Key Findings in the State of the Environment 2021

The 2021 report looks at 22 environmental topics across six broad themes covering Drivers, Human Settlement, Climate and Air, Land, Biodiversity and Water and Marine. The report shows population growth and human activity have influenced air and water quality, ecosystems and threatened species.

Key findings in this SoE report include:

  • Air quality is generally good, drinking water quality has been maintained at a high quality and the recreational water quality of our beaches continues to be good.
  • The overall rate of greenhouse gas emissions has fallen 17% since 2005.
  • The proportion of electricity generated from renewable resources has grown steadily from about 16% in 2017 to 19% in 2020. Growth in renewables (solar and wind power) has more than doubled over the past five years to 2020.
  • The NSW economy is now predominantly services based and is therefore less reliant on the consumption of natural resources. There is clear evidence that carbon emissions have been decoupling from economic growth over an extended period of time and that growth in the economy is not being achieved at the expense of the environment.
  • The NSW Government’s Waste Less, Recycle More program has continued to be effective in managing waste, with littering down and new recycling facilities opening for problem wastes.
  • About 9.6% of NSW is conserved in the public reserve system. The rate of new reservations has increased markedly, with around 305,000 ha being added to reserves since 2018. Joint management agreements are in place with Aboriginal traditional owners across about 30% of the parks estate.

Ongoing Challenges

Many of the challenges reported in previous SoE reports remain in the 2021 report findings. These include:

  • The growing population of NSW continues to exert pressure on the environment, although there has been a temporary respite due to reduced activity and human caused disturbance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Innovative ways to use our natural resources more sustainably and to protect fragile ecosystems must continue to be found.
  • The effects of climate change are already evident, but these will become broader and intensify in the future.
  • The extreme weather conditions, drought and floods, of the recent reporting period (2017–21) put pressure on water resources and infrastructure in regional areas, cities and towns.
  • The number of species listed as threatened in NSW continues to rise. These species are at the greatest risk from threats including vegetation clearing, the spread of invasive species and the mounting impacts of climate change.
  • NSW is still heavily dependent on non-renewable sources of energy such as coal for power generation. Transport has become established as the largest (and fastest growing) sector for energy use.
  • The condition of most native vegetation continues to deteriorate. Since the Black Summer fires of 2019–20, 62% of vegetation in the fire zone is under pressure from too much burning.
  • The state’s major inland river systems continue to be affected by water extraction, altered river flows, loss of connectivity and catchment changes such as altered land use and vegetation clearing. These affect water availability, river health and ecosystem integrity.
  • Our love of coastal living and recreation continues to put pressure on the condition of coastal estuaries and lakes.

Key Responses

The NSW Government undertook a number of significant environmental reforms during the reporting period. The responses to major environmental issues are described under each topic (go to theme page and select topic). Some key responses include:

  • The Net Zero Plan Stage 1: 2020–2030 was released in March 2020, which provides the foundation for NSW Government action on climate change over the next decade. Emissions in 2030 are projected to fall be 47–52% lower than 2005 levels under the current policy settings. Policies under the net zero plan are also being delivered as part of the NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap, the Electric Vehicle Strategy and the NSW Waste and Sustainable Materials Strategy 2041.
  • The NSW Water Strategy was launched in September 2021. This strategy proposes more than 40 actions across seven priority areas, focused on improving the security, reliability, quality and resilience of the state’s water resources. A key action of the strategy is investing over $500 million over the next eight years to help local water utilities reduce risks in urban water systems through the Safe and Secure Water Program.
  • $175 million has been allocated to the Saving our Species (SoS) program for the 10 years to 2026. The number of plants and animals and communities being managed under the SoS program is steadily rising, with 465 projects in 2018–19 covering roughly 40% of all listed entities (species, populations or communities).
  • $240 million has been allocated over five years to support a greater commitment to long-term conservation of biodiversity on private land.
  • The NSW Bushfire Inquiry was instigated following the Black Summer fires. All 76 recommendations were accepted by the NSW Government and around $460 million in funding allocated to their implementation, including for new bushfire risk management plans, increased hazard reduction works, enhanced rapid response capacity, improved bushfire modelling and upgraded fire trails.

The population of NSW is expected to reach 10.57 million people by 2041 with most growth in Greater Sydney. Population growth is the main driver of environmental issues.

Since 1990, the NSW economy has grown by 2.4% a year and has shifted over time from a resource-intensive industry base to being 70% services-based now.

Between 2010 and 2019, carbon emissions fell by 13% while the economy grew by 26%, indicating a decoupling of carbon emissions from economic growth.

Energy consumption per capita in the NSW and the ACT decreased by 3.2% from 2017 to 2019 while the share of renewable energy sources in the NSW electricity supply reached 19% in 2020, a rise of 3% since 2017.

By contrast, energy use for transport continues to rise at a steady rate, together with transport-related emissions.

Litter has dropped by 43% over the past six years while the percentage of waste diverted for recycling has increased slightly.

Sustained efforts has seen the number of notified and regulated contaminated sites grow and so too have the number of sites remediated.

Water use per person per day in NSW has been stable since 2009, but pressure from population growth and weather events continues.

The effects of climate change, especially increases in temperature, are already being felt and will become more intense in the future.

NSW greenhouse gas emissions in 2018–19 were 136.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e), which is 17% lower than in 2005.

By 2030, emissions are projected to be 47–52% lower than 2005 levels with current policies implemented.

NSW air quality is generally good, although particle pollution soared in 2019 due to the continuing drought and unprecedented and extensive bushfires.

While native vegetation covers 69% of NSW, the ecological carrying capacity of this vegetation is estimated at just 31% of natural levels in the aftermath of the 2019–20 Black Summer fires.

Since 2018, more than 300,000 hectares have been added to the public reserve system, which now covers around 9.6% of land in NSW.

In contrast, permanent clearing of native woody vegetation in NSW has increased about three-fold since 2015 and stands at an average of 35,000 ha cleared each year. Permanent clearing of non-woody vegetation, such as native shrubs and ground covers, occurs at an even higher rate.

Soil resources in NSW are generally in a moderate condition. Ongoing declines are mainly due to acidification caused by intensified land use, with the added recent hazard of wind erosion levels which has increased four-fold over the past three years due to prevailing weather conditions.

The Black Summer fire season was the most severe ever recorded in NSW with about 5.5 million hectares burnt. It is estimated over a billion animals were killed, burnt or displaced in NSW. Where fire history is available, an estimated 62% of vegetation is now under pressure from too much fire.

The number of species considered at risk of extinction continues to rise with 1,043 NSW species listed as threatened, 18 more than reported three years ago. A further 116 ecological communities are also listed as threatened.

The conservation status of 64% of land-based NSW vertebrates is presently not considered to be threatened.

Freshwater fish communities are in very poor condition across the state and are declining.

Invasive species are widespread across the state’s land and aquatic environments and regarded as a major threat.

The period from 2017 to 2020 saw some of the worst droughts in recent record. During this time, significantly less environmental water was available for delivery into inland rivers and wetlands.

The overall environmental condition of rivers is moderate but waterbirds and fish communities are in poor condition. The major river systems of the Murray–Darling Basin are generally in poorer condition than coastal rivers.

The abundance of waterbirds declined in 2020 to about 40% below their long-term median.

Groundwater provides 27% of all metered water use in NSW, a notable increase from three years ago when it was 11%.

Marine and coastal environments are in good condition overall, but the state of estuaries is more variable.