City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and sustainability director Chris Derksema

The NSW Government may be holding out on the global move to net zero, but it isn’t stopping the City of Sydney, which on Monday night passed an environmental action plan committing the entire local government area to net zero emissions by 2050.

The Environmental Action 2016-2021 Strategy and Action plan will also see 50 per cent of the council’s electricity provided by renewables by 2021 – a large leap from the current three per cent – and 50 per cent of the LGA’s electricity from renewables by 2030.

To reach the lofty renewables targets, the city is expected to pursue aggregated power purchase agreements similar to that currently being explored by the City of Melbourne, though City of Sydney sustainability director Chris Derksema told The Fifth Estate the council was currently still investigating all its options, which could include encouraging the use of GreenPower and direct investment in renewable projects.

The buildings sector, which is is responsible for 80 per cent of the City’s emissions, is a key battleground. Programs like the Better Buildings Partnership are already making huge dents in the city’s commercial building emissions, and an initiative announced to further reduce emissions is a “net zero challenge” for new buildings. While there is little detail on the initiative at present, it is expected to reward the first new building to meet the criteria of the net zero certification currently being finalised by the Green Building Council of Australia.

For the residential sector, the City will instigate an energy retrofit program. A NABERS for residential tool – an announcement on which the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage is shortly expected to make – is seen as integral to meeting the goal to cut residential emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

Trigeneration, which the City previously had ambitious expansion plans for, provides a much more modest contribution to the emissions reduction goal, a victim of rising gas prices and an inhibitive regulatory environment. According to Derksema, it will still be used for council assets, such as swimming pools, where the requirement for constant heat loads makes the technology more economically viable.

Advocacy central to meeting goals

For council operations, a sticking point could be the large number of streetlights the city must include in its energy accounting, but which are controlled by electricity distributor AusGrid. These streetlights represent the single largest emissions reduction opportunity for the City to meet its interim 2021 target of a 44 per cent reduction on 2006 levels.

The city plans to “advocate for Ausgrid to upgrade all its street lighting to more efficient LED bulbs”, however Ausgrid has been accused of dragging its feet on LED upgrades for years. The Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia in 2014 released a report slamming electricity distribution utilities for stalling on upgrading assets to LEDs and grossly over-inflating valuations for old lighting technology. It suggested the transfer of lighting assets to councils due to a split incentive that stymied the speedy rollouts of LEDs.

This is just one example where, as a council, there are a number of barriers outside Sydney’s control, so where it can not directly intervene it is advocating for change, including on raising minimum BASIX standards, increasing urban renewal sustainability outcomes and reforming the energy market.

On market reform, one pressing issue is the difficulty of buildings being able to share renewable energy amongst themselves. Currently full network charges are payable if a building wants to send solar power to another building across the road. A rule change by the City of Sydney, Property Council and Total Environment Centre aims to change this. However, the determination, which was expected to be made in July, has been postponed until 22 September 2016 by the Australian Energy Market Commission.

Competition between cities

The announcement puts Sydney in competition with the City of Adelaide, which is attempting to become the “world’s first carbon neutral city”. The difference is, however, that Adelaide has struck up a partnership with the state government to help it get there, whereas a partnership of this type seems unlikely given the current NSW state government’s silence on climate change.

In this context it’s definitely an ambitious strategy, but one the City of Sydney is confident about, pointing to the successes it has already clocked up. Emissions across the city are down by 19 per cent since 2006 despite growth of 27 per cent, and the council has offset all carbon emissions of its organisation since 2011.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the plan was a direct response to the global agreement made in Paris at COP21.

“World leaders agreed to limit global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris last year,” Ms Moore said.

“Temperatures are already increasing and by 2070 Sydney could be up to three degrees hotter. The City of Sydney is getting on with the job of slowing this dangerous warming while setting bold new targets for the future.”

Other targets in the plan include:

  • zero increase in potable water use by 2030 based on 2006 levels
  • 70 per cent recycling and recovery of residential waste by 2021
  • increased canopy cover by 50 per cent by 2030

The draft plan will be on public exhibition from 30 June to 12 August at sydneyyoursay.com.au