Climate change through a sub-national lens | Thought Starters 18 September

With the Conference of the Parties (COP-21) session in Paris fast approaching, the issue of climate change is about to be centre-stage on the global policy agenda. Australian citizens can be forgiven for being pessimistic in the lead-up to COP-21; many remember the way in which the 2009 conference in Copenhagen saw several countries at loggerheads and the chances of a comprehensive, binding global agreement on climate change substantially undermined.

Australia’s major political parties continue to wage war over their favoured public policy response, as well as the degree to which they believe the science. Rigid partisanship and petty politicking have undoubtedly tainted the issue of climate change in Australia and have left those who care about the issue feeling deflated and disheartened.

However, Australians can find a great deal of encouragement, optimism and hope by examining climate policy outside the confines of Canberra. Local government is fast becoming a climate change leader in both the national and international spheres. Australia is home to a range of proactive local councils which are taking the issue into their own hands and combatting climate change regardless of the stalemate currently seen at the federal level.

Furthermore, local government authorities both here and abroad are increasingly looking to one another for inspiration and assistance in the development and implementation of locally directed sustainability initiatives. Around the globe, a range of international climate networks have formed including Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) and the R20 Regions of Climate Action (R20), which seek to bring together governments at the local, state and regional levels and prompt the sharing of ideas and expertise.

The role cities must play in combatting climate change should not be understated. C40 has asserted that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities, which will ultimately produce 75 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions. With this in mind, a range of sub-national networks have joined forces with the City of Paris to organise a “Summit of Local Governments for Climate” during COP-21 and have pushed for an entire day of the Paris conference to be devoted to the role of cities and local government in future climate action.

The emergence and continued growth of these intergovernmental networks represents a significant move towards global governance as a mechanism to address what is very clearly a global problem. The oft-heard phrase “think globally, act locally” is encapsulated by these attempts of local governments to come together, forge partnerships and exchange ideas of best practice unimpeded by national borders and stubborn national governments. Whilst the federal parliament has been and will remain the principal authority for Australia’s engagement with the international community, a number of cities across the country have seized the opportunity to bypass its power and work with those in other countries to achieve far-reaching, practical change in this policy space.

We can look to the Sydney and Melbourne City Councils as leading examples of local governments taking positive action on climate change. Both cities have taken a multi-pronged approach in relation to their planning efforts, focussing both on mitigation – implementing measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent future ecological hazards – and adaptation – minimising the risks associated with the unavoidable ramifications of climate change and ensuring that the cities are resilient to its effects in the long term. Both councils have developed a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan for their municipality, which lays out the precise risks facing Sydney and Melbourne if climatic alterations were to drastically accelerate in the future.

In these densely populated, highly urbanised cities, improving the energy efficiency and overall sustainability of major buildings has emerged as a high priority. Sydney City Council has completed a $6.9 million retrofit of city buildings and is progressively rolling out 5,500 solar panels across Council properties. Similarly, the City of Melbourne has introduced its 1200 Homes initiative, which oversees the provision of grants and rebates to building owners, managers and facility managers who are willing to install effective cool roof products and improve the energy efficiency of buildings all across the city.

The total number of undertakings of Sydney and Melbourne go beyond these significant initiatives, and such actions will prove essential in combatting climate change as the population of these cities grow substantially into the future.

The emergence of climate change as a major priority is not only limited to the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. Various local government bodies have sought to tackle this issue together. Local municipalities across South Australia have forged a climate-based partnership through the Eastern Region Alliance, consisting of cities such as Burnside, Campbelltown, Unley and Adelaide City Council. Victoria’s emphasis on the importance of local knowledge in this space has led to the Victorian Adaptation and Sustainability Partnership (VASP), a partnership between the state government and each of Victoria’s 79 local councils with the aim of effectively synchronising local efforts to tackle climate change.

Climate change action is also being seen in Australia’s regions, with Uralla having been selected by the New South Wales government to become the first zero net energy town in the state; having already used solar power in local aged care facilities and to heat the local swimming pool, Uralla’s win has secured $105,000 for a feasibility study to see what mix of renewables can convert the town to green power.

Of course we want to see a comprehensive and binding global agreement emerge from COP-21. It is crucial that our national leaders step up to face this increasingly urgent challenge. If Paris comes to be regarded as Copenhagen 2.0, it should be known that a vast array of cities, towns, states and regions across the globe are seeking to secure their municipalities against the impacts of climate change, and will continue to outmanoeuvre national governments on this issue. Although a leadership vacuum is currently on display in Canberra, there are a number of sub-national governments that deserve credit for the important steps they have taken to address this issue and make their economies viable for the long term.

Matthew Bowron is a CPD research intern and holds a Master of Public Policy. He is the author of CPD’s scoping paper ‘Global Problem, Local Solutions’.



Picture: Nicola Jones 

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