensification of agriculture, which presents a conservation challenge on a global scale.

Farming as part of the response

Policies to balance conservation and production play a vital role in protecting biodiversity. Biodiversity supports agricultural enterprises through ecosystem services such as bee pollination, control of insect pests, improved soil fertility and overall agricultural productivity. Biodiversity also improves amenity value of properties, satisfies goals of land stewardship and improves health and wellbeing. In this way, farms must be part of the solution to preserve natural habitats.

Land stewardship

Volunteer programs such as Landcare are popular but, as found by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), do not always produce the level of enduring outcomes expected.

The current leading approach include payments to farmers in exchange for environmental goods and services. Over the past 25 years, Australian governments have paid farmers more than $7 billion for protecting habitat, soil and water quality. However, it has been difficult to measure the return on this investment.

In its review of the regional delivery model for the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, the ANAO found that the information reported:  

has been insufficient to make an informed judgement as to the progress of the programs towards either outcomes or intermediate outcomes. There is little evidence as yet that the programs are adequately achieving the anticipated national outcomes or giving sufficient attention to the ‘radically altered and degraded Australian landscape’ highlighted in the 1996 Australia: State of the Environment Report. Performance measurement has been an ongoing issue covered by three previous ANAO audits since 1996–97 and should be a priority for attention in the lead up to NHT 3.

In its 2017–18 Budget, the Australian Government extended the National Landcare Program, investing a further $1.1 billion from the Natural Heritage Trust over 7 years from 2016–17. This includes an additional $5 million to support community led threatened species projects aligned with the Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy.

In SA, the State NRM Plan guided the management of our natural resources. The plan is given effect through a number of mechanisms, including the Natural Resources Management Investment Strategy. This is a partnership between natural resources management boards, Primary Producers SA, Conservation Council SA, Local Government Association SA, Landcare Association SA, Department of Primary Industries and Regions SA, Department for Environment and Water, Aboriginal leaders and the National Resources Management Alliance (a non-government organisation).

The strategy is based on the following:


  • Funding outcomes, not activities.
  • Evaluating performance.
  • Being community led.
  • Having regional governance.
  • Involving multiple participation pathways.
  • Being evidence based.


  • Restoring and protecting habitats to support farming systems through pollination, stock feed, wind breaks, clean water, and pest and weed control.
  • Improving soil health.
  • Supporting adaptation by primary producers to changing conditions and climate by monitoring of natural resources.
  • Giving financial incentives in the form of stewardship payments to primary producers, co-investing in tourism ventures and restoring oyster reefs to support fisheries.
  • Employing and promoting Aboriginal people to manage parks and natural resources.
  • Purchasing carbon offsets, and co-investing with primary producers, Aboriginal Communities and others to sequester carbon in soil, vegetation and coastal habitats.
  • Managing pests and weeds.
  • Reusing wastewater and stormwater, and having more efficient irrigation practices.
  • Taking a landscape approach to protect natural assets, with multiple components:
    • reintroducing threatened species into restored habitats
    • introducing species into new areas to support adaptation to climate change
    • managing overabundant species
    • protecting ecological assets and economic infrastructure against sea-level rise
    • protecting wetlands of international significance
    • improving public health through urban biodiversity.

Monitoring of the implementation of these priorities will contribute to future state of the environment reporting. 

Waste and materials

We waste more, and recycle more

soer2018_waste_infographicFigure 7: SA's waste recycling at a glance

Driven by a combination of a growing population, affluence, product choice, marketing, and fashion, Australians are the second-highest producers of waste per person in the world. South Australians generate an average of 3 tonnes of waste per person in a year, which is increasing at higher rate than the population.

Between 2003–04 and 2016–17 the total amount of waste generated in SA increased by 59%, with the average waste per person increasing by 42% (Figure 7).Over the same time the amount of waste going to landfill has declined by 39% due to a growing resource recovery industry. In 2016–17, 83.4% of materials were diverted from landfill to resource recovery, the highest diversion rate in Australia.

Waste is considered an inefficiency of the production process and is created in all sectors of the economy and at each point in the production chain. Patterns of waste generation change, as do the types of chemicals and materials used to make the products we buy.

Waste covers a very wide spectrum ranging from food to electrical, industrial, agricultural, and construction materials. It could be solid or liquid, and includes anything in size and scale from decommissioned ships, to mobile phones and used car tyres.

Waste from electronic products (E-waste) such as computers, laptops, televisions and iPhones is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. Rapid uptake of technology, coupled with new design and functionality at regular intervals, is causing the early obsolescence of many such products.

E-waste contains more than 1,000 different substances, including toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and hexavalent chromium, and flame retardants used in the plastics.

The amount of residential and commercial photovoltaic (solar) panels is also growing at a rapid rate and as they reach the end of their useful life, are expected to become Australia’s largest electronic waste stream.

The more complex and hazardous the products and its packaging, the greater the challenges for effective waste management. Without effective management, waste can have large health, economic and environmental costs. This includes carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with landfill and transport, contamination of groundwater, generation of dust and litter, loss of valuable resources, disposal costs, and competing land uses.

While the amount of waste sent to landfill is decreasing, a range of specialised and problematic waste streams remain a concern due to either their hazardous nature (hence potentially harmful effects on humans and the environment) or lack of commercially viable recycling alternatives. Examples include:

In 2008, SA increased the deposit on beverage containers (first introduced in 1977) and in 2009, banned single use plastic bags, resulting in a reduction in litter and the presence of these types of materials in the waste stream. In 2010 SA banned recyclable materials, including electronic waste, from going to landfill, encouraging their collection, disassembly and recycling.

Litter monitoring has been consistently undertaken since 1998, and shows a decrease in litter over that time. However litter remains a ubiquitious problem, especialy for cigarette butts, plastic items, and illegal dumping. In 2017, through the Local Nuisance and Litter Control Act 2016, SA strengthened local government’s powers to deal with litter issues.

Other measures to manage the complex area of waste and materials in SA include:

While diverting waste from landfill to resource recovery has significant environmental and economic benefits, it remains best to avoid the waste from being generated in the first place. South Australians are good recyclers, however much more remains to be done to reduce waste generation.

Waste management hierarchy

The waste management hierarchy is an internationally accepted guide for prioritising waste management practices with the objectives of achieving sustainable outcomes. It sets out the preferred order to waste management practices, from most to least preferred.

soer2018 waste hierarchy

Figure 8: Waste management hierarchy

The waste management hierarchy is well-embedded in South Australia's waste management policy. It is one of the guiding principles of the Green Industries SA Act 2004 and a key element in South Australia’s Waste Strategy 2015–2020. It is also the main objective of the Environment Protection (Waste to Resources) Policy 2010 to apply the waste management hierarchy to achieve sustainable waste management.

A circular economy

The circular economy concept builds upon the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ rungs of the waste hierarchy and is included as a guiding principle in the Green Industries SA Act 2004. In 2017, South Australia became the first Australian jurisdiction to quantify the potential benefits of a circular economy for the state. The study found that a more circular economy could create jobs (an additional 25,700) and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (27% of 7.7 million tonnes of CO equivalent).

An important area of opportunity to strengthen a sustainable circular economy is in increasing resource recovery and local reprocessing of recyclable materials, supported by procurement of recycled products by national, state, and local governments. This could be further underpinned by an accreditation and labelling system for recycled products.

Community understanding, attitudes and behaviour

While surveys confirm a high degree of concern about environmental issues in the wider community, there is a marked discrepancy between that concern and daily behaviour. In our 2013 SOER, we included a number of reasons for this. Among these were the general lack of explicit monetary values for natural assets, effects of marketing, lack of information, consumer attitudes and loss of connection with the natural world of an increasingly urban and affluent society.

The EPA will consider opportunities to help bridge this gap as part of communicating the content of the 2018 SOER.