Sydney: The city’s green journey to becoming a sustainable destination

by Jessica Beaumont

Sustainable Sydney 2030

2019 saw Sydney sitting in 8th place globally as a sustainable destination, behind only a handful of European destinations. But what does it take to get a city to the top of the leader board for its dedication to the environment? We sat down at the (virtual) table with Sustainability Engagement Manager Katie Shammas from the City of Sydney, who shared with us her experience and understanding of Sydney’s ongoing journey towards becoming a sustainable destination.

Engulfed by nature and dotted with glistening harbours, the very essence of Sydney is rooted in the vast oceans and pristine landscapes of nature, found in all directions. It seems that without a doubt, a sense of inevitable interconnection with nature has played a part in Sydney’s environmental concern, goals and achievements.

In 2008, the City of Sydney formalised its environmental ambitions and plunged head first into an ongoing journey towards sustainability. This strategic plan for a ‘Green, Global and Connected’ city is known as Sustainable Sydney 2030. Incorporating plans to lessen the environmental impacts of not only the government’s operations, but also of the local government area’s day to day functions as a whole, Sustainable Sydney 2030 focuses on reducing environmental impacts in energy, water and waste in Australia’s largest city. Updated every four years, the strategic plan guides the City of Sydney in its everyday work.

Sustainable Sydney protecting its harbour and environs
Sydney Harbour

Sustainable Sydney’s admirable accomplishments

Whilst Sustainable Sydney 2030 has brought about a great deal of impressive accomplishments, its biggest achievement to date soars above all of its other environmental wins. With ambitions to become a leading environmental performer, the City of Sydney has been carbon neutral since 2011. However, last year it announced the switch to 100% renewable energy.

Three expansive solar and wind farms across regional New South Wales now source the City of Sydney with clean energy, with which it powers not only its government buildings, but its town hall, event spaces, community spaces, libraries, childcare centres, office buildings, sports fields and aquatic centres amongst other facilities and infrastructure. Such an admirable achievement is worth celebrating, not only for its reduction of emissions equivalent to 20,000 tonnes a year, but also because the switch swooped in years ahead of schedule, simultaneously creating a great deal of jobs across regional NSW.

In the pipeline, new plans to establish a network of green infrastructure which cuts down on energy, waste and water, as well as reduce carbon emissions for the local government area even further, have been put in place. And naturally, with Sydney being Australia’s most popular tourist destination, a large chunk of the City’s work involves engagement with its thriving tourism industry.

Protecting Sydney’s natural beauty

Sydney is a global hotspot for tourism. Offering travellers beachside heaven and cosmopolitan paradise all in one place makes for a winning amalgamation. In the year 2019, 4.1 million international tourists visited Sydney, staying an average of 20 nights. Meanwhile, 12 million domestic tourists dragged the total number of tourists to the city in 2019 up to 16.1 million. When you consider that Sydney is home to just over 5 million people, these numbers are put into perspective.

Yet despite offering a number of benefits and opportunities, it is all too familiar to destinations that the tourism and travel industry can be somewhat environmentally destructive. Regrettably, the industry oozes a disproportionate amount of waste from its hotels, restaurants and attractions, and emits far too much in the way of greenhouse gases on a daily basis. Sydney is of course no exception to this rule.

Yet according to Katie Shammas – Sustainability Engagement Manager at the City of Sydney – conversations with those from within the tourism and travel industry continue to reveal a great deal of willingness when it comes to environmental protection. According to Katie, common ground found in the form of Sydney’s flourishing natural beauty, helps to facilitate communication between the City and the many businesses and organisations which operate within it. Discourse surrounding environmental concern is seen to emphasise the link between Sydney’s natural beauty and the importance of its protection. Katie explains:

“One of the opportunities we have, is that Sydney as a destination is very much connected to nature and natural beauty. We have the harbour the beaches and we are surrounded by various national parks. So I think there is a sense of immediacy for a business due to that connection. Particularly if you are an organisation like a hotel or the Opera House, you very much benefit from people coming to the city for its natural beauty. This connection creates an opportunity for us and helps us very easily engage with the businesses when it comes to the connection between tourism, natural beauty and custodianship of the environment.”

Working with programs such as the Sustainable Destination Partnership – a collaboration of hotels, accommodations, cultural institutions, venues and industry influencers to make Sydney a sustainable destination – Katie’s work focuses on outward facing engagement with businesses to reduce the tourism industry’s environmental impacts. A large part of this involves collaborating with large hotel chains which operate approximately 50% of hotel rooms in the City which in turn results in environmental impact on a relatively large scale.

Working with these Sydney hotels has on the whole been a positive and encouraging experience for Katie, who described the industry as having strong will to create sustainable systems and operations. In fact, a great deal of hotels were said to already have well-established organisational commitments around sustainability; an important ‘first-step’ in a long environmental journey.

Sustainable Sydney protecting marine life
Whales migrating along the NSW coastline

Third-party certifications

A strong will to protect the environment, paired with institutionalised operations that are aimed at reducing impact, are indeed important first steps in a hotel’s sustainability journey. However, as Katie later went on to explain, working with the greening of Sydney’s tourism establishments involves pushing businesses even further beyond their own internal environmental accountability, and towards achieving third-party certifications. Eliminating ‘green-washing’ from hotel marketing strategies and replacing this with evidence in the form of a certification is highly important for tangible and convincing impact.

Whilst establishments are currently seen setting up sustainability teams which work on the greening of their own operations, certifications require high standards, and immediately create an element of trustworthiness for the conscious consumer, who increasingly demands trustworthy credentials. The City of Sydney encourages tourism-related establishments to invest in third-party certifications such as Earth Check; adopted by the Langham Hospitality Group, NABERS Rating; increasingly popular across Sydney, and Green Star, mostly chosen by larger establishments due to its greater cost. Of particular note, the Sydney Opera House has recently been awarded a 5 star Green Star rating, making it the first World Heritage listed building in the world to achieve such credentials.

Sustainable Sydney: The obstacles to greening

Despite some very significant progress in the journey towards a sustainable tourism industry in Sydney, it goes without saying that environmental change in this space is bound to come up against some obstacles. After all, encoring and implementing new ideas in hope of transforming the operations of an entire industry has never been easy. In relation to the ‘greening’ of buildings, Katie explained that one particular barrier made fast and effective environmental action somewhat problematic, particularly in the case of individual hotels.

Dispersed ownership of various hotel and accommodation companies, compared to the buildings in which they operate within the City of Sydney is the root of this obstacle. In other words, who actually operates a building in Sydney, is often somewhat separate to who owns and has the right to make decisions about that building. With real estate owners or property developers of particular hotel buildings located offshore, important decisions relating to eco-friendly building operations become increasingly difficult. Whilst the City of Sydney might foster excellent relations with a hotel chain and successfully encourage them to take steps towards the greening of their hotel building, this separation between owner and operator makes for complications. Katie provided a perfect examples of this:

“When I talk to hotels I say: ‘You have a commitment to having a net zero emission. A key way for you to achieve that is to invest in renewables.’ They will then reply by saying: ‘Yes, I have that commitment, but I have to get my owner in Singapore to sign off on my electricity agreement.’ There’s very much a separation between who operates the building, and the owner.”

Other frustrations for the City of Sydney come in the form of a lack of regulation around buildings in the tourism sector. Office buildings in Sydney are required each year to declare their environmental rating, which in turn drives investment into the greening of buildings. Unfortunately, as Katie described, buildings used for the purpose of tourism – hotels being a great example – are not required to do this. Resultantly, the City currently advocates for not only office buildings but also hotel buildings – which also significantly contribute to energy consumption in the City – to be included in this rating system. Such a regulation would undeniably help to shine a light on the hotel industry’s environmental impacts.

Sustainable Sydney: upping the waterfront's 'green' footprint

Consumer trends and influence

Although the efforts of governments are hugely impactful in a journey towards a sustainable travel industry in Sydney, the consumer dollar and where an individual chooses to spend theirs, is a force not to be underestimated. In other words, the actions of governments and the decisions taken by individual businesses can only go so far.

Consumers are notoriously influential in shaping the tourism industry. Changing trends in traveller behaviours and preferences have seen consumers guiding the industry throughout history. Consider a tourist dollars akin to votes, with which individuals can support or reject the businesses they want to see more or less of, respectively and you can begin to imagine the power of tourist demand. A shift towards the ‘responsible traveller’ or ‘conscious consumer’ is only another of these travel trends which has seen mighty impacts upon a global travel industry which continues to become more environmentally conscious with increased demand.

Yet whilst the spread of ‘sustainable travel’ or ‘eco-tourism’ might be nothing new – with the terms perhaps even overused or considered mainstream today – what does appear to be new according to Katie is the environmental behaviour of travellers across different demographics. As a whole, Katie explained, “all kinds of visitors are demanding environmental credentials from businesses they engage with, that’s definitely a trend we see emerging“. In particular it appears that while eco-conscious behaviour has been typical of backpackers and young people, five star hotels are now beginning to feel the repercussions of the sustainable traveller. Those inclined to a luxury holiday requesting the environmental credentials of the Hilton before booking, is perhaps something a little newer and very exciting in Sydney’s tourism space. A visitor-led demand across broader demographics is undoubtedly then something on its way to causing larger scale change.

Another interesting approach taken by the City of Sydney involves using a bottom-up approach that targets the consumer directly. Specifically, this has involved working to embed environmental values into large corporations and government organisations. Identifying these bodies as large scale consumers of hotels in Sydney themselves, and encouraging their environmental action, has in turn increased demand for eco-friendly hotels. Katie explained to us:

“Big corporate organisations and government organisations annually procure hotel accommodation, because their employees travel to conferences, workshops and exhibitions throughout the year. We’ve been working with these large organisations to embed in their procurement documents that they will always prefer to partner with hotels that have a valid third-party certification.

This clever attempt to shape consumer demand has worked too, with hotels putting in bids to secure annual contracts with large companies, only to realise that they require a certification to be successful. Resultantly, Katie said, hotels begin with the process for a NABERS rating for example, as a way to remain in the running for these contracts.

Sydney skyscrapers

Taking responsibility

Unfortunately, individual travellers don’t use environmentally focused procurement documents, nor do they revive eco-encouragement from local governments prior to booking a hotel room. This is of course not feasible, never mind completely absurd. So how then, should individuals be expected to make less impactful decisions during a holiday to Sydney? Although in general hotels in Sydney seem to be shifting their efforts towards a reduction in energy, waste and water, and obtaining certifications, increased pressure from the consumer could certainly push this process forwards.

Of course taking responsibility for your decisions whilst on holiday doesn’t depend solely on your choice of hotel. As a consumer, decisions as small we which cafe to eat at, and whether you bring a disposable water bottle also make a different when practiced on a large scale. When asked what she would like to see from the individual traveller in Sydney, Katie spoke of not only booking third-party rated hotels, interacting with businesses regarding their credentials, and using ‘green filters’ on booking sites, but also making small responsible decisions throughout a trip.

“It’s about taking personal responsibility. I think it’s fairly easy in your day-to-day life to take your keep cup to your local cafe and carry a water bottle. But when we travel somewhere, that whole mentality of being on holiday comes in and we’re not as organised. I would love for visitors to come to Sydney with their own BYO kit that includes a water bottle, a keep cup and a reusable bag as a minimum.

Sustainable Sydney - reusable water bottles

Our favourite message from our conversation with Katie came when she suggested travellers should consider themselves a temporary part of Sydney’s mission to protect the environment during their stay in the city:

I would love visitors to participate in Sydney’s journey towards zero waste while they’re here. I think that would be a great thing on an individual level.”

Sydney Sustainable Guide

Sustainable Guides will soon release its first ebook travel guide, which will help travellers achieve a more environmentally and socially responsible trip to Sydney. Offering some of the best information available regarding where to eat, drink, sleep and explore, Sustainable Guides creates its travel guides with the environment and ethics in mind, helping make your low-impact trip just as a exciting yet totally effortless.

Follow us on Instagram or Facebook and stay tuned for the release of our Sydney ebook.

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