I am pleased to present the EPA’s eleventh NSW State of the Environment. This report describes the status and trends in the quality of the NSW natural environment and implications for environmental and human health.
The condition of our natural environment is a major determinant of our quality of life – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil so essential for our land and agriculture, the raw materials for industry and economic growth and the natural beauty that sustains public amenity and tourism. Reporting on the state of our environment helps us take stock of environmental conditions in our state, identify emerging issues and act effectively for the benefit of future generations and the environment itself.
This report is published every three years and provides a valuable time-series of data on our natural environment. The accompanying interactive online portal includes more frequent updates as a resource for the general community and to support policy-makers in determining outcomes for the environment.
I am grateful this year for the generous involvement of the Aboriginal Peoples Knowledge Group in preparing this report. In 2021, the EPA invited the views, values and knowledge of Aboriginal people to enhance our understanding of the health of the NSW environment. The Aboriginal Peoples Knowledge Group has, in a short time, made an invaluable contribution to this report and will continue to guide further engagement for wider representation from Aboriginal people in this kind of reporting. As the Knowledge Group has acknowledged so powerfully:
‘Everything is connected. How we use and care for the land/Country impacts its health. Healthy land/Country means not only healthy plants, animals and ecosystems but also healthy people.’
So, what does the report tell us about our environment?
Over the past three years our environment has too frequently been in the news as a series of natural events and disasters has played out – severe droughts and water shortages for many remote communities, several major fish kills in the Darling River system, the worst bushfires ever recorded in NSW, followed by widespread flooding.
This demonstrates how sensitive and vulnerable the environment is to disturbance and harm, often caused by humans, and how important it is to protect it so our own and future generations can continue to enjoy its many benefits.
But it is not all bad news and NSW State of the Environment 2021 identifies that many aspects of the environment are in good condition.
Air quality continues to be generally good, with low concentrations of lead, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, although particle pollution from smoke and dust soared in 2019 due to the continuing drought and extensive bushfires. Ozone and particle pollution levels require ongoing attention in some situations.
The industry and household waste disposed of to landfill is decreasing while recycling of garden and food waste is on the increase. The NSW Government is combating illegal dumping and supporting emergency clean-ups of hazardous waste such as illegally dumped asbestos.
There are also many opportunities for innovative solutions that benefit both the environment and the economy. An example of this is the Return and Earn container deposit scheme, which was established in December 2017. Previously, drink container rubbish made up almost half of the total litter volume in NSW. By September 2021, over 8.1 billion containers had been returned, resulting in a 52% reduction in drink container litter.
Electricity generation has seen a strong increase in the share of renewable energy sources in the NSW electricity supply from around 16% in 2017 to 19% in 2020. In the three years to June 2020, total NSW and ACT electricity generation remained stable with a slight increase of 0.5% as the population continued to grow, while electricity consumption per capita declined by about 6%.
Impacts from population growth and our use of natural resources can have a profound effect on our environment. Some of the principal challenges identified in previous NSW State of the Environment reports remain.
Climate change continues to pose a significant threat to both the environment and population of NSW. Its effects are already being felt and are anticipated to become more severe over the coming decades. International collaboration will be required to make the deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to counteract these effects. NSW is doing its part by supporting a number of programs and initiatives under Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020–2030, which aims to strengthen the prosperity and quality of life of our people, while helping to achieve the objective of delivering a 50% cut in emissions by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.
The number of threatened species in NSW continues to rise. More than 1,000 native plant and animal species and 112 ecological communities are currently listed as threatened under state legislation. The main threats to these species are habitat loss due to permanent clearing and degradation of native vegetation and the spread of invasive pests and weeds.
Preparation of this report has relied on extensive contributions from within the EPA as well as from many other NSW Government agencies. Data and information have been validated by the contributing organisations and independent experts, through an extensive process of review. An important inclusion this year is the views, values and knowledge of Aboriginal people to enhance understanding of the health of the NSW environment.
My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to this report.
Chief Executive Officer
NSW Environment Protection Authority