Air quality and waste management

This content forms a part of our issue briefing on sustainable cities and communities.

SDG 11.6 By 2030, reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.

SoE 2016: Built environment: Related key finding: “Activities associated with the built environment consume significant natural resources, but the efficiency of use of energy and water has improved recently.”

Although there is no agreed measure of per capita environmental impact, one approach is to calculate the ecological footprint of per capita consumption, relative to an average global measure of biological productivity (referred to as a “global hectare”) in a given year. This in turn allows a standardised understanding of how to live within a city, nation, or planetary means; a balance that has not been met since before 1970, with current world resource consumption requiring an estimated 1.7 “Earths” to sustain it. The long-term trend in Australian per capita ecological footprints, as calculated by the Global Footprint Network, is shown in Figure 6.

Ecological footprint

The bulk of Australian citizens’ ecological footprint is made up of consumption of fossil fuels and other emissions of greenhouse gases, with per capita emissions decreasing to 21.5 tonnes CO2-e, a reduction from 28 tonnes CO2-e, a decade earlier.

This is broadly consistent with observations in the SoE 2016 report that noted improvements to energy efficiency when considered on a per capita basis (despite overall emissions continuing to rise nationally). Other major contributors are derived from food production and forestry; industries that while not located within cities provide material goods and sustenance for their inhabitants.

As highlighted in the SoE 2016 report, Australian urban air quality is consistently viewed favourably compared with most global cities, as evidenced by the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Ambient Air Pollution Database. Annual mean measurements of PM2.5 and PM10, for instance, remain within WHO guidelines (10 μg/m3 and 20 μg/m3 respectively) in all of the 46 Australian cities listed in the 2014/2016 database.

In contrast, an estimated 91 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to higher than recommended PM2.5 levels. Measures of indoor air quality continue to lack effective data collection and analysis in both residential buildings and workplaces, despite their potentially significant impacts on human health.

Australian cities are producing more waste on both a total and a per capita basis, with 48 Mt being generated Australia-wide in 2010/11, equivalent to 2.1 tonnes per person. Although this represented an increase of 9 per cent from 2006/07, Australia’s disposed tonnage — waste to landfill — decreased by 9.5 per cent, with resource recovery reaching a record level of 60 per cent.

However, following an effective halt in Chinese importation of recyclable materials in early 2018, much of Australia’s collected recyclable materials are being stockpiled. China previously imported more than 58 per cent of Australia’s exported recyclable cardboard and 26 per cent of recyclable plastics. State and municipal governments are now having to examine new approaches to resource reduction, reuse and recovery in cities.

More on this topic