Peace Park, Chippendale. Image: City of Sydney

We need to take rapid action to deal with the climate crisis. Unfortunately, our local councils aren’t moving fast enough.

I’m walking to wake up.

Ahead, the sign says “Peace Park”.

Magpies suddenly uncork their piercing, beautiful song.

Bunched trees lean into each other, pleaching. 

Fresh air is crisp on my skin, cool in my nostrils. Peace abides in me.

A dog marks its territory on a plant, its jet steamy on this cold autumn morning.

My morning walk is my window to the world.

This time, something shifts in me.

I see differently the drain pipes, gutters and puddles I’ve seen thousands of times.

I get a new answer to my question: How can we undo wasting water 24/7 in our cities?

The sudden urgency I feel is Earth’s emergency, triggered by the precious beauty around me.

“Toilets in modern water closets rise up from the floor like white lilies. The architect does all he can to make the body forget how paltry it is, and to make man ignore what happens to his intestinal wastes after the water from the tank flushes them down the drain. Even though the sewer pipes reach far into our houses with their tentacles, they are carefully hidden from view, and we are happily ignorant of the invisible Venice of shit underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls, and parliaments.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Last month, on 5 April 2022, United Nations scientists told us we have 30 months left to stop polluting Earth if we’re to prevent collapsing the climate.

This is the next month, May.

There’s 29 months left.

New science this month says it’s inevitable Earth will – in the next few years – reach the temperature when floods, droughts, weather and seasons begin to collapse.

My answer is in front of me, and you.

Let’s use our parks and streets to harvest the sun to make local electricity. Let’s cut urban heat there by keeping rain where it falls.  I respond strongest to what’s around me. So do my neighbours, even those uninterested in climate change.  The slowest responders, however, are Australian local councils.

For us an “emergency” is when our roof collapses from rain, or a car accident victim needs an emergency ambulance.  Some of us who’ve applied “climate emergency” to ourselves have stopped catching planes and take trains, always (or mostly) don’t eat red meat, buy from local farmers markets, and use second hand clothes. We just get on and do things straight away.

But councils take years to cut their pollution. Before a council responds to a climate “emergency”, it makes a plan to stop its pollution. That takes six or more months. A mayor typically wants a big announcement and big dollars have to be found in the budget, which takes even more months. Then a plan is implemented many more months later. 

By 2021, at the last count, 103 of Australia’s 537 local councils had declared a climate emergency. Several aim to cut their climate pollution to zero by 2030. I don’t believe they will or can.

• Local councils keep approving black roof houses and building black roads

For example, eight years ago, on 2 June 2014, the ABC’s Lateline program recorded heat waves shimmering off black roofs and roads in western Sydney and said cities need to adapt to deadly heatwaves. This alarm was ignored.

Councils in Sydney’s west approved thousands of black-roofed homes for years, despite the ABC program and other warnings since. They’re still doing it.

Eight year later, on 8 May 2022, those homes were again declared unsafe. The body representing those councils has a tool to measure the harm, but there’s no ban on black roofs or roads there.

Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 2022.

Rather than temporary evacuation shelters, I’d suggest they invest in more permanent solutions, such as keeping rain where it falls to cool cities.

Before we build Australian cities, about 80 per cent of the rain is absorbed where it falls.  After we build about 80 per cent of water runs to the ocean or rivers and the soil dries out.

Climate change includes “water change” – it causes higher evaporation. That evaporation is reduced when rain is kept where it falls and absorbed below ground. Absorbed water cools our roads, footpaths, houses and parks.

Peace Park is surrounded by red rivers of heat as this urban heat image shows. About 23 per cent of the land is streets and parks, almost none of which harvest free solar or rain.

Peace Park, shown in this heat map, can be cooled by keeping water in the soil. Image: author supplied

When I asked about it this year, my local council refused to do these easy things:

  • harvest sunlight in Peace park, and all its sunlit blessed parks, for park lights and equipment
  • stop using plastic grass in existing and new parks, which puts microplastic pollution into Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, while increasing the heat
  • harvest rain in this and the 60 parks it’s re-building through to 2032
  • stop using water pumped in Sydney Water’s 23,000 kilometres of pipes, as they require huge amounts of climate polluting energy, and put it in the state’s top 20 climate polluters

Here’s how a big council decision is undone by small decisions like those above. 

Peace park’s paths are level with the grass or garden. This washes rain, leaves and dog droppings into the waters of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. Image: Author supplied

Three years ago, in 2019, my local council declared a “climate emergency”. Two years later, after a $100 million dollar big decision, it purchased and began using solar power in its buildings. Great.

But it’s using sunlight harvested from solar panels hundreds of kilometres away. Between 8 to 15 per cent of that energy is lost through long-distance transmission lines.  

Still, council workers continue to come to and from Peace Park each week in climate-destroying diesel and petrol trucks. Their petrol leaf blowers blow dust, microplastics and leaves into the gutter for rain water and gravity to pollute water, where the declining fish and marine plants live. That pollution is in 60 council parks.

The council, like most, has no emergency plan to make parks sustainable for water and energy, only its buildings by 2035.  

Leaves, rubbish and microplastics near Peace Park begin their journey to pollute Sydney Harbour. Image: Author supplied

In Peace Park, each year council wastes over 900,000 litres of rain water – one Olympic-sized swimming pool – by diverting it to pollute the harbour. 

I estimate over 100 million litres of wasted rain runs from its 60 council parks to pollute the harbour each year. 

The many solutions for retrofitting Australian parks, footpaths and streets to keep water where it falls are cheap and simple. During the past four months of continual Sydney rain no stormwater – over 50,000 litres – left my house

Anyone can do this in their houses, streets and parks. In Chippendale, at our own expense ($300), and with our own shovels and community backbones, 40 homes keep about 1 million litres of water out of Sydney Harbour each year with “leaky drains”. These streets are the coolest here.  

Australia’s local councils could stop the heat and pollution from parks, gutters, drains, downpipes and roads in a couple of years. They could offer rate rebates to ratepayers who install a leaky drain to keep rainwater in footpath gardens outside their house.

My guestimate is leaky drains can cool 3000 to 5000 houses for a one-off cost of about $5 per house.  Householders could provide free labour. 

We did this with the council for a city block in Chippendale The photos below include a child in thongs as she puts in the leaky pipe – this is child’s play.

The truth I reached looking around Peace Park is: local councils won’t take emergency action, big or small, in their roads and parks by 2025.

Pointing my finger at government inaction is no escape from the science that also applies to me. 

My answer is: the power and the responsibility to do big and small things is mine. 

Here’s my solution so far with the small things I’m doing:

  • no car
  • only public transport
  • no plane flights
  • only local food from farmers markets
  • eat fish, oysters – no red meat or rarely
  • keep chooks for eggs
  • no food waste – all composted for chooks, and to grow plants, trees and food
  • only solar power, no gas or mains electricity
  • only rainwater, no town water, no town sewer
  • all my sewage recycled to flush toilets, wash clothes and gardening
  • buy nothing made overseas unless there’s no alternative. For example, this month I stopped using my 60 litre gas oven. I roast, fry and re-heat in a 3.5 litre electric air fryer made in China – it’s more energy efficient and is solar powered so it costs me nothing and pollutes nothing
  • whenever I vote, I vote to change local, state and federal governments, for genuine climate activists

What’s yours?

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  1. Great article thankyou Michael. I agree with almost everything you say but a few corrections.
    – 1-2% losses only in electricity lines even over hundreds of kms. Investment in large scale solar farms is a good thing and sometimes the only option available for businesses.
    – energy intensity of water treatment and transport to your house by Sydney Water is about 0.2-0.3kWh/kL. If you have to pump water from your tank to your house it will be more like 0.4kWh/kL. Saving Water is a good thing but it is also energy intensive
    – as above if you intend to treat and re-use your own sewage.

  2. Climate Change is easier to solve than you think.

    First, a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty + Pollution Trading System/Pollution Price.

    Then rapid action in four key areas – Urban Environments, Electrification, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. These four things are greatly interconnected.

    Take urban environments for example. They should be people, not car centric – dense, liveable, walkable, bikeable places that inconvenience cars and make public transport a first class option. Such urban areas greatly reduce the amount of vehicles and buildings that need to be electrified and use much less energy, which in turn, reduces the total amount of renewable energy needed to be built, allowing us to reach our goals faster.

    Of course, there are other sectors, such as waste(/recycling) and agriculture, but everything falls into those categories one way or another.

    However, the “action areas” won’t rapidly happen by themselves especially without the first 3 things – a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty + Pollution Trading System/Pollution Price and Urban Environments.

    Only problem is, no one really wants that rapid action, and even if they do it doesn’t include the necessary 3 things above.

    I made a crappy word document outlining this with a few text boxes and titles, but having watched the videos from Not Just Bikes, I now know that urban environments have also have a key role to play. I haven’t updated it to reflect that yet.