Source: Raw Shorty


The following Recommendations are made for the purpose of assisting the ACT Government to make strategic management decisions to improve environmental outcomes in the Territory. Various special reports published within the reporting period by the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (State of the Lakes and Waterways in the ACT and Can Canberra ‘Burn Right Tonight’ or is there no safe level off air pollution?) outline pathways to improve urban water and air quality in the ACT. Progress towards these recommendations also remains a priority. 

Legislate an urban growth boundary to contain urban expansion and achieve a compact, liveable and efficiently designed Canberra.

Urban growth boundaries are geographical limits to contain sprawling development around a city. Development is allowed inside the urban growth boundary, while agricultural land and natural space is protected from development outside the urban growth boundary. Urban growth boundaries are sometimes also called urban limit lines, urban development boundaries or greenbelts. Melbourne, Portland, Vancouver, Copenhagen and Beijing are examples of cities that have already applied urban growth boundaries. Setting a growth boundary will limit the impact of urban expansion on grasslands and woodlands and other greenspaces in the Territory. 

As an outcome of the 2024 statutory review, strengthen the Nature Conservation Act 2014 (ACT) to i) give it primacy over other legislation within nature reserves, and ii) include the power to establish nature reserves.

Unlike in other Australian jurisdictions, the Nature Conservation Act 2014 does not have “primacy” in nature reserves. For example, legislation covering littering and dumping, erection of structures, and domestics animals falls under other Acts. It means rangers have no powers in relation to these matters – e.g., they do not have the power to extinguish a person’s illegal campfire. This also means that offences in these categories are generally not pursued in reserves, where they should be most actively pursued. In the interests of conservation, the Nature Conservation Act must have primacy to allow for the proper operation of the park management act.  A good example of an interstate law that provides for this is section 35(1) of the National Parks and Reserves Management Act 2002 (Tas): “A statutory power may not be exercised in relation to any land in a national park, State reserve, nature reserve, historic site or game reserve except where – (a) the exercise of the power is authorised by the management plan for that land; or (b) the power is a power under the Nature Conservation Act 2002 [Tas]”.  

The ACT Nature Conservation Act 2014 only provides for the management of reserves, not their “declaration”, as in other jurisdictions.  Until the commencement of the Land (Planning and Environment) Act 1991, reserves were declared under section 51 of the Nature Conservation Act 1980, and wilderness zones under section 52. This approach to creating protected areas — specifically the lack of any formal declaration process specifying the name, class and boundaries for each individual reserve — sets the ACT apart from standard practice in all the states, the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth.

Establish metrics and indicators to assess how ACT Budgets and new policy initiatives have improved environment and climate outcomes under the ACT Wellbeing Framework.

The ACT Wellbeing Framework is an important instrument for recognising the foundations of healthy people, communities and the environment. However, the framework in its present state does not adequately recognise the foundational necessity of a healthy, functioning environment as a basis for all other measures of a successful human society. If the ACT Government genuinely considers that this domain is ‘critical’ and ‘one of the most important actions’ it can take for the wellbeing of its citizens, it should be weighted more heavily within the framework. As part of this, outcomes must be measurable through clear metrics and indicators. 

In recognition that children and young people are those most impacted by the climate emergency, include a sub-indicator within the ACT Wellbeing Framework that assesses youth participation and influence on government processes. 

The consideration of future generations in policy is limited. Long-term interests are not required to be considered in legislation and the needs of future generations have limited legal protections.  Children and young people also have limited voices, despite consistently telling adults they want to have a ‘say’. Children and young people should be included in the ACT Wellbeing Framework (Governance and Institutions domain) under the indicator ‘Feeling that voice and perspective matter’. This indicator measures the agency people feel they have in decision-making in the ACT. Currently, this indicator is based on a survey conducted by the University of Canberra, which is only open to participants aged 18+.

Reform the ACT’s environmental statutory positions to strengthen the independence and accountability of these entities, including that: 

  1. The Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment be reformed to enable the office to independently manage its administrative matters and to strengthen the Commissioner’s powers to obtain information and conduct investigations.
  2. The Conservator of Flora and Fauna be established as a standalone and independent role that sits outside the structure of ACT Government directorates. 
  3. The Conservator of Flora and Fauna and the Environment Protection Authority are appointed by the Minister for the Environment and reviewable by the ACT Legislative Assembly. 
  4. There be a public inquiry into the constitution, appointment and functions of the ACT’s environmental statutory position holders, with a view of improving their independence from government.

How environmental laws and policies are administered by the ACT Government and environmental statutory office holders, is critical to achieving substantive environmental outcomes. It is essential that there are best practice environmental governance arrangements in place to ensure that fundamental democratic and accountability principles are upheld in relation to environmental management. The most robust environmental governance arrangements involve multiple layers of accountability and oversight for environmental decision-making, to safeguard the proper execution of environmental laws. This recommendation aims to strengthen these processes and arrangements by strengthening the independence of statutory positions. 

Develop climate change adaptation plans for key sectors in the ACT, such as for health, education, built infrastructure, and natural environments.

Our climate has already changed and will continue to do so over many decades to come. This requires thorough consideration of how we live in a warming world and how people, communities and the environment can be resilient in the face of extraordinary change. Acting now to build our climate resilience will give Canberra benefits right now and can help us reduce devastating future climate impacts. Comprehensively understanding and planning for climate risks in key sectors is necessary and this report has found that this is a current policy gap in the ACT. 

Develop and implement an extreme heat policy which addresses impacts of heat on the environment and communities of the ACT, and consider establishing a chief heat officer. The chief heat officer would oversee the implementation of heat wave-related preparedness, response and recovery and coordinate effort across government, private sector and community.

The ACT is particularly vulnerable to climate change and particularly to changes in extreme heat. Extreme heat already poses enormous risks to people and the environment; risks that increase with further warming. To meet this challenge and reduce these risks a focused extreme heat policy is required for the ACT. In addition, the appointment of a chief heat officer is recommended. This particular position has been established in other cities, such as Melbourne. These officials are responsible for unifying their governments’ responses to extreme heat. They are charged with accelerating existing heat protection efforts and initiating new work to reduce the risks and impacts of extreme heat for their residents and constituents.

Measure and report on the impacts of climate change on health outcomes in the ACT by investing in data collection across ACT Health and EPSDD, and engaging in partnerships with health service providers and research institutions.

While climate change is already impacting all locations, the impacts in each place are specific and affect those populations in particular ways. The general body of research into climate change and health impacts is valuable but cannot replace locally specific information collected in (and relevant to) a region. To redress this gap, we must be purposefully collecting data on climate change related to health outcomes in the ACT now. This requires strong partnerships with health services providers and the ACT’s world class research institutions. 

Ensure that climate change resilience-related design requirements are mandatory outcomes in the development application assessment process.

The Planning System Review and Reform Project promised the delivery of better outcomes for people, communities and the environment of the ACT. The changes finalised in the Planning Act 2023 include a set of design guides that “can deliver diverse and well-designed buildings and spaces that cater for residents and Canberrans”. However, design guides are not used for single dwellings and conventional housing on a suburban block. Additionally, the contents of the guides are not mandatory requirements for development approval. Consideration of climate change resilience requires more than just the suggestions included within the design guides. Climate change resilience in design of buildings must be mandatory outcomes of the development application process. 

Set scope 3 emissions reduction targets for ACT Government operations and report on these publicly.

The ACT Government is a global leader on climate action. We committed to ambitious emissions reductions targets, such as net zero emissions by 2045, and we were the first jurisdiction in Australia to reach 100% renewable energy in 2020. This means that we have reduced scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Since this turning point in 2020, greenhouse emissions reduction strategies have focused on scope 1 emissions (e.g. from travel, agriculture and waste disposal). However, this approach does not include all emissions relating to the ACT, such as scope 3 emissions, which are those released outside the city as a result of activities occurring inside its boundaries. Our scope 3 emissions are equal to almost 94% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. The ACT Government must now start to measure and reduce its scope 3 emissions.

Include information on scope 3 emissions in all of ACT Government’s community education material relating to climate, waste and low-carbon living.

The ACT community is highly engaged on issues of sustainability and climate change and is seeking additional information on implementing low carbon practices into their lives. Current community education material produced by the ACT Government does not include information on scope 3 emissions and this is a significant gap in delivery of materials to an eager community concerned about climate change. 

Develop a publicly available circular economy business and organisation directory for ACT community members.

The circular economy seeks to reduce the environmental impacts of production and consumption through the more efficient use of resources. The ACT community has a strong interest in sustainability and supporting businesses that prioritise circular economy principles. An online directory of businesses and organisations would provide invaluable information to the Canberra community, as well as providing additional opportunities for connections between these organisations. 

Establish an online circular business hub to build capability for the circular economy, to support businesses to identify and implement circular business models and practices.

A circular economy requires us to make profound changes to how we design, manufacture, sell, use, and dispose of products, calling for innovations in product design and business models to embed circular principles. Development of an online circular business hub will help support Canberra businesses to move to more circular models. 

Conduct and publish waste audits of domestic kerbside waste, landfill and transfer waste, and the Materials Recovery Facility every two years.

The regular collection of comprehensive and accurate data is essential for understanding trends and effectiveness of policy interventions over time. In 2022, the ACT Government audited kerbside domestic waste, landfill and transfer station waste, and the Hume Material Recovery Facility inputs and outputs. The previous audits were undertaken in 2014, meaning there was a period of eight years without data to inform decision-making. To ensure effective waste management in the ACT, these audits need to be conducted and published every two years. 

Develop a mechanism to incentivise reuse and redevelopment of existing building structures and materials on-site in preference to a knock-down-rebuild approach. For example, rebates for homeowners and subsidies for construction businesses which reuse materials.

The built environment is a major contributor to resource consumption and climate change, accounting for 40% of energy-related global carbon emissions and 50% of all materials consumed. Reusing and recycling construction materials is a key intervention to reduce material consumption, which also has co-benefits for emissions reductions. The simplest and most effective way to retain construction materials is to reuse and redevelop existing sites rather than prevalent knock-down-rebuild approaches. 

Commit to achieving best practice thermal comfort and energy efficiency standards in the maintenance, repair, modification and construction of public housing.

There are currently 11,611 houses in the ACT public housing portfolio and this number is growing. The ACT Government has sole responsibility for management of these houses and ensuring they meet the current and future needs of tenants. These homes provide an ideal target for demonstrating best practice thermal comfort and energy efficiency standards for residential homes. By using this portfolio to promote best practice, the ACT Government will demonstrate leadership and an ideal pathway for Canberra residents to emulate in their home maintenance, repair, modification and construction activities. 

Provide publicly accessible, locally relevant real-time assessments of air quality that incorporate data from air quality monitoring stations, citizen science observations, air quality modelling and an up-to-date air pollution inventory.

Clean air is a fundamental requirement to our human health. Smoke from the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires and winter wood heater use have impacts on the physical and mental health of Canberrans. Climate change may bring an increase in the frequency of severe bushfire smoke events in the ACT. Up-to-date, accurate and locally-relevant data is essential for managing the health impacts of air pollution. Currently our air quality monitoring network has only two National Environment Protection Measure) compliant monitoring stations (Monash and Florey), with a third non-compliant station at Civic. The Air Quality Index (AQI) readings provided by ACT Health are averaged over periods of up to 24 hours for some pollutants. This means that community members are not able to protect themselves based on information provided to them. This recommendation addresses this critical gap. 

Research the long-term effects of bushfire smoke exposure on physical and mental health trajectories in Canberra.

The impact of the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires and related smoke were wide-reaching, impacting the health, wellbeing and daily lives of the ACT community. High levels of bushfire smoke-related air pollution can impair respiratory and cardiovascular functioning, exacerbate respiratory disease (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and alter immune function. Data from studies conducted in the ACT following the 2019–20 bushfire season showed that the bushfire and smoke events had significant mental health impacts on ACT residents. There was substantial public concern about the long-term physical health impacts of smoke exposure, especially in higher risk groups (e.g., the elderly, children and, people with pre-existing medical conditions). Further research is required to fill this important knowledge gap. 

Measure and publicly report on the actual area of land use change, rather than desktop assessments which are reliant on planning zones instead of physical changes.

The quality of data on land use in the ACT is poor. Assessments of change rely on estimates which are derived from planning zones. These estimates do not measure actual physical changes in land use. Consequently, it is currently not possible to accurately determine the actual changes in land use over time. This is a significant limitation for land assessments in the ACT. This recommendation would remedy this limitation through measuring and reporting on actual changes in land use rather than relying on estimates. 

Ensure urban forest management policy objectives are sufficiently supported through additional resourcing for maintenance, renewal and enhancement of the urban forest.

Canberra’s urban forest provides habitat for wildlife, reduces air pollution, improves our health and wellbeing and provides shade to cool our city. Canberra’s Living Infrastructure Plan aims to increase the total canopy cover (or equivalent) across the urban footprint to 30% by 2045. To achieve this goal and other urban forest management objectives, additional resourcing to support our urban forests is required. 

Provide additional support across ACT Government to ensure tree canopy cover targets are met through undertaking a review of urban forest pressures from construction and development of public (including service upgrades) and private infrastructure, and allocate resources to implement findings.

The ACT Government’s urban infill policy aims for 70% of new housing to be built within Canberra’s existing urban footprint. Supporting urban densification is important to limit urban spread however infill development places significant pressure on the existing urban forest. This pressure comes primarily from the competition for limited available space for infrastructure upgrades and construction activities. To ensure the tree canopy cover target of 30% by 2045 is met, additional support is required. This recommendation suggests a review of these emerging pressures be undertaken and that resources are allocated to implement findings. 

Protect Matters of National Environmental Significance by prohibiting all development activities that impact listed threatened species and ecological communities. This recognises that the adverse effects of development are cumulative and cannot be compensated for by offsets for Matters of National Environmental Significance.

Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) include listed threatened species and ecological communities. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) is Australia’s key environmental legislation and focuses on MNES. Offsets are a framework that aim to compensate for negative impacts on the environment of development. The idea behind offsets is that actions are taken to improve habitat and biodiversity elsewhere to compensate for harms in another location. However, the adverse effects of development cannot be compensated for when threatened species and ecological communities are concerned. There is a cumulative impact on these Matters and offsets should not be used. 

Legislate environmental offset requirements by setting clear limits on the use of offsets, such that they are permitted only after all reasonable measures have been taken to avoid impacts, and requiring detailed assessments of offset feasibility prior to approval.

Environmental offsetting has been practiced in Australia for over 20 years. However, in most cases we are simply unable to tell whether unavoidable biodiversity losses have been compensated with equivalent biodiversity gains. One of the main issues associated with offsets is that the “avoidance, mitigation, offset” hierarchy is not applied in practice in Australia. While this is embedded within policy, it is not embedded within the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) itself. To improve on conservation outcomes, we must legislate requirements and limit the use of offsets. 

Publish evaluations of the conservation outcomes of all environmental offsets in the public domain every five years. Publication of the performance of offsets should be a statutory requirement stipulated in the Planning Act 2023.

The ACT has a publicly accessible offset register, but the information in the register is still not sufficient to evaluate whether or not offsets have achieved — or are on track to achieving — their stated goals. For example, the ACT Offset Register provides spatial information on the locations of offset sites, and links to further information (including detailed management plans), but not key calculations on the predicted or confirmed biodiversity gains. Without this information, the public will continue to remain largely in the dark on whether offsets are truly compensating for the loss of biodiversity permitted under federal and Territory environmental laws and policy. To rectify these gaps, evaluations must be published in the public domain on a regular, legislated schedule. 

Expand reserved land to protect threatened woodlands and grasslands and the species dependent on these ecosystems.

Canberra’s parks and reserves make up 60% of the ACT and provide critically important areas for conservation. However, many threatened species and a large proportion of threatened ecological communities fall outside these reserved land areas. For example, 64% of Southern Tableland Grassy Woodlands are outside reserves. There are five threatened flora species with a substantial proportion of known locations outside ACT reserve areas. To adequately protect these impacted species and ecosystems, expansion of our reserved land is necessary. 

Ensure that land for biodiversity is integrated into all new suburbs by including planned native habitat patches in the same way as playgrounds and playing fields are planned.

While development in the ACT considers the need for greenspace in several ways, urban biodiversity remains vastly undervalued. Land must be put aside for nature. The Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design Guide applies to the planning and design of sites and aims to reduce loss of native habitat and biodiversity and ensure biodiversity connectivity. This considers Canberra’s ‘blue–green network’ of major potential habitat areas and the ecological corridors which connect and support them. Urban open space is included in the blue–green network. These are public lands such as district parks, playing fields, pedestrian/cycle pathways, equestrian trails and landscape buffers. There is scope for urban greenspace whose primary designed purpose is to provide habitat for native species to be created outside of the reserve system. Human use of these sites would be secondary to the primary purpose of habitat provision. 

Increase the capacity to monitor and regulate Construction Environment Management Plans (particularly those that are required under Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Significance Opinions approval processes), and enforce penalties for non-compliance.

Construction Environment Management Plans are produced by development proponents as part of development applications when there is a risk that construction might harm the environment. These Plans should outline how environmental impacts will be minimised during construction and development projects. The Plans can be thought of as the last safeguard to protect threatened species and ecological communities from development activities. This safeguard only works with adequate enforcement on part of the ACT Government. Otherwise, there is a potential that construction activities will result in preventable detrimental environmental impacts. 

Improve water quality in the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee rivers downstream of Lake Burley Griffin by monitoring the impacts of greenfield development on water quality and report on these impacts and management actions publicly.

The 2022 State of the Lakes and Waterways in the ACT investigation recommended that the ACT Government should pay more attention to impacts on water quality during construction and land development. This report has found these issues remain a problem. In 2020, turbidity levels downstream of the ACT experienced guideline exceedances for 85% of the days monitored and increased to 100% in 2021. New land developments on the ACT’s western edge have no large lake to reduce potential downstream impacts and urban development is degrading water quality downstream of the ACT. This recommendation aims to improve the quality of water leaving the ACT.

Revise hazard reduction burning practices to ensure a balance between ecological damage and protection of human life and infrastructure in light of the following:

  1. Evidence that prescribed burns are less effective under the extreme and catastrophic bushfire conditions that are predicted to become more commonplace under climate change.
  2. The increased frequency of unplanned bushfires in the ACT, including very severe bushfires in wilderness areas, which are already exceeding the tolerable fire intervals for many species even without prescribed burns.
  3. The general decrease in native habitat which is in good condition across the region.

Conservation land is going to provide the greatest management challenge for ACT under shifting climates and fire regimes. Currently the predicted rate of climatic change far exceeds the migration potential of many species, particularly those with long generation times. Intensification of fire regimes will increase the pressure on many species and communities, potentially resulting in shifting ecological formations. Conservation management will need to consider a range of in situ and ex situ conservation actions to reduce the risk of species’ extinctions.

Hazard reduction burns (note this excludes ecological and cultural burns where these are being conducted for conservation purposes) should be minimised and where possible avoided in areas where native vegetation is in good condition. This should not be limited to vegetation communities listed as threatened under legislation or areas supporting threatened species. In the context of a climate and biodiversity crisis it does not make sense to limit protection efforts to species and communities which are already under threat. Management should consider all remaining native habitat as a critical and irreplaceable asset. Hazard reduction burns should therefore weigh the cost of burning natural areas in these terms.

Prioritise bushfire protection for sites of ecological significance in legislation and fire management plans by

  1. Evaluating ecologically significant sites (e.g. nature reserves) and assets (e.g. mature hollow-bearing trees) to identify those that cannot regenerate or be replaced if destroyed by fire.
  2. Reviewing the asset protection hierarchy during fire control operations so that built infrastructure does not automatically receive a higher level of protection than biodiversity.
  3. Stipulating the responsibility for protection of sites with ecological significance.

In the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20 it was clear that across Australia, nature was not sufficiently considered in fire control operations. This recommendation aims to increase protections for nature, while acknowledging that the protection hierarchy must consider the safety and wellbeing of people first. Within this critical consideration, it is also clear the biodiversity is not clearly replaceable in the same way that other assets and built infrastructure may be. Asset protection hierarchy in fire control operations should not inevitably be ordered that infrastructure is more valuable than nature. We should evaluate and prioritise the significance of high biodiversity value sites in a manner that is similar to how we value and assess risks to infrastructure and human life.