Leading the way: low carbon policies and measures in Australia’s capital cities

21 Feb 2018

In Australia, capital cities are increasingly stepping forward to offer leadership on greenhouse gas abatement to a degree not evident at the national level nor in many states and territories.
In 2016, over 82% of all Australian local governments had zero emissions targets for their operations, while 18% had similar targets for their communities.
Major cities such as Melbourne and Adelaide are committed to achieving zero carbon cities by or before 2020, while Canberra and Sydney are targeting zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. Many Victorian councils are setting above-national-minimum standards for buildings, compensating for standards frozen at the national level since 2010. Smaller as well as large councils are targeting 100% renewable electricity, as well as adopting best practices such as electrifying vehicle fleets and adopting LED street- and traffic-lighting. Some councils are making direct investment in large-scale renewable energy generation projects, while others are choosing to procure it via power purchase agreements or other mechanisms.
The phenomenon of city-level leadership is not at all confined to Australia. Internationally, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, the C40, the Compact of Mayors, Climate Mayors, Energy Cities and other forums provide learning and benchmarking opportunities for cities, branding benefits, and some competitive/reputational pressure as well, for cities that are committed to taking action on climate change.
At the Climate Summit for Local Leaders in Paris, 1,000 mayors, including several from Australia, signed a declaration supporting a transition to 100% Renewable Energy.
In the US, following the Trump Administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, 372 US Mayors representing 67 million citizens publicly committed to ‘…adopt, honour, and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement…to meet each of our cities climate goals, [and to] push for new action to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius target…’.
However, Australian cities have limited legislative powers and limited resources. The extent to which they have, and are able to, put in place substantive measures to achieve their low carbon aspirations varies.
Canberra, as a ‘city state’, is able to benefit from jurisdictional scheme provisions in the National Energy Law, that have enabled it to be on-track to achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2020. Other cities have no access to such provisions under present law.
The case of South Australia/Adelaide shows that strong collaboration between Australian cities and their host states is possible in the quest for emissions abatement and a shared vision of sustainable economic development.
At the same time, half of Australia’s capital cities are not strongly engaged in abatement, at least outside their own operations, while others have aspirations not yet matched by effective policy frameworks.
Overall, we cannot expect cities to do the heavy lifting on carbon abatement for the whole of Australia: they lack the powers for this role, even if they have the will. Eventually, national leadership to implement a comprehensive suite of least-cost and effective policies will be necessary.
In the meantime, the leadership that some Australian cities are showing is creating community engagement, role models, demonstrations and case studies that are inspiring and germinating new initiatives elsewhere, even without national support.
The CRCLCL’s extensive body of research into low carbon opportunities and strategies in the built environment provides a remarkable resource for cities, inter alia, to draw on to enhance the reach and effectiveness of their abatement efforts in future. With more and more cities fully integrating low or zero carbon futures into their strategic as well as operational plans, there is a significant opportunity to build upon the base created by CRC LCL, to help accelerate the growth of vibrant, productive and sustainable cities in Australia.

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