CLIMATE ACTION PLANS and why some words are not longer enough for this young planner who’s got plenty to say about local governments and their climate action plans.

As a climate and social justice activist and current urban planning student, I’ve hopped on board many climate change movements, from the Sea Shepherd to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and worked in the Northern Territory Department of Planning.

Through these journeys, I’ve come to believe that the key to meaningful action lies somewhere in our socio-spatial processes.

Witnessing the momentum of local councils declaring a climate emergency has been rather exciting, creating hope in us as citizens and leading us to believe our political representatives can actually be our partners in the struggle for climate justice (wild thought… I know!)

This momentum led me to intern at a sustainably focused development company. I’ve spent the last three months reading, logging, analysing and talking about the 15 Climate Emergency Action Plans developed by councils in Australia and New Zealand. Here’s where I landed.

Climate Change Action Plans – the good the bad and the ugly

Many of the plans perfectly articulated the dire predicament local councils find themselves in, writing hopeful and ambitious opening statements of what the plans will achieve. Bayside for example wrote:

“We are one of the highest greenhouse gas emitters per capita in the world. By reducing emissions, aligning to the ‘Paris Agreement’ targets, and preparing for the impacts of climate change locally, we are contributing to the solution, not the problem.”

In their seminal 2017 plan, Darebin declared a goal of community carbon neutrality by 2020, while Bass Coast Shire committed to:

“Drive a transformation within Council to embed climate emergency considerations across all operations and decisions”.

However, once I got down to the actionable items, it became apparent that most of these aspirational statements were lacking the resources to uphold them.

Some plans did articulate actions in a way which gave confidence that they were going to be implemented. For example, the Glen Eira Draft Climate Emergency Strategy clearly set out their targets in Goal 5, stating that council will achieve net zero emissions by 2025, then outlines the actions required to achieve the target each having a clear timeframe, budget allocation, departments accountable, and measuring mechanisms ascribed.

Although this sounds like a simple, logical flow, it was surprisingly absent in many of the plans like the City of Greater Dandenong which included over 100 actions, most of which were without clear timeframes or measurement indicators.

Shockingly (and this is the ugly part) only half of the plans overviewed included any actions relating to Indigenous custodianship.

Only Mornington Peninsula Shire, Auckland City Council and Glen Eira integrated more than two actions regarding collaboration with Traditional Owners into their emergency planned response.

Beautifully, Auckland City Council delivered their comprehensive strategy informed by restoring the Maori (life essence) of Tamaki Makaurau, making their plan especially impactful.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that Indigenous sovereignty and knowledge systems need to be acknowledged and integrated into policy in order to confront the threat of climate change. It was therefore dispiriting to see that although many of the plans acknowledge the Traditional Custodians, it did not translate into their actionable items.   

Spheres of Influence – every council is unique

Some councils, like City of Yarra are resource-rich while others, like Indigo Shire are smaller and have smaller pools of resources to draw from. It was inspirational to see how different councils worked within their spheres of influence to inform creative actions and leading practice.

Some of my favourites included the City of Yarra’s detailed set of actions addressing car parking and car ownership using statutory tools and planning mechanisms.

Bass Coast included profound actions around farmer incentives for regenerative agricultural practices and Mornington Shire focused on building capacity within their communities in the face of increased bushfire risk.

These are inspiring areas of action and are a lesson in council leadership.

State of Emergency and Institutional Constraints

Overall, I was most struck by the dissonance between the aspirational opening statements of many of the climate emergency action plans, and their adjoining politically sensitive and watered-down actions.

Declaring a state of emergency requires a system wide transformation which “adjusts the hierarchy of priorities… placing climate change at the centre of policy and planning decisions”.

Despite the obvious passion of many council staff and the councillors themselves, these plans are being executed within business-as-usual institutional frameworks.

In my view, this stops them from becoming the policy instruments they need to be to respond effectively and rapidly to the climate emergency.

How can the City of Darebin aim to achieve carbon neutrality by last year without a major overhaul of rental and home retrofit practices?

As a citizen and a 20-something facing increasingly scary climate impacts, I’m not impressed with the words “aim to”, “advocate” and “support” anymore.

Councils published detailed outcomes which are not entirely within their control in a normative, silo-ised governance system. Council should be commended for pushing up the bar, but they need federal and state collaboration to jump over it.

Overall, the plans were detailed and responsive pieces of policy. Yet in continuing the business-as-usual governing practice of writing policy documents that then slowly ascend the ladder of bureaucracy to be signed off, it is unlikely to gain the momentum that is necessary to achieve an appropriate level of action.

As a citizen and a 20-something facing increasingly scary climate impacts, I’m not impressed with the words “aim to”, “advocate” and “support” anymore.

I need to see a true transformation in governing decision-making priorities that reflects the true sense of emergency. I need to see institutional resource allocation and prioritization of climate change actions by all levels of government. Now.

Mia Ifergan is a Master of Urban Planning Student at RMIT and works casually in community engagement at Capire Consulting. She is a member of Friends of the Earth Sustainable Cities Collective and the emerging Planners Declare movement. The internship she mentions was at  HIP V. HYPE. Contact Mia

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  1. While the crisis is being exposed more but without the help of the iron grip of commercialism in the mass media and their corporate mates, the other issue is to show what sort of future and society we could have. That comes down to a socio-economic ideology and not the tow evils of communism and capitalism. A synthesis in fact based upon the progressive utilisation of resources and potential. One factor being the establishment of an economic democracy. When a vacuum is create is has to be. Let this not be another limiting set of dogmas by the exploiters. We don’t have to pull the ‘system’ apart because it is happening by its own hands.

  2. Great article, Mia! You’ve succinctly captured the major limitations of public policy in committing to climate action and that is no easy feat! As a 20-something I also feel your dissatisfaction with the board and lofty commitments. Rearranging institutional priorities requires a collective effort, and elevating common limitations as you have done here helps evoke a greater sense of urgency to a larger crowd. Well done.

  3. Well done for trawling through all the necessary documents, Mia. I feel your pain! In the field of built environment accessibility, there has been more than enough ‘policy’ developed, but making real change continues to be elusive.