Population growth forecast

The growth rates of some of Australia’s capital cities are some of the highest in the developed world and these have placed growing pressure on the urban environment to expand either upwards (in terms of urban density) or outwards (in terms of urban sprawl). Most growth (76%) in the past decade has occurred in Australia’s 18 largest cities, with 39% of the existing population located in Melbourne and Sydney alone.

Despite the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on population growth and spread across Australia (see COVID-19 pandemic), revised forecasts continue to expect strong population growth across the country. It is now expected that Australia’s overall population will reach just over 28.7 million people by 2031 (Centre for Population 2021).

Current forecasts anticipate that the proportion of people living within Australia’s 18 largest cities will decline over the coming years by 7 basis points to 69% (Table 20). Notwithstanding this, Melbourne and Sydney are still expected to grow by 19% and 11%, respectively, to host 42% of Australia’s population by 2031. Indeed, all capital cities and states are expected to experience positive population growth, apart from the area outside of Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Table 20 Projected population growth

City or region



Net increase

Change (%)






Rest of NSW










Rest of Victoria










Rest of Queensland










Rest of WA










Rest of SA















Rest of Tasmania










Rest of NT





Total Australia





ACT = Australian Capital Territory; NSW = New South Wales; NT = Northern Territory; SA = South Australia; WA = Western Australia

Source: Centre for Population (2021)

Australia’s significant housing growth has been exemplified by the rapid rate of housing construction activity in Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, which has been high by international standards. In 2018, Australia produced housing faster than any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country apart from South Korea, at 8.2 completions per 1,000 people. In 2010, the rate was 6.8 per 1,000.

Looking forward, the strong growth forecasts (Table 21) indicate that this high level of housing construction will need to continue. Reflecting this anticipated need, state and territory urban planning authorities are targeting an additional 121,000 dwellings on average each year to meet demand or an additional 1.2 million homes across Australia over the next decade. This increase is the equivalent to an 11% increase on all existing dwellings in the country.

The most significant dwelling increases being planned for are in Greater Sydney (more than 36,800 per year) Greater Melbourne (43,000) and Perth (20,500). Collectively, these 3 cities are planning to build 100,000 new homes a year or 82% of all new dwellings in Australia. These same 3 states have parallel job targets to meet the needs of these new residents.

Table 21 Targeted housing and employment growth by capital city, 2016–31


Housing target

Average annual housing targeta

Employment target

Adelaide (SA Government Attorney-General’s Department 2017)

248,000 by 2045



Brisbane (Queensland Government 2017)

188,200 by 2041



Canberra (ACT Government 2018)

100,000 by 2041



Darwin (based on calculations from DLPE 2015)

48,000 by 2055–65



Hobart (STCA 2011)

26,500 by 2035



Melbourne (DELWP 2017)

1,550,000 by 2051


+690,000 by 2031

Perth (DPLH 2018)

800,000 by 2050 


+834,000 by 2050

Sydney (Greater Sydney Commission 2018)

736,000 by 2036


+817,000 by 2036

n/a = not available

  1. Averaged calculated by authors based on overall housing target and target year.
  2. South Australia is targeting more than 43,500 additional jobs across 9 key sectors in its State Growth plan (SA Government 2021).

Drivers of growth

Much of Australia’s population growth has been driven by overseas immigration (see Figure 15). Cities such as Sydney and Melbourne traditionally experience significant levels of immigration, with many immigrants subsequently moving out to other urban areas across Australia (outmigration). However, these trends are fluctuating. For example, in recent years, Greater Sydney has experienced a lower rate of out migration because of higher levels of employment in the city compared with regional areas.

In 2020, government-imposed restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant changes to immigration. The ban was initially on those travelling to Australia from China on 1 February 2020 and by 20 March 2020 all overseas travel was banned.

Between March 2019 and March 2020, overseas migration to Australia was 220,500 people (ABS 2021d). In 2021, it is forecast to drop to 34,000 (about 15% of the previous year) (Prime Minister of Australia 2020). Conversely for 2019–20, the number of Australian-born citizens returning to Australia increased through the year, from –12,360 to 19,220, reflecting the call for citizens to return home at the start of the pandemic (ABS 2021c).

Figure 15 Net overseas migration to Australia, 1971–72 to 2019–20

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are also expected to have had significant impacts to interstate migration. New South Wales had the highest net loss through interstate migration during 2019–20, when 110,760 people moved to another state or territory, but only 89,873 moved to New South Wales, resulting in a loss of 20,887 (Figure 16). Greater Sydney also had the greatest negative migration at –30,087. Over the same period, Queensland had the highest net interstate migration at 25,348.

While fluctuations in interstate migration are not uncommon, one suggestion is that the growth in the net loss of population from capital cities in the September quarter was not the result of a city exodus but rather because fewer people moved into capital cities in 2020. That is, without international migrants moving to capital cities, the long-term trend of people relocating to urban areas around major cities has become more apparent. Caution is therefore suggested in concluding that net migration from capital cities is an indicator of decreasing satisfaction with city lifestyles or a growing desire for rural lifestyles. These changes may mask the considerable variability in the types of moves people are making, where they are going and why (Davies 2021).

Figure 16 Net interstate migration, 2019–20

Natural increase is another driver of population growth. Fertility rates are influenced by confidence in the economic environment (i.e. people may decide to defer having a child until conditions improve). The COVID-19 pandemic has also affected citizen confidence, potentially influencing already declining fertility rates across Australia. The Australian Government has predicted that, in the longer term, fertility may decline to the lowest ever levels for Australia. This continues a pattern we have been seeing for decades where successive generations of women are having fewer children (Centre for Population 2020).

The combined implications of migration, fertility levels and the impact of COVID-19 on immigration on population growth across the country have been remarkable and led 2020 to show the slowest population growth since World War 1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) modelling shows that, under a worst-case scenario, Australia’s population in 2040 will be 31.8 million people – 1.4 million people or 4% less than if COVID-19 had not happened (Charles-Edwards et al. 2021).

Urban densification and expansion

How recent changes to projected population growth will affect the shape and extent of our urban areas and the distribution of growth across Australia is yet to play out. Reduced population growth could reduce pressure on the need to expand our existing urban areas or create new ones. Conversely, changes to how we work and to our lifestyle (i.e. seeking better access to green spaces) could result in greater demand for homes with bigger backyards on the lower-density urban fringe.

Discussions with lead planning authorities in Victoria and South Australia have identified that, during 2021, demand for development within greenfield areas on the fringes of existing urban areas has been high. National Market reports verify this view – in the March 2021 quarter, a new record in terms of activity was established for the greenfield housing market at 6,219 net lot sales per month (65,000 annualised). A significant component of this growth occurred in the Melbourne market, where the March 2021 quarter saw sales increase by 49% compared with the same time the year before (Research4 2021).

This significant growth in demand and subsequent supply (Figure 17) is expected to be in part a result of national schemes to stimulate economic activity such as the Home Builder Subsidy in addition to lifestyle choices spurred on by events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This observation is supported by a national study by Infrastructure NSW that shows significant increases in the number of dwelling approvals since the introduction of the economic stimulus.

Figure 17 Number of private sector houses approved and new borrower-accepted loan commitments, September 2010 to September 2020

The same Infrastructure NSW study found that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s shifts towards working from home for many, housing preferences have shifted marginally to larger dwellings with an increased desirability for additional space for a home office or garden. Key word searches for dwellings with a home office increased by 605% between June 2020 and March 2020, balcony by 50% and garden by 19% (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). At the same time, stagnating median apartment prices have indicated a reduced demand for denser inner urban living and the construction of higher-density apartment blocks has slowed.

While the expansion of our urban areas provides additional – and, in some cases larger and more affordable – homes than brownfield areas, they also present notable pressures to the urban and natural environment. In the case of the urban environment, pressures include:

  • the need for expanded or new infrastructure, often resulting in a delay in service provision and additional cost to the householder to fund the new infrastructure (Garrard et al. 2015)
  • the potential for reduced access to local services and jobs, leading to higher transport and energy costs, reduced walkability and increased social isolation (Garrard et al. 2015)
  • conflicts with food production, as many cities have traditionally been located close to fertile and high food–production areas.

For the natural environment and green spaces, the potential pressures from greater urban expansion include:

  • land clearing, which is the main cause of biodiversity loss in Australia. Land clearing also exacerbates erosion and salinity, reduces water quality, increases the impact of drought and contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions (PIA 2016)
  • less greenspace and tree canopy cover, at least in the early decades, as existing vegetation is cleared for new development and new vegetation takes time to grow. This can result in significantly greater heat in these areas and reduced rates of walking and cycling for residents
  • fewer gardens and thus biodiversity. ‘New suburbs in Australia have significantly less cumulative areas of private gardens compared to established suburbs’ (Farahani et al. 2018:4)
  • greater pressure on our coasts and waterways. These high-value areas are attractive locations for homes, yet they are often sensitive ecosystems that suffer from the impacts of buildings and infrastructure.

The increased rates of urban fringe development occurring in some locations represent a notable contrast to urban planning policies that encourage inner-city living (see Management approaches). An alternative scenario could occur where more people move from larger urban areas altogether to more regional urban areas, helping to ease pressures on our major cities (see Figure 18). During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that net migration from the capital cities to regional areas increased by 200% (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). A survey by Infrastructure NSW in 2020 found that more than 1 in 10 survey respondents moved during the pandemic, with most of these households moving away from inner cities. This resulting in relatively weaker inner-city housing demand, increased vacancy rates in capital cities and anecdotal evidence of 10–20% increases in regional property prices (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

However, there is much debate as to whether this shift towards more regional urban areas is a real and lasting response, or just a short-term trend or the natural in-and-out migration patterns of people from major urban areas (Lennox 2020, Davies 2021).

Figure 18 Net migration from Australian capital cities to regional areas, 2012–20

Travel demand

Travel is a key pressure on the urban ecosystem. As urban areas expand and increase in complexity, more people will need to travel further and to multiple destinations, often increasing reliance on less sustainable methods of travel by private car. The growing need to travel has varying impacts on the environment (e.g. pollution) and our wellbeing (e.g. physical and mental health effects of longer periods spent travelling). The environmental challenges associated with growing travel also has direct physical health impacts to wellbeing: in 2019, there were 1,103 fatal car crashes and 22 fatal aviation accidents in Australia (BITRE 2020b).

Passenger travel methods and times

Most Australians travel by car. Based on passenger transport activity (measured in terms of 1 passenger moving 1 kilometre), in 2019–20, 157.5 billion passenger-kilometres were travelled by car on capital city roads compared with 11.5 billion passenger-kilometres travelled on heavy rail networks. In 2018–19, total vehicle travel (including commercial vehicles) was 214 billion kilometres, steadily increasing from 204 billion in 2014–15 (Figure 19).

The only notable change to the trend of increasing travel by all modes was in 2019–20, when total vehicle travel reduced to 196 billion passenger-kilometres because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (Figure 20).

In metropolitan areas, travel by rail has also been increasing (Figure 21). As of 2017–18, there were 726 million heavy rail passenger-kilometres travelled, up from 588 million 10 years before (BITRE 2020a). This positive trend was also abated by the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air travel has been most affected by the pandemic. Having steadily increased since 2001, in 2019–20 there were 30.7 million passengers on international flights across Australia, down from 42.1 million the year before. During the same period, there were 45.2 million passengers on domestic flights, down from 60.2 million the year before. Sydney Airport was the busiest in the country, with 32.2 million passengers using the facility in 2019–20, down from 44.4 million in 2018–19 (BITRE 2020a). These declines are likely to be even greater when 2021 figures are included.

Figure 19 Australian domestic passenger task, by mode of transport, 1979–80 to 2017–18

Figure 20 Total metropolitan passenger-kilometres travelled by road in Australian capital cities, 1994–95 to 2019–20

Figure 21 Total metropolitan passenger-kilometres travelled by rail in Australian capital cities, 1990–91 to 2019–20

Freight transport

The Australian domestic freight task has been increasing strongly for the past 40 years, with road and rail freight now dominating domestic freight activity. The rapid growth in rail freight task through the mining boom period (2003–12) has largely been driven by rail’s movement of iron ore in the Pilbara region (Irannezhad & Hine 2019) (Figure 22).

Freight transport activity is measured in terms of tonne-kilometres (the movement of 1 tonne of freight by 1 kilometre). In 2019–20, there were 224.2 billion tonne-kilometres of freight moved by road and in 2015–16 there were 413.5 billion tonne-kilometres of freight moved by rail (BITRE 2020a).

Figure 22 Australian domestic freight task, by mode of transport, 1974–75 to 2019–20

Urban congestion

After the COVID-19 pandemic, it is expected that demand to travel across our urban environments will return to the former growth trend. This will place greater pressure on our road and rail infrastructure, which will exacerbate existing levels of congestion and demand for new or augmented infrastructure. Urban congestion across Australia is estimated to have cost more than $19 billion in 2016, increasing from $16.5 billion in 2015. This cost is forecasted to reach between $39.8 billion by 2031 (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

Growing congestion translates into longer commutes and travel times, which in turn increases carbon dioxide emissions. For example, road vehicles contributed 85% of direct greenhouse gas emissions that were generated from all transport modes in 2019–20, compared with 8% from aviation (BITRE 2020b).

Increasing demand to travel also places greater demand on the funding of new transport infrastructure. Despite the growing demand, transport infrastructure expenditure for the public sector peaked in 2009–10 in association with government stimulus. It has been modestly rising once again since 2014–15 (Figure 23).

Private sector spending on transport-related infrastructure peaked in 2012–13, driven largely by demand by mining (BITRE 2020b). As of 2019–20, 51% of infrastructure construction was in the transport sector, with governments spending $28.5 billion in 2018–19 on roads alone.

Figure 23 Value of transport infrastructure spending, 1986–87 to 2019–20

Resource consumption

As growing centres of human and economic activity, our urban areas are increasingly consuming material and energy resources, necessitating investment in the associated infrastructure. Despite this, investment in transport, water and energy infrastructure has declined since its peak 8–10 years ago (Figure 24). Conversely, telecommunications infrastructure expenditure has been steadily increasing over the past 3 decades (BITRE 2020b).

Figure 24 Infrastructure construction activity, adjusted by chain volume index, 1986–87 to 2019–20


Australian water consumption levels are some of the highest in the world. This fact is anticipated to hold constant with significant increases predicted to 2026 (+39% in consumption levels) and 2056 (+64%) compared with 2009 levels – a total increase of around 1,000 gigalitres each year (Infrastructure Australia 2019). Infrastructure Australia cautions that even these significant increases could be underestimated given our tendency to underestimate long-term population growth in Australia. Indeed, these figures were based on population projections that were on average 18% lower than the most recent ABS estimates, although they do not account for population adjustments following the COVID-19 pandemic (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

A report by Infrastructure Australia in December 2020 found that water consumption had seen little impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, with infrastructure capacity already in place to accommodate significant peaks (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). However, a survey of all councils in Australia undertaken for this report asked whether water supply and security has been an issue in the past 24 months; 42% of respondents answered ‘yes’.

It is anticipated that pressures on water supplies will increase with climate change, as supply is reduced at the same time as demand is increased. As identified by Infrastructure Australia, ‘of all the forms of infrastructure, the potential risks and costs of climate change are greatest in the water sector’ (Infrastructure Australia 2019). These trends will be exacerbated in the south-eastern parts of Australia that are experiencing a long-term decline in rainfall yet have most of the existing and forecast population growth.

For Australian citizens, growth in urban water and sewerage service prices is placing greater pressure on household budgets, with a notable shift in prices in capital cities occurring over the past decade (Figure 25).

Figure 25 Urban water and sewerage Consumer Price Index by Australian capital city, 1998 to 2020

Regional areas

Water supply is a particular challenge for smaller and more regional urban environments that are located away from the coasts. These environments have a more dispersed population across larger areas, and do not have the critical mass of population to generate the economies of scale required for major water and wastewater facilities. Most regional areas rely on surface or bore water without the benefits of alternative sources such as desalination or recycled water systems.

These communities often rely on councils to provide water services rather than larger, cross-jurisdictional water utilities. In New South Wales and Queensland there are approximately 115 water providers with fewer than 10,000 connections, 48 of which have fewer than 1,500 connections (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

This dispersed and segregated approach affects the standard of service and the level of supply for customers. It reduces urban resilience because communities rely on a single supply source. This fragmented approach can also result in reduced rates of reporting, monitoring, auditing and benchmarking of water quality and provision. For example, ‘utilities with fewer than 10,000 connections are not included in the BOM’s (Bureau of Meteorology’s) national performance report, and those utilities that do report often provide unreliable and inconsistent data’ (Infrastructure Australia 2019:615).

These challenges present a significant impediment to not only the sustainability of regional areas and the quality of their urban environments, but their potential for growth.

Remote areas

Smaller and more-remote communities rely on more local sources for their water, which can often have a lower standard of supply and quality compared with more urban areas. These areas have a broader array of water and wastewater assets, including:

  • discrete rural water bores, reservoirs and pumping stations
  • local on-farm tanks, dams, levees and other storages
  • septic tanks and other treatment and disposal systems for residential purposes.

The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 found that water and wastewater assets in some remote communities were poorly maintained, routinely failed or provided services at a standard below their intended design. In the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, many remote communities had water quality levels that fail to meet the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines. This is primarily because most of the drinking water is supplied from groundwater sources that have high concentrations of naturally occurring minerals and chemical contaminants (Infrastructure Australia 2019).

Many more-remote areas have a higher representation of Indigenous people (Infrastructure Australia 2019). Water plays a key role in these communities for not only drinking and sanitation, but for emotional wellbeing, recreation and culture. Limited access to, or reduced quality of, water can compound health issues and increase risks of disease and infection, exacerbating social disadvantage.

Infrastructure Australia points to ‘clear evidence that services in many of these remote communities do not meet United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Clean water and sanitation for all, and work against the achievement of broader national objectives, including the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap targets’ (Infrastructure Australia 2019:619).

Impacts of water pressures

Risks to water security associated with climate change present a challenge for our wellbeing and that of the environment. Our water supply relies heavily on rainfall to replenish storages, streams and groundwater. Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 audit found that the reduction in average winter rainfall in south-west Australia has caused a 50% reduction in urban run-off over the past 50 years (Infrastructure Australia 2019), leading to declining streamflows across the southern and south-east regions.

Warmer temperatures associated with climate change are likely to increase the risk of bacterial contamination and blue–green algal outbreaks. Extreme weather events such as bushfires, flooding and coastal inundation may also damage assets or disrupt wastewater treatment processes. When systems fail, there is a risk to the quality of our drinking water and broader urban environment because of sewer water overflow, and debris and sediments washed into creeks, rivers and dams.

The increases in severe rainfall events with climate change will place pressure on the ability of existing urban infrastructure to cope. This is particularly a challenge for older stormwater systems, treatment plants and sewerage networks located in established city areas. Larger and more frequent rainfall events may cause greater load, reduced efficiencies and increased breakage, which may disrupt service delivery. These effects may also require repair, extension and augmentation, which will increase costs. These effects are likely to have impacts on wellbeing, and the costs are most likely to be passed onto the end user – the citizen.


Electricity use has almost doubled since 1986–87 (BITRE 2020a). The source of this energy varies notably by state and territory, with coal continuing to provide more than 33% of primary energy used in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland in 2019–20. In the case of Western Australian and the Northern Territory, more than 50% of the primary energy was sourced from natural gas. Renewables accounted for 48% of the primary energy mix in Tasmania. Oil comprised at least 33% of energy consumption across all states, and 25% of energy consumption in the Northern Territory.

A study by Infrastructure Australia in December 2020 found that, during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, overall demand for electricity and gas remained level, with differences in the distribution of demand between households and business (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). The same research found that, in Victoria, lower commercial demand (approximately –20%) was offset by higher residential demand (approximately 10–40%) due to the prolonged lockdown, with flexible working driving a softening in the early evening peak. Energy demand also shifted from the CBD to outer suburbs and regional areas as more Victorians adapted to remote working. But once lockdown measures were removed in New South Wales and Queensland, consumption largely recovered (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

The overall growth in energy demand and the cost of electricity is requiring us to change how we generate our energy, with a growing proportion being sourced from renewable sources. There has also been a notable shift in the design of our energy systems, with a move in thinking away from a more linear, centralised model of energy production and storage towards a more distributed approach.

Solar energy

The growth in solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery systems has been a major contributor to the shift to using more renewable energy sources. As more homes and businesses adopt the emerging technology, energy sourced from solar has experienced significant growth (+58%) over the past 10 years (Figure 26), while energy generated by wind has grown at 17% over the same period (BITRE 2020a).

More than 1.5 million distributed solar PV systems are now installed across the country – one of the highest per-person rates in the world (ASBEC 2016). According to the Australian Government, more than 21% of homes in Australia have rooftop solar PV systems (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). Importantly, solar PV systems are also now being incorporated into a broader range of buildings, including industrial roofs and schools.

State government bodies have created incentives for solar energy – for example:

  • In July 2020, the Victorian Government announced an expansion to the state’s Solar Homes Program to renters and landlords. Landlords can now apply for an interest-free loan on top of the existing rebate of up to $1,850.
  • In November 2020, the New South Wales Government unveiled a $32 billion renewable energy plan with focus on pumped hydro, increasing the share of renewable energy in the state from about 16% to more than 60% by 2030.
  • In August 2020, the Western Australian Government launched the Distributed Energy Buyback Scheme, which introduced payments for energy exported to the grid from eligible home batteries and electric vehicles.

Related to these initiatives, solar uptake has improved significantly, with a notable increase in energy generation through PV in all states between 2012 and 2017 (Figure 26). For example, in south-west Western Australia, the amount of large-scale renewable generation connected to the main grid doubled over the past 2 years (WA Government 2021a), and more than 33% of households have now installed a solar system.

At the same time, large-scale renewable generators are supplying an increasing amount of our electricity needs (WA Government 2021b). Improvements in technology and efficiency, along with projected declining capital costs for solar PV systems, will support further uptake. Costs are projected to decline from around $1,505/kW per system in 2020 to around $624/kW by 2050 (Graham et al. 2021).

Figure 26 Estimated residential photovoltaic generation, 2012–17

While large- and small-scale renewables offer great opportunities for low-cost, low-emissions energy, they also present challenges in ensuring the security, reliability and affordability of the power system. One means of addressing this is through the trial and rollout of localised household and industrial batteries. The rollout is being enhanced by significant reductions in cost owing to improvements in manufacturing and technology. This resulted in battery uptake increasing by approximately 465% from 2016 to 2017 (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). According to SunWiz (2020), 1 in 13 Australian households with solar panels have battery storage.

Large-scale, industrial batteries can store electricity oversupply to be used to stabilise the grid during frequency disruptions. Several major projects are underway, including:

  • the 100–129 megawatt-hour (MWh) Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, which is the largest lithium-ion battery in the world. It is also currently undergoing a 50–64.5 MWh expansion
  • the construction of the Victorian Big Battery with a capacity of 300–450 MWh, to be completed by Tesla at the end of 2021
  • more than 20 trials in Western Australia of new technologies to test and explore more effective and efficient ways of generating, accessing, managing and sharing electricity.


Renewable hydrogen is an emerging technology that will play an important role in our future energy mix. It has the potential to displace the use of fossil fuels in energy applications such as transport, heat and power generation. It can also provide a carbon-neutral feedstock for a wide variety of industrial processes and provide energy storage and other services to support the reliability of the electricity grid (DJTSI 2021). It is a safe, transportable and storable fuel (COAG Energy Council 2019). Hydrogen is considered a major emerging industry for the nation. It has the potential to generate thousands of jobs and a new export industry worth an estimated $2.2 billion by 2030 and $5.7 billion by 2040.

Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy states that when used as a fuel, hydrogen’s only byproduct is water and there are no carbon emissions. However, whether hydrogen is truly a zero- or low-emissions fuel depends on how it is produced. As pure hydrogen is not found naturally on Earth, it must be extracted from the substances that contain it – water mainly, but also coal, natural gas and biomass – and this takes energy.

Renewable hydrogen is defined as hydrogen produced using energy from renewable energy sources (DJTSI 2021). This can be achieved through electrolysis using renewable electricity (COAG Energy Council 2019).

As with other renewable energy sources, the cost of producing hydrogen has significantly reduced. Over the past decade, for example, the cost of generating electricity from wind has fallen by about 70% and from solar PV by about 80%. The cost to make a hydrogen fuel cell, meanwhile, has fallen by about 60% since 2006 (US DoE 2017). The Australian Hydrogen Strategy forecasts a potential further drop of 30% by 2025.

A key component of Australia’s National Energy Strategy is to create hydrogen hubs. These clusters of industrial and business activity may be in urban, regional or remote areas and aim to improve economies of scale. These will be complemented and enhanced by other early steps to:

  • integrate renewable hydrogen into the electricity grid
  • use hydrogen in transport, industry and gas distribution networks
  • reduce carbon
  • increase reliability.

Such early steps are being rolled out by each state and territory.

Case Study White Gum Valley residential development, Western Australia

Sources: Development WA (2020), Bioregional (2021) and Cabanek et al. (2021)

The White Gum Valley residential development, located 3 kilometres from Freemantle City Centre in Western Australia, is Australia’s first internationally endorsed One Planet Community. The One Planet approach was designed by the founders of a social enterprise in London, applying their experiences gained from the multi-award-winning BedZED ecovillage in South London.

The One Planet approach comprises 10 overarching principles ranging from health and happiness, culture and community to sustainable water, zero waste and zero carbon. The principles are supported by detailed goals, targets and guidance documents to achieve more sustainable living outcomes.

Applying this approach, White Gum Valley is a zero-carbon development that has been the focus of a 4-year ‘carbon positive living laboratory’ (Cabanek et al. 2021) program with the Cooperative Research Centre for Low Carbon Living. Application of the One Planet principles has meant that the development:

  • is a net exporter of electricity
  • achieved a 65% reduction in scheme water use compared with the Perth metro average
  • has 33% of the lot being developed as timber frame homes, significantly reducing embodied levels of carbon and creating a zero-carbon operational footprint
  • reduced car ownership
  • provided all residents with access to areas to grow food
  • incorporated water-sensitive urban design principles and water-efficiency measures
  • increased local biodiversity and tree canopy increase as well as recreational green space for the community
  • created a strong sustainability culture among its residents of sharing and cooperation.

The development is the outcome of collaboration between state and local government, private developers and the community.

Figure 27 Use of solar panels as a source of energy in regenerative design

Source: Image courtesy of DevelopmentWA

Waste and pollution

Urban areas produce the highest levels of pollution and waste.


According to World Bank estimates, the total solid waste generated in the world’s cities will increase from 2.01 billion tonnes in 2016 to 3.40 billion tonnes in 2050 (Kaza et al. 2018). A major portion of the solid waste generated is either disposed of as landfill or incinerated, polluting and adding to the carbon footprint of our urban and natural ecosystems (Patil et al. 2020).

According to the ABS (2020b), ‘Australia generated 75.8 million tonnes of solid waste in 2018–19, which was a 10% increase over the past 2 years (since 2016–17)’. The rate of growth occurred at a rate lower than population growth, which is encouraging (Pickin et al. 2020). However, declining weights of waste do not necessarily correspond to declining volumes (Pickin et al. 2020).

In comparison to countries such as Norway, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States (based on various data sources compiled between 2016 and 2019 by (Pickin et al. 2020)), Australia had the second-highest per-person rate of waste generation at 2.13 tonnes, just behind the United States at 2.34 tonnes per person and close to double the amount generated by Singapore at 1.26 tonnes (Figure 28).

Australia also had the second-highest rate of waste disposal per person – 704 kilograms (kg) – behind the United States (771 kg) and in stark comparison to Singapore (119 kg). As a positive, Australia had the second-highest recycling rate at 66%, following the United Kingdom at 74% (Pickin et al. 2020). (Figures are indicative only. Data are compiled for different years (2016–19) and from different sources due to limitations on data availability.)

Figure 28 Comparison of annual waste generation and rate per person, Australia and selected countries

Sources and types of waste

Most of the waste generated in Australia in 2018–19 was from 4 sectors:

  • manufacturing – 12.8 million tonnes (16.9%)
  • construction – 12.7 million tonnes (16.8%)
  • households – 12.4 million tonnes (16.3%)
  • electricity, gas and water services – 10.9 million tonnes (14.4%).

With population and economic growth, household waste has continuously increased across Australia, increasing by 5% alone from 2016–17 to 2018–19.

Households continue to contribute the highest proportion of organic waste (6.4 million tonnes) including 55% of all food waste (3.1 million tonnes). Organic waste increased by 10% from 2016–17 to 2017–18, representing 20% of total household waste (Figure 29). Organics are identified as particularly problematic in landfills as they create leachate, gas and odours (Pickin et al. 2020).

Households were also major contributors to plastic waste (1.2 million tonnes or 47%). While plastic reduced from 4% of total waste in 2016–17 to 3% in 2018–19, only 9% was recycled and 84% was sent to landfill.

Households were also notable contributors to glass waste (1.2 million tonnes or 72%), textile waste (247,000 tonnes or 90%) and e-waste (539,000 tonnes or 40%).

Figure 29 Household waste by waste material, 2016–17 to 2018–19

By comparison, manufacturing generated the largest proportion of hazardous waste (1.9 million tonnes or 24%) followed by the construction industry at 21% (1.7 million tonnes). Since 2016–17, hazardous waste tonnage increased by 23%, representing 11% of total waste and up from 9% over the same period; 6% alone relating to tyres (Pickin et al. 2020). By material, the most significant sources of waste were masonry materials (31%), organics (19%) and ash generated from power stations (17%; Figure 30) (Pickin et al. 2020).

Figure 30 Waste generation by material and stream, 2018–19

Waste management and recycling

Nearly 60% of products became recovered waste in 2018–19. This is an improvement from 2006–07 when the resource recovery rate was 50% (Pickin et al. 2020). However, our methods of disposal and re-use of all waste can and must continue to be improved. While half of all waste is sent for recycling (38.5 million tonnes), 27% of this is still being disposed of as landfill (20.5 million tonnes) (Figure 31).

Across Australia, about 93% of households have a recycling collection and 49% have an organics collection. Despite this, only 42% of Australian household waste was sent for recycling in 2018–19 (6.4 million tonnes), while 45% was sent to landfill (6.9 million tonnes). The population-weighted average composition (by weight) for household waste sent to recycling was 48% paper and cardboard, 27% glass, 8% plastics, 3% metals and 13% contamination (ABS 2020b).

Figure 31 Waste management categories, 2016–17 to 2018–19

In terms of resource recovery and recycling, South Australia was the highest-ranked jurisdiction, with a resource recovery rate of 85% and a recycling rate of 80% (Figure 32) (Pickin et al. 2020).

Figure 32 Resource recovery and recycling rates by jurisdiction, 2018–19


All plastic types had the worst recovery rates at around 15%. Of the 2.5 million tonnes generated, 84% was sent straight to landfill in 2019–20 (ABS 2020b). These poor recovery rates, combined with the impacts of single-use plastics on our natural environment (particularly marine ecosystems), has led to growing calls from communities and industry for measures to ban their use.

Many states, territories and local councils have banned single-use plastic bags. One local council, the City of Hobart, has a local bylaw ensuring food retailers use only plastic that is certified compostable based on Australian Standard AS4736 (Pickin et al. 2020). However, these measures are just a start of what is needed. By current estimates, global production of plastics is forecast to double by 2034 and almost quadruple by 2050 (Pickin et al. 2020).

Current and future waste challenges

The waste sector is currently facing various pressures and thereby challenges.

One significant challenge relates to falling export rates of waste for recycling, largely due to the restrictions imposed by many of the destination countries in South-East Asia. This is creating notable financial challenges for the industry, which will result in increased waste stockpiling or waste to landfill unless new markets for these materials can be identified.

Regional areas experience particular challenges in the collection and cost of waste management, at the same time as having lower financial resources than larger urban areas. This results in reduced or nil kerbside collection services, and reduced locally accessible recycling infrastructure. It can also increase the need for individuals to travel greater distances to dispose of waste. These services and opportunities are often not available at all within remote communities, and are not accessible to less-mobile citizens.

It also means that waste generated in regional areas must be transported to metropolitan recycling facilities. For example, a lack of reprocessing facilities in Tasmania means many recyclables are shipped to Victoria, while various materials recovered in Queensland may be sent to processing facilities in Sydney or Melbourne (Pickin et al. 2020). This pressure also occurs in more metropolitan areas where waste is transported from inner-city areas to landfills in peri-urban locations, in some instances located hundreds of kilometres away (Pickin et al. 2020). This creates notable travel costs and emissions.

Another challenge is the lack of agreed mandatory standards for factors such as recycled content for packaging and other products. While community expectations are driving change, the largely voluntary approach to date has failed to drive sufficient critical mass to guarantee new markets for recycled material. This is significantly hindering steps towards a more circular economy (Pickin et al. 2020) (see Management approaches).

The COVID-19 pandemic has added to pressures, creating a shift in the type and level of waste generated (see COVID-19 pandemic).

Light and noise pollution

Urban environments can generate significant levels of light and noise that affect the natural environment (i.e. flora and fauna) as well as our wellbeing (e.g. ability to sleep).

Key sources of light pollution include poorly designed artificial lights along with the cumulative effect of city lights. Noise is largely generated by industry and the cumulative effects of households and vehicles.

Light pollution, relating to both the intensity and colour of the light, can affect insect and animal foraging, reproduction and migration patterns (Jones 2018). This can be mitigated through lighting choices (low-blue or amber lights are better), minimising the use of floodlighting and using adaptive lighting that responds to residents’ movements by dimming or switching off when not needed. The pressures of noise pollution can be managed by separating noisier activities from more sensitive ones and using improved technologies (e.g. electric vehicles).

COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was an unforeseen event that has profoundly affected the state of urban environments. It has highlighted to government, industry and communities the complex and fragile nature of our urban ecosystems, the value of the natural environment for citizen wellbeing and the need to plan for greater urban resilience (see Urban resilience).

As a driver of change, the pandemic has had both positive and negative impacts. The impacts have also varied across time:

  • Some impacts have been immediate (e.g. reduced air and vehicle travel has improved air quality).
  • Some are likely to be longer term (e.g. changes in where we work and how we travel to work).
  • Other impacts are yet to be determined (e.g. changes in our preference of where we live and what this means to the growth and character of our urban areas).

Health and wellbeing

The negative impacts of the pandemic have related to the health and wellbeing of our citizens. This is either through infection or through broader social and economic impacts affecting mental health and wellbeing. The health sector responded by increasing capacity within intensive care units almost 3-fold. It is also adapting to new forms of health consulting – telehealth increased from 0.04% to 35% of all Medicare schedule services during the pandemic (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

The value of locally accessible and usable open space and services also increased, with government travel restrictions putting a focus back on local neighbourhood character and access to quality spaces across urban areas. Responses to a survey of local councils across Australia for this report found that more than 45% had experienced an increase in demand for local open space. More broadly, Infrastructure Australia identified a 23% increase in the use of national parks and green spaces nationally and 87% of Australians noticed a positive shift in community attitudes towards urban green space, particularly among those living in high-density areas (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

The pandemic has also highlighted social inequities in the rollout of digital infrastructure across our urban areas, resulting in lower socio-economic areas being more digitally isolated. This is a key issue when digital access became a critical enabler of household education and information.

A survey of all councils across Australia undertaken for this report asked whether digital connectivity had been a constraint to education, working or recreation since the COVID-19 pandemic; 40% of respondents answered yes and 60% no. A report by Infrastructure Australia identified the move towards regional areas for working from home and living during the pandemic (whether permanent or temporary) may have caused additional strain on a network that was not designed and built for such commercial usage levels (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). Broadband capacity increased by 40% during the pandemic, with the National Broadband Network releasing latent capacity to service providers (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

In some locations, the potential cumulative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and disasters such as bushfires are likely to have compounded accessibility issues and digital inequality (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) measures digital inclusion. It found that affordability remains the key barrier to digital inclusion and is likely to be exacerbated by COVID-19-related economic slowdown. Approximately 800,000 (20%) of the 4 million primary and secondary students in Australia are from households with the lowest income bracket (under $35,000). These households record an ADII score of 53, which is 10 points lower than the national average (Infrastructure Australia 2020b).

While digital affordability has marginally increased since 2014 and the absolute cost of the internet has gone down, with greater usage households are spending more now than ever on data. The gap is also widening between the lowest and highest income households, with the average household spending approximately 3.5% of disposable income on communications, compared with 10–15% for consumers in the lowest income bracket.

Development and business

The influence of the pandemic on population growth and, in turn, demand for more housing is yet to be determined. Implications for where we choose to live are also playing out (i.e. will there be a sustained growth in demand for larger homes on the urban fringe or will we return to smaller dwellings closer to activities and services within inner-city areas?). Changing living preferences could also lead to less pressure on our inner-city areas to densify, but greater pressure for housing and digital infrastructure within regional or urban fringe areas (see Outlook and impacts).

Australian businesses had to adjust quickly to the pandemic, moving to online platforms and shifting service patterns from CBDs to the suburbs. The pandemic drove 100% growth in monthly online retail, 5 times the annual growth recorded in 2019. At the same time, 9 in 10 Australian firms adopted online collaboration tools and services (Infrastructure Australia 2020b). These new patterns of e-retailing and e-commerce are increasing reliance on local deliveries, freight and logistics movements across our urban areas, resulting in changes in traffic patterns and times.

The COVID-19 pandemic also brought greater recognition of the importance of local supply chains, reducing reliance on shipping and aviation and thus associated emissions. While these changes have been positive, any resulting decline in global fossil fuel emissions in 2020 are believed to be negligible because the travel changes were significant but brief (Liu et al. 2020). The question is whether changes to onshoring the production of goods and services can be sustained, thereby having a longer-term impact on the need to travel, and so on associated emissions.

Working, travel and transport

In many areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends towards more local working, as a significantly greater share of the population worked from home. The reduced rate of travel across and within our urban areas resulted in higher rates of walking and cycling. In the short term, this resulted in improved air quality because of the associated reduction in vehicle emissions.

A survey of households undertaken during the first wave of the pandemic in Australia (March 2020) found that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 71% of employed people did not work from home. ‘Following the COVID-19 restrictions, the same number almost halved (down to 39%), with a quarter of respondents subsequently stating that they were working from home 5 days a week. As a result, the overall average number of days worked from home per week grew to 2.5, up from 0.8 days’ (Beck & Hensher 2020).

However, this approach was not equally achieved across urban areas and occupations, with many forms of employment unable to be undertaken from home (e.g. retail, transport, construction). The same Australian household survey found that the ability to work at home varied according to age, gender and income, with a greater proportion of middle-aged respondents working more frequently from home (both before and during the pandemic). Close to half of those surveyed that were employed stated that their work could be done from home (47%), with those with higher incomes or from middle-aged households more likely to be able to complete their work from home (Beck & Hensher 2020).

The pandemic also shifted thinking to more active forms of transport. Streets were closed to allow for greater walking and cycling activity, and footpaths were widened to allow for improved social distancing. Cycling rates improved and new forms of mobility were considered (e.g. low-speed electric transport including bikes, skateboards and scooters). A survey of Australian councils for this report found that 42% of urban areas experienced an increase in walking and cycling because of the pandemic.

Conversely, the pandemic had a reverse and more adverse impact on public transport patronage, with a return to greater private car use owing to the lack of safety, or perceived lack of safety, of public transport (AHURI 2020). This was manageable in urban areas when many people were working from home, but has the potential to exacerbate urban congestion if left unabated as life returns to normal.

The pandemic also significantly affected interstate and international travel. The survey of Australian households in 2020 found that, at the end of the first week of April, only 2% of respondents were still planning on making a flight of some kind, with 52% delaying travel voluntarily and 46% doing so because of government regulations. Most of the intended travel was personal (79%) rather than business travel (29%).

These figures were significantly greater in the context of air travel – ‘interrupted travel was primarily international (63%) compared to domestic (55%), and almost all personal travel (94%) rather than for business (12%). Almost half of respondents cancelled travel (49%), a large number returned the ticket for a voucher or credit with the airline, with 11% having rebooked their flights for a later date’ (Beck & Hensher 2020).

Looking forward, it is anticipated there will be a return to international travel, with many predicting a spike in international travel and tourism once borders open again and a satisfactory level of immunisation achieved. There are also predictions for a move to multimodal transport systems, dominated by public and shared transport. Individual mobility will be provided as a service and a last-mile option (where individual services to your home connect with public services in the wider area). These changes will seek to reduce demand for road spaces and car parking, freeing up space for valuable alternative uses such as open space and retrofitting car parks into community and shared spaces. Technological solutions are also being explored to make travel easier for citizens, such as alerts about when is a good time to travel or when is a bad time, via a simple traffic light system in a smartphone application.

The pandemic has also highlighted the value of a more localised approach to service provision and the need to design our urban areas to provide a mix of uses and services locally. This can reduce the need to travel and improve service provision for when people cannot travel across urban areas.


A survey of Australian households during the pandemic found that private car use reduced by 35%. For most respondents who were able to decrease car use, reduction was even greater at 60% compared with pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels (Beck & Hensher 2020). This reduction had recognisable air quality benefits in Australia’s major cities, as cited by more than 25% of Australian councils when asked about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic to their local area. However, 20% of councils surveyed cited an increase in local traffic as an impact while 18% identified a decrease.

These variations in council responses may relate to the varying roles and characters of their urban areas. It may also reflect research that found that as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions eased, reductions in vehicle travel reversed – private vehicle numbers increased at the cost of public transport, resulting in greater levels of pollution and adverse air quality impacts.

The same survey of Australian councils found that the generation of more waste was one of the top 4 impacts of the pandemic. It is also anticipated that official waste figures will show a shift in the types of waste generated during the pandemic because of changing lifestyle patterns (e.g. more packaging owing to increased rates of home shopping and use of takeaway food services) and for sanitisation reasons (e.g. more medical masks and hand-sanitising containers). With more citizens staying at home to work and school, home improvement projects have likely increased along with the associated waste. However, it would presumably follow that the commercial, tourism, hospitality and industrial sectors affected by the pandemic had periods of significant waste reduction as production and business outputs declined during the same period.