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Drivers of Change

Population growth and human activities are the biggest drivers of environmental change.

The question is how many of us is too many. We only have a limited amount of resources.

Our current population is already having a significant impact on our environment which affects our health and wellbeing.

We are all responsible for the changes therefore we have a responsibility to address the pressures that are causing them.

Our population is growing and there is no doubt that human activities are the greatest drivers of environmental change. The Greater Adelaide Regional Plan Discussion Paper advises that Greater Adelaide’s population is estimated to grow by up to 670,000 people over the next 30 years. As at the 2021 census, South Australia’s population was sitting at 1.8 million with 1.4 million living in Greater Adelaide.

With a growing population and in the face of climate change, we need to consider:

  • food security and water availability, both for the community and the environment
  • impacts on green space, natural environments and primary production areas from urban infill and expansion
  • an expansion of transport needs and industry sectors required to support a growing population that will also increase our environmental footprint through increasing energy, resource demands and emissions
  • more waste and wastewater that needs to be managed.

As a society, we tend to manipulate the environment to suit our needs. However, by doing this, we also risk damaging the very environment that we rely on to support its liveability. This will be heavily influenced by where we live and our socio-economic environment.

It is important to note that we only have a finite amount of resources and our ecosystems can only provide so much. We need to consider our carrying capacity and how our environment copes with the pressures we place on it. Population growth and human activities are responsible for all pressures that are highlighted in this SOER. Increasing pressures on the environment can occur quickly, at a pace that is faster than nature’s ability to cope and adapt.

Environmental change is influenced by a variety of interconnected factors, and understanding these key drivers is essential for addressing and mitigating environmental challenges. Some of the key drivers of environmental change include climate change, habitat modification, resource use, pollution, pest species and disease. The SOER 2023 provides examples of pressures and impacts associated with these drivers for sea, land, water and liveability.

Drivers of environmental change that are influenced by human activities and people (NatureScot)

Growth and development need to consider how impacts to the environment will be mitigated, including maintaining or restoring green space and tree canopy for both cooling and biodiversity, providing safe active and public transport options, and providing solutions that will facilitate better integration of water that balances the needs of the community and the environment. Noise and odour issues may also increase with higher density of housing and encroaching of residential areas upon nearby industry.

We now need to reduce our impacts and adapt to our environment and better appreciate that our health and wellbeing is intrinsically linked to the health of our environment. Unless we take action, population growth is likely to be unsustainable. Our current population levels are already having a significant impact on our environment, which impacts ecosystem health and our health and wellbeing. We all are responsible for the changes. Therefore, we all have a responsibility for addressing the impacts.

A number of reports have been produced by the South Australian and Australian governments since the 2018 SOER that provide actions and recommendations to tackle the issues we are facing. Several recommendations and actions are duplicated across reports and many reports do not provide an indication of urgency for their implementation. In addition, many of the issues, recommendations and actions identified in past reports, including the SOER, are still relevant today. A more coordinated and consistent approach is needed across government to implement these actions according to their urgency and deliver on-ground change.

Raising awareness about environmental challenges, disaster mitigation and resilience, and their connection to population growth is crucial. Education programs can help individuals understand the importance of sustainable practices and empower them to make informed choices that contribute to a more sustainable future.

Addressing environmental pressures requires collaboration among governments, businesses, communities and individuals. Governments play a crucial role in developing and implementing policies that incentivise sustainable practices and regulate industries to reduce their environmental impact. However, we need to recognise the differences between regional centres and Greater Adelaide when designing policies to support urban and rural development and consider the cultural knowledge of Aboriginal peoples.

Further Reading

  • A ‘Sustainable’ Population – Key Policy Issues – A discussion initiated by the Australian Government Productivity Commission in 2011 on the key policy issues surrounding population growth. Perhaps the question needs to be asked again or our environmental reporting be designed to identify when we are reaching our limits.