Independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Beeton RJS (Bob), Buckley Kristal I, Jones Gary J, Morgan Denise, Reichelt Russell E, Trewin Dennis
(2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee), 2006
In the five years since SoE2001, Australia’s population has increased by about 0.9 million people to reach the current estimated population of 20.3 million people (30 June 2005). This is an annual growth rate of 1.2 per cent . As in SoE2001, this is an estimate because the national census is done just before this report is published and up-to-date data were not available.
Australia’s overall population growth comes roughly equally from natural increase (births) and migration from overseas. Projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest that Australia’s population will increase to 28 million people by 2050 (the moderate population growth shown in Figure 1), with the number of people aged over 65 doubling from 13 per cent to 26 per cent. This moderate forecast assumes net immigration levels of 110 000 people per year (slightly below the current level), fertility rates of 1.7 (about the current level) and an average life expectancy of 85 years for males and 88 years for females. The assumptions on migration levels could be optimistic with increasing competition for skilled migrants.
These changes to Australia’s demography could see a slowing in population growth and economic growth, which in turn could reduce the growth in pressures on the environment, although this depends on producer and consumer behaviours.
Source: ABS (2003c)
Local population trends are more complex . Rural areas are generally declining while larger cities continue to grow in area and population. The reason is that most of the growth in coastal regions is from internal migration, as people from inland areas and from larger cities move to the coast to retire or, more commonly, for a ‘sea change’—79 per cent of people who moved to ‘sea change areas’ during 2000–01 were younger than 50 years of age (ABS 2004a). Overseas migrants have tended to stay in the larger cities, with half of them settling permanently in Sydney or Melbourne—this presents a challenge to the state governments trying to manage growth in already populous areas. Commonwealth, state and territory government policies aiming to encourage immigration to rural and regional Australia have seen a decrease in the number of overseas migrants settling in the capital cities—from 78 per cent in 1996 to 67 per cent in 2004.
The greatest population growth in larger cities continues to be in the outer suburbs—greenfield developments around the city fringes. There has also been an increase in the number of people choosing to live in high-rise buildings in city centres, particularly in ‘beachfront’ suburbs. Residential densities have always been highest in the inner suburbs, but they are now increasing across middle suburbia under compact city policies of state governments and the relatively recent process of infill housing. Population density in all of Australia’s larger cities has increased, with more high-rise, medium density, infill and smaller lot greenfield developments (Table 1), which have also increased dwelling density. Paradoxically, occupancy rates—the number of people per dwelling—have declined.
These changes are fundamentally altering the centres of Australian cities. Apartment living has acquired a certain cachet amongst some sectors of the population, and the demand is being met by recycling of old buildings and construction of new high-rise buildings. It is partly because of high city-centre land values, and partly in response to planning policies that encourage more vibrant city centres (by mixing uses and bringing more people in over longer periods).
In Australia’s regional areas, there is some growth in the larger regional centres at the expense of small towns within easy driving distance (ABS 2005a). Rural decline generally has both economic and environmental flow-on effects.Sixty-three per cent of all rural municipalities lost population between 1991 and 2001 (Shepherd 2003).
|Population centre (grouped by size)||Separate houses||High density housing||Total dwellings#
|Percentage of dwellings||Change in number of dwellings
|Percentage of dwellings||Change in number of dwellings
|Other large cities||76.8||40.0||20.8||71.5||1257.9|
* dwellings where the dwelling structure was not stated were excluded prior to the calculation of percentages;
# includes other dwellings
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (1991 and 2001) censuses of population and housing, cited in ABS (2003a)
The National Land and Water Resources Audit (NLWRA) forecasts a decline of between 30 and 55 per cent in farmer numbers by 2020 (Figure 2) and a continued increase in the age of the farming population (NLWRA 2002a). Median farmer age increased from 48 years to more than 50 years between 1996 and 2001 (Barr 2004). Together, these two trends directly affect the viability of rural communities. Regions experiencing the greatest threat are the dryland (grains and sheep) farming regions (Hugo 2002), some of which are highly vulnerable under future climate change scenarios of reduced rainfall (Fisher 2005). The trend with respect to small towns is likely to continue apart from those associated with mining and tourism.
Overall, the loss of people from rural areas has left a raft of small towns and some Indigenous communities struggling because of depopulation and welfare dependency, which raises doubts about their ability to maintain their efforts to manage their own natural and cultural environments.
Source: NLWRA (2002a)