LESLEY HUGHES. Solving the climate crisis: one city at a time

Jul 19, 2017

Although Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, many cities in the US (and in Australia) are taking climate change matters into their own hands, thumbing their collective noses at ideological-driven policy paralysis at the federal level.

As a rationale for withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump boldly pronounced that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”. Alliteration notwithstanding, he picked the wrong city. The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, fired back within minutes – “Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow the Paris agreement.” The Steel City is far from alone – cities all over the world are stepping up to curb emissions and move to a more sustainable future. Many in the US and Australia in particular, are simply taking climate change matters into their own hands, thumbing their collective noses at ideological-driven policy paralysis at federal level.

In 2014, the world’s population passed a significant milestone – for the first time, more than half of humanity (54%) resided in urban areas. This proportion is expected to increase to more than two thirds by 2050. A direct consequence of this demographic trend is that for the foreseeable future, the majority of the world’s peoples will continue to directly experience the impacts of climate change in a city or town.

These impacts are already significant. Increasing episodes of extreme heat, in particular, are exacerbated by the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect.  This phenomenon results from a combination of dark surfaces, the trapping of hot air between buildings, limited tree cover, and other heat-trapping and heat-inducing factors, which can increase urban air temperatures by at least 1-3oC compared to surrounding areas. In the evening, the difference can be more extreme, reaching as high as 12oC above normal, depending on the time of year.

Urban areas also do more than their fair share of contributing to the climate change problem, accounting for over two thirds of global energy demand and around three quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming the way energy is used and generated in cities and towns worldwide has the potential to deliver 70% of the total emissions reductions needed to stay on track for the 2oC limit set under the Paris Agreement – compared to expected emissions based on policies currently in place.

In the face of ongoing chaos in national level climate policy, several Australian states are forging ahead with ambitious renewable energy targets. But local governments are also rising to the low carbon challenge, described in the latest report from the Climate Council of Australia, Local leadership: tracking local government progress on climate change”.

The concept that local leadership can tackle a global program was encapsulated in Paris in December 2015, when more than 1,000 mayors, local representatives and community leaders came together at the Climate Summit for Local Leaders to sign a declaration supporting a transition to 100% Renewable Energy. A further demonstration of leadership occurred when mayors, officials and industry leaders from 90 cities met in Mexico in December 2016 to share and highlight best practice climate action. Globally, cities anticipate US$375 billion in investment in climate action by 2020, with the majority focused on transitioning to renewable energy and sustainable transport. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement simply strengthened this resolve. More than 350 US mayors responded to the President’s decision by committing to reaching 100% renewable energy for their communities by 2035. Further, a group of mayors, state governments and companies from the United States are preparing a plan to meet the United States’ Paris emissions reductions targets in the absence of federal government commitment.

Concerted local action is also evident here. Australia is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world, with two-thirds of the population living in capital cities and four out of ten Australians living in Melbourne and Sydney. Some of Australia’s capital cities are leading the way: Canberra is on track to source 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 with zero net emissions by 2050 at the latest; the City of Adelaide is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020; the City of Sydney aims to source 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and to have net zero emissions by 2030; the City of Melbourne aims for 25% renewable electricity by 2018 and net zero emissions by 2020; the City of Brisbane aims to have its Council operations carbon neutral by 2017 (Perth, Darwin and Hobart – where are you?).

Many smaller regional centres are displaying similar ambition, with one in five councils surveyed across Australia aiming for “100% renewable energy” or “zero emissions”. Some examples include Yackandandah – 100% renewable energy by 2022; Lismore -100% renewable energy by 2023; Uralla – 100% renewable energy in 5 to 10 years; Newstead – 100% renewable energy by 2017; City of Darebin, and Moreland and Yarra city councils in Melbourne, as well Byron Shire in NSW, aiming for zero net emissions.

To support local council initiatives, the Climate Council has just launched the Cities Power Partnership (CPP) program. The CPP will provide incentives for local councils to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency, improve transport sustainability and work together. Members of the partnership will have access to a national knowledge hub and an online analytics tool to measure energy, cost and emissions savings of projects; be buddied with other councils to share knowledge; receive visits from domestic and international experts; be connected to community energy groups; and be celebrated at events with other local leaders. Thirty five councils signed up to the CPP before it was officially launched – representing 1 in 10 Australians (more than 12 per cent of the population). The Climate Council aims for nothing less than all 537 local governments joining the program.

Thinking globally, acting locally, has never been a more relevant aspiration.

Lesley Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Biology at Macquarie University and a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia.

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