In a sea of pro-coal sentiments and ecologically questionable development, the Sunshine Coast stands out as something of an anomaly.
The council has worked towards carbon neutrality – its airport asset is carbon neutral, the growth direction is underpinned by a clean tech focus, and protecting wildlife and habitat is clearly something locals are passionate about.
The Fifth Estate spoke with the city’s peak environmental advocacy organisation, the Sunshine Coast Environment Council, to find out why the region is so different from other Queensland communities.
Sustainability started early
Spokesperson for the SCEC, Narelle McCarthy, says the sustainability direction was set in the early stages, ahead of the election of the first Sunshine Coast Regional Council in 2008.
The new council was formed following state government-directed amalgamation of the local government areas of Noosa, Maroochydore and Caloundra.
The SCEC and other community organisations made a “concerted effort” to identify community priorities and then quiz would-be candidates on where they stood.
Candidates were asked about key issues including public transport, sustainability, transparency and governance, and their answers published for the wider community to evaluate.
A set of principles had been developed that candidates were asked to commit to, and the outcome was the election of a council in which 10 out of 12 councillors had publicly committed to key sustainability ideas and directions.
This put some foundations in place, McCarthy says.
It also flowed through into directions for the bureaucracy of the new Sunshine Coast Regional Council including action plans, frameworks and policy.
The “little g” green nature of some of the elected councillors played out in policies around biodiversity, climate change, sustainable transport and a peak oil strategy.
However, the three original councils “never totally gelled”, McCarthy says, and in 2012 Noosa de-amalgamated, as it had always committed to do from the time of amalgamation
That left the historically more “pro-development” Maroochydore and Caloundra councils.
McCarthy says some in the development sector had thought the council had become “too green”, and with Noosa gone and the Newman government putting a “wrecking ball” through environmental programs and legislation, some of the green directions waned.
There was also a corresponding reduction in the sustainability credentials of massive developments underway such as Stockland’s Aura at Caloundra South.
McCarthy notes control of the planning and development of Aura had earlier been taken out of council’s hands by the Bligh government.
The Green Star Communities-rated development is expected to comprise 20,000 homes on completion and have a population of around 50,000 people, a city the size of Gladstone in the ecologically sensitive Pumicestone Passage catchment.
SCEC is part of the stakeholder reference group, and McCarthy says many of the original bold ideas around decentralised renewable energy generation and development-wide stormwater re-use have since been shelved or largely revised.
The majority of the environmental initiatives that are left, such as an environmental protection zone which forms part of the site and within proximity to the RAMSAR-listed wetlands, are basic conditions of approval.
Design guidelines get some of it right
The design guidelines for homes specify cool roofs as mandatory along with rainwater tanks, greening in front yards and outdoor clotheslines out the back are welcomed.
But they do not set a benchmark for home energy performance above code minimum, aside from specifying performance benchmarks for airconditioning units, pool pumps and the installation of off-peak capable circuits for hot water systems.
McCarthy says there are still some positives, such as the community’s veloways for cyclists, the capture and re-use of grey water at the industrial estate and the green and open space.
However, the opportunity to take advantage of the economies of scale involved in such as massive project and deliver something genuinely transformative has been somewhat lost along the way.
In general, she says the council has in some cases been tailoring the development consent conditions in terms of sustainability to the development – not the environment.
And while the old days of “bulldozers on the dunes at Caloundra” haven’t returned, there is still questionable development being approved for ecologically sensitive flood plains needed for flood storage and conveyance and within coastal erosion prone zones.
Towers have been given the tick of approval for the coastal strip, which is a contrast to the community’s goal for the region’s identity that was “we don’t want to be another Gold Coast”.
But there are many developments happening that “could be anywhere” on the glitzy south east Queensland tourist strip, which McCarthy says means the original communities are in danger of losing their unique characters and identity. The town plan describes the region as a “community of communities” – attributes highly valued by residents and visitors.
At the same time, with the region’s population expected to grow to 600,000 people by 2041, McCarthy says there is a focus on creating densification along the city’s “enterprise corridor” to house the incomers.
She says, however, it needs to be appropriate, embrace sustainable design principles and elements and respond sensitively to the surrounding environment and amenity. Not just generic apartment towers with airconditioning.
There is also a critical need for public transport, as the lack of east-west connections particularly within the region means its car dependence is “off the charts”. Its recently adopted Integrated Transport Strategy sets a path to address this.
Increasing the population along the enterprise corridor is expected to create a workable catchment for public transport. One of the approaches being considered is light rail.
Another pressing need is public open green space, as McCarthy says there is currently a deficit per capita.
This is despite the region having what is currently Australia’s largest number of properties participating in the Land for Wildlife program – around 1200 private properties totalling some 8000 hectares, supported by council extension officers.
The region also has a legacy of wildlife corridors and reserve areas, many of them designated as a result of community activism in the 1980s and 1990s.
McCarthy says the issues for the SCEC have evolved since those days, when the focus was on such things as gazettal of National Parks and protecting habitat and biodiversity.
For the 60 groups that comprise SCEC’s membership, the efforts now are more wide-ranging, and engage with built environment planning and delivery in areas including climate change adaptation and mitigation. Expanding protected areas, biodiversity and wildlife protection and marine conservation are also featured in SCEC’s work.
While she says there is “less emphasis on the environment nowadays” on the part of council compared to previous terms, there is still a legacy from the plans and policies put in place during its formation that is keeping the momentum around sustainability going.
In general, the Sunshine Coast is still standing by its vision as “the most sustainable region in Australia,” she says.
What the regional strategies say
A spokesperson for Sunshine Coast Regional Council says its attitude can best be summed up as “sustainability: it’s who we are, it’s what we do.”
Three regional strategies underpin sustainability efforts – the Environment and Liveability Strategy, the Regional Economic Development Strategy and the Social Strategy.
The aim is to strike a balance between the natural and built environment.
“Council has been working hard to drive sustainability forward both within the organisation and across the region,” the spokesperson says.
“Sunshine Coast Council principles are simple and direct and have consciously been applied throughout the organisation.”
Tangible examples include the 15MW solar farm underwritten by Council that supplies sufficient energy for all council buildings and assets.
The renewable energy is part of the method by which it aims to become net-zero emissions by 2041.
Waste is addressed
Waste is also in the spotlight, with works underway to deliver an automated, tech-enabled, underground waste collection system at the greenfield Maroochydore city centre. It’s expected the system will both increase recycling rates and reduce the carbon footprint and vehicle footprints associated with conventional waste collection.
The council-owned Sunshine Coast Airport was the first in Australia to achieve Level 3+ Neutrality under the international Airport Carbon Accreditation program.
“Notwithstanding these achievements, we recognise that there is still much to do and a long way to travel on our sustainability journey.
“Most importantly, over the past five years since we started down this pathway, we have learnt that regional sustainability cannot be achieved without remarkable business alliances and solid community partnerships.”
Funding of ongoing sustainability efforts is also supported through an Environmental Levy of $75 per property per annum. These funds contribute significantly to site acquisitions and maintenance of biodiversity, waterway, wetland and costal habitat zones.
The region is a biodiversity hot spot
Council is also leading the charge for Sunshine Coast to be listed as a UNESCO Biosphere area.
It is one of Australia’s biodiversity “hot spots”, with a high percentage of species endemic to the region.
The spokesperson says becoming a Biosphere further enhances the city’s national and international reputation.
“It can create niche markets for products, services, facilities and practices. This is significant for the agricultural, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors.
“It will assist businesses to grow while attracting more investment to our region. That means more jobs for local people.”
More trees in the streets
Urban greening is another area where council has firm plans. The spokesperson says it recognises that cool, shady streets are “places to connect.”
“They enhance our neighbourhoods and promote biodiversity, resilience and community well-being.”
A Master Tree Plan has been developed which incorporates strategies including shading and cooling high-use pathways, creating canopies “where space permits”, encouraging tree retention and engineering of spaces for street trees.
A series of “priority planting areas” have been identified, and the current focus is on shading and cooling pathway networks around schools, retirement living and aged care facilities. In addition, trees are being planted in vacant, suitable sites.
“This strategy places pedestrian movement as a core focus in any centre improvement project, and includes wider pathways, shared zones, raised crossings, shade tree planting, seating nodes, lighting and improved facilities for walking and cycling,” the spokesperson says.
There’s a solid cycling and active transport agenda
Under its active transport plan, new on- and off-road cycling facilities are being delivered including separated cycleways, bridges, boardwalks, on road bike lanes and shared pathways. It has actively sought grants for cycling infrastructure from the state government and is working with the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads on planning for a separated cycleway from Maroochydore to Mooloolaba and the completion of connecting segments.
It also developed a program to encourage cycling to school called RideScore which it is hoping to rollout across all schools in the region.
The clean tech industry is strong
Jobs and growth are as much a mantra for the city as they are throughout Queensland, however, council is aiming for the region to be underpinned by clean tech enterprise – not coal.
Council estimates the clean tech industry currently employs nearly 1770 people and contributes an estimated $212 million to the Sunshine Coast economy annually.
The sector includes enterprises within renewable energy, water, waste and recycling, construction materials, energy efficiency, carbon trading and environmental services. There are currently around 150 clean tech businesses based on the Sunshine Coast, and they have their own industry association up and running.
The University of the Sunshine Coast is also part of the picture, with its Sustainability Research Centre providing access to research that supports the growth of the clean technologies industry.
Climate change adaptation and mitigation is a priority
The big picture issue for the Sunshine Coast, given its vulnerability to storm surges, cyclones and sea level rise, is climate change adaptation and mitigation.
It is part of a group of 40 Queensland coastal councils working to develop a long-term strategy, funded by QCoast2100, which is a partnership between the state government and the Queensland Local Government Association.
The spokesperson says the “Our Resilient Coast. Our Future” strategy will help manage the impacts of costal hazards.
It will also help council “better understand how climate change and coastal hazards – including beach erosion, and short or long-term seawater inundation of land along the coastline – may affect our coastal communities, our local economy and our natural environment.
“It will also explore vulnerabilities and risks to key community, cultural and natural assets.”