Increased consumption


Population and economic growth also drive consumption, causing increased demand for resources, particularly land (see Increased urban footprint), energy and water. The overall consumption of resources ultimately places pressures on various aspects of the natural environment, many of which are discussed in other SoE 2016 thematic reports. Increased consumption also leads to increased waste generation (see Waste generation and recovery). This section looks at the total consumption of energy and water resources by the built environment. The decoupling of consumption from population and economic growth—and the question of whether or not the built environment is using these resources more efficiently—is looked at in Urban environmental efficiency. Decoupling is beginning at a global level, and the extent of growth in consumption and waste will depend on the extent of this decoupling.

Households—along with industries such as manufacturing, construction, transport, tourism, and the commercial and services industries—are the most significant users of land, energy and water resources in the built environment, and each is facing this challenge to decouple.


Energy use, in the context of the built environment, includes energy use by households, manufacturing, and commercial and service industries, including construction and transport.

Since 2010–11 (until 2013–14), total energy use associated with the built environment has shown a small overall increase of around 2.5 per cent.

Households were the largest domestic consumer of energy (1054 petajoules, or 26 per cent) in Australia in 2013–14. The total energy use by Australian households increased by just 1.6 per cent from 2010–11 to 2013–14, whereas the number of Australian households increased by 5.7 per cent during the same period (Figure BLT7) (ABS 2016b).

Among industries associated with the built environment, manufacturing used the most energy (987 petajoules in 2013–14). This was a small drop (2.3 per cent) compared with 2010–11 energy use. All other industries (construction, commercial and services industries, transport) increased energy use by 9 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14 (from a combined total of 879 petajoules to 958 petajoules).

The small increase by the household sector between 2010–11 and 2013–14 was driven mainly by increases in the use of diesel and natural gas. Net electricity use by households decreased by 6 per cent during the same period.

The main energy sources for household use were petrol (44 per cent), electricity (19 per cent) and natural gas (15 per cent). Petrol consumption by households decreased slightly (just under 2 per cent) between 2010–11 and 2013–14, during which time diesel use increased by 35 per cent. Between 2010–11 and 2013–14, household use of natural gas increased by 7 per cent, whereas household use of electricity continued to decrease (by 6 per cent, down to 203 petajoules in 2013–14) (ABS 2016b).

This significant progress in reducing electricity consumption is associated with a decline in electricity emissions—per person and total—during recent years. This decline is because of (Infrastructure Australia 2016):

  • falling demand for electricity, largely caused by improved energy efficiency of appliances and machinery
  • uptake of household solar panels, driven by reduced costs and taxpayer subsidies
  • reduced consumption in response to a sharp increase in electricity prices in recent years.

Total renewable energy extracted by households increased by 46 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14, from 33.6 gigajoules to 49.2 gigajoules, and total renewable energy supply as a proportion of total domestic net energy use increased from 7.6 per cent to 8.4 per cent during this period (ABS 2016b). (For more discussion on energy efficiency and the built environment, see Energy efficiency.)

Total household energy costs were $47 billion in 2013–14, a 19 per cent increase since 2010–11. Expenditure on petroleum products was 53 per cent of this total, electricity costs were just over one-third (34 per cent), and natural gas was 13 per cent. Expenditure on each of these energy products has increased at a much faster rate than consumption of these energy sources by households in recent years (ABS 2016b; Figure BLT8).

There are 3 major components of a typical energy bill: wholesale costs (covering electricity being generated or gas being extracted), network charges (paying for the reliable delivery of energy via powerlines or gas pipelines) and a retail margin (paying for meter reading and other services). Energy bills can also include components for Australian, and state and territory government–based environmental programs, such as those aimed at increasing renewable electricity generation. The share of each component can vary significantly across jurisdictions and for different types of customers. However, the cost of transporting energy and wholesale costs typically account for around three-quarters of the final energy bill.

In recent years, much of the increase in prices has been attributed to the need to invest in the network component because of previous underinvestment in maintaining the network or to increase capacity. The impact of policies to address environmental issues accounts for a small percentage of the increase (EEMG 2014, Green & Newman 2016, Swoboda 2013).

In 2012, Australian households spent an average of $99 per week on energy. This included $39 per week on energy sources used within the dwelling (such as electricity or gas; see Box BLT3) and $60 on fuel for vehicles.

The manufacturing industry was the largest industrial consumer of energy (987 petajoules). Net energy use for this industry showed a small decrease (2 per cent) between 2010–11 and 2013–14. In comparison, total commercial and services industries increased net energy use by 7.5 per cent (to 446 petajoules), transport (excluding private vehicles) increased by just over 10 per cent (to 327 petajoules), and construction also showed a 10 per cent increase (to 185 petajoules) (Figure BLT8).

Box BLT2 Climate zones and energy expenditures

The average expenditure on energy for dwellings in Australia in 2012 was $39 per week. However, reflecting variation in annual temperatures, expenditure on energy for dwellings in each climate zone (Figure BLT9) were:

  • zone 1—$38 per week
  • zone 2—$30 per week (23 per cent below the average)
  • zone 3—$37 per week
  • zone 4—$40 per week
  • zone 5—$36 per week (8 per cent below the average)
  • zone 6—$43 per week (10 per cent above the average)
  • zone 7—$47 per week (21 per cent above the average).

The highest expenditure in zone 7 reflects more extreme winter conditions requiring heating. Expenditure in climate zone 2 (warm, humid summer and mild winter) was the lowest (Figure BLT10).

Households living in separate houses had significantly higher costs per week than other types of dwellings. The highest rates for separate houses were in zones 3, 4 and 7 (93 per cent, 89 per cent and 87 per cent of dwellings, respectively), with more than half of the dwellings in these zones at least 30 years old. In contrast, the lowest rates for separate houses were for zone 5 (72 per cent), which was significantly lower than the national average, and may also contribute to zone 5’s relatively lower energy expenditure and consumption values (ABS 2013b).

Around a quarter (26 per cent) of households in zone 1 (high-humidity summer and warm winter) had either a solar electricity or hot water system (or both) in their dwelling, significantly higher than the national average of 15 per cent. In contrast, only 8 per cent of households in zone 7 (cool temperate) had a solar electricity or hot water system.


Water consumption, in the context of the built environment, includes consumption by households, manufacturing, and commercial and service industries (including construction and transport). Importantly, this discussion does not include agriculture, Australia’s largest water consumer. For a discussion of overall water use in Australia, see the Inland water report.

Overall, total water consumption associated with the built environment has remained stable since the end of the millennium drought (a 1 per cent decrease since 2010–11), and consumption has not returned to pre-drought levels.

Since 2010–11, water consumption trends have moved in opposite directions for industry and households. In 2014–15, Australian households consumed 1852 gigalitres of water, an increase of 9 per cent compared with 2010–11 levels. In comparison, manufacturing, and commercial and service industries have continued to decrease their water consumption during the same period, by 9 and 11 per cent, respectively (Figure BLT11).

These averages mask large variations among the states and territories in water use, reflecting differences in climate, population and economies.

In 2014–15, New South Wales had the highest water consumption for households, and commercial and service industries (Figures BLT12 and BLT14). Queensland consumed the most water for manufacturing (Figure BLT13).

Most states and territories showed an overall increase in household water consumption to varying degrees between 2010–11 and 2014–15, but Tasmania was the glaring exception, with a 46 per cent drop in household water consumption (Figure BLT12).

Water consumption by manufacturing businesses in South Australia dropped 45 per cent, most of which occurred between 2013–14 and 2014–15 (Figure BLT13). Between 2010–11 and 2014–15, large decreases in water use in the commercial and services industries were seen in Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia (Figure BLT14).

The bulk of household water supply is from distributed water3 (92 per cent in 2013–14), and 8 per cent (150 gigalitres) is self-extracted, which is similar to 2010–11 amounts (Figure BLT16). Although household consumption of re-used water increased by 43 per cent from 2010–11 to 2013–14, it is still very low (less than 5 gigalitres in 2013–14) (Figure BLT15).

Distributed water makes up around 71 per cent of the water consumed by commercial and other services industries, whereas manufacturing used roughly equal volumes of self-extracted and distributed water (ABS (2015a)).

Overall, households’ expenditure on distributed (and re-used) water increased by 39 per cent between 2010–11 and 2013–14. At the same time, households’ consumption of distributed (and re-used) water increased by 10 per cent. Although households’ use of 1722 gigalitres represented only 13 per cent of total net distributed water use (i.e. excluding distribution losses), expenditure by households represented 67 per cent of all expenditure on distributed water in Australia (ABS (2015a)).

Coleman S (2016). Built environment: Increased consumption. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65a5037ed8