Councils — small, medium and large — across Australia are on the front lines of decarbonisation. From overseeing building regulations to on the ground energy initiatives, they have the power to make a major impact on Australia’s emissions.
While many are already on the net zero path for their own emissions, local governments of all sizes are also taking actions to bring about change above and beyond their local chambers.
We spoke to three councils to find out their plans for broader reaching climate action, and the challenges to doing so.
Queenscliffe Borough, which sits at the entrance to Port Phillip is the smallest LGA in Victoria, with a population of just around 3000.
“We’ve taken advantage of our small community and the passion within the community, to approach meaningful climate action in a slightly different way,” Councillor Michael Grout said.
In 2020 there was a successful ground-up push for the council to join roughly 100 other local councils in declaring a climate emergency. Giving smaller councils the opportunity for a bigger voice and a platform on which to act.
As a Climate Council report established this week, local councils face the brunt of climate change’s impacts, responsible for protecting public assets and coping in the wake of disasters.
The report, Neighbourhood issue: climate costs and risks to councils, showed that the risk and demand on local government would increase as climate change worsened, calling for more funding and support.
However, being on the front lines also means councils are well placed for two-way community engagement, getting residents on board with changes and helping community-led initiatives get off the ground.
Community members actually initiated, and Queenscliffe council is helping implement, a bulk buy rooftop solar scheme for residents, helping reduce upfront costs and get more systems on roofs.
Partnerships with community groups were crucial to many of the council’s sustainability efforts, particularly those with overlapping interests in the climate change space such as health and environmental groups.
“We work in partnership with our community,” Mr Grout said, “We’ve got quite good involvement with about 16 different community groups within the borough.”
But when it came to mandating sustainable outcomes for buildings, councils hands are essentially tied, despite many pushing for more autonomy.
Many are now calling for more say, Queenscliff included.
“Council operations are very much governed by the statutory framework within the state and the rules within the planning scheme. So, they can’t do what they want to do, they do what the legal clauses allow them to do,” Mr Grout said.
“So, when we declare a climate emergency and sign off on a response plan where we have ambitious targets — it’s like you’re trying to put a fire out but somebody keeps throwing fuel on the fire.”
At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of land size at least, is Mildura Rural City Council. Covering an area of 22,083 square kilometres in Victoria’s north west, it is the state’s largest LGA by land area.
Having so much land has allowed the region to position itself a major producer of solar energy bringing jobs and investment to the region.
There has been roughly $6 billion worth of investment in the Mildura region and Mayor Jason Modica described the Murray Valley as a “green generation valley waiting to happen.”
“The difficult thing there is because of the federal government’s pushback, or how they’re still happy to provide subsidies to coal and other non renewable energies, we have a grid that can’t quite export as much as we produce,” Modica said.
With so much solar in the region, the council was looking closely into installing community batteries, with help from the Victorian government, to keep excess energy from being curtailed and provide cheap power for residents.
As well as seeing the power go far and wide, there was also the opportunity to bring industry to the source.
“We could set up industry here because there’s just so much energy being generated all around our region, whether it’s on rooftops or the big farms from Red cliffs to Ouyan,” Modica said.
“We can really change the dynamic of what manufacturing is and what decentralisation out of the cities could look like.”
In the middle, but facing one of the most immediate threats from climate change in the form of severe bushfires, is the Blue Mountains City Council of NSW.
Mayor Mark Greenhill said on top of lighting efficiency and solar initiatives to cut council emissions, the city had also installed greenhouse gas burners at the local tip to burn off emissions at the source.
“There’s basically a bunch of these pipes sticking up out of the ground all over the landfill. And they’re tapped into the gas that’s underground which emits slowly, and that is burning off and reducing carbon emissions dramatically,” he said.
Another initiative by the Blue Mountains has been to divest all of its investments away from fossil fuels
“After the GFC, we were very conservative in our investments and we just basically invested in the big banks. But then in recent times we realised the big banks are investing heavily in fossil fuels,” Greenhill said.
“We took the view that if we’re going to be reducing emissions and having zero emissions business by 2025, which we’re on track to do, that’s all a bit meaningless if we’re getting returns on our dollar from the fossil fuel industry. So we made a decision to invest only ethically.”
“We’ve had no backlash against that at all from the community. I guess partly that’s because the returns have been great. If they weren’t great we might be hearing more about it, but so far they’ve been really good.”
Federal government support
A common thread is the need for leadership from the upper tiers of government.
“The main thing that would help is something like the framework that’s been put in place to address the pandemic,” Queenslcliffe’s Michael Grout said.
“All the work that we do would be so much easier if we had a national framework that we worked within.”
Mildura’s Jason Modica said the federal government was looking to enable more exports of renewable energy for regional councils areas, but simultaneously was paying huge sums in subsidies to keep coal companies.
“There’s so much in the background that is supporting the ‘play on mentality’ of just supporting large coal, which I understand because you’ve got to build to that transition, it’s not going to happen like flicking a light switch,” he said.
“[But] there is the potential to have a percentage of the subsidies diverted to tackle the challenge of creating a clean, considered renewable energy industry right here in Mildura.”