Chart showing the difference in cumulative emissions from Indigo Shire

Climate Emergency actions and target dates

Journalists and others who blithely repeat the myth that Climate Emergency Declarations (CEDs) are ‘just symbolic’ or ‘just words’ would do well to set up Google Alerts on ‘climate emergency’. I routinely see news about post-CED actions taken by local councils. These include bans on fossil fuel use in new buildings, insulation schemes for low-income homes, adoption of Climate Emergency Action Plans and carbon neutrality targets, allocation of budget for climate strategies, rewilding and tree planting, tackling waste, renewable electricity projects, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, climate events and drop-in centres, and so on. You can see plenty of examples on cedamia’s Council post-CED actions page.

Some examples receiving media coverage in just the last two days include a new repair cafe supported by Godalming Town Council in the UK and, from the Abingdon Town Council website, a Climate Conversations event. Incidentally, Item 1 of council’s ‘Key Objectives’ listed on the Abingdon website homepage is:

1. To respond effectively and speedily to the climate emergency.

Town and Parish councils are the lowest tier of local government in the UK and have very limited powers and responsibilities compared with Australian councils and mid-tier UK councils. My impression though is what they lack in scope they make up for with effective community engagement – possibly the main game given the need for everyone to tackle the Climate Emergency.

Emissions reductions achieved by Indigo Shire Council

Also just yesterday, and on a different scale and the other side of the globe (Australia), this Council Magazine article reported the outcomes at Indigo Shire Council resulting from the first year of their participation in the Victorian Electricity Collaboration (VECO) scheme. Under that scheme, 46 local councils collaborated to secure a power purchase agreement to buy all their electricity from two Victorian wind farms. 26 of those councils, including Indigo Shire, have declared a Climate Emergency and Indigo Shire has set a target of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Participation in the VECO scheme has reduced Indigo Shire Council’s emissions from their own operations by 1,100 t CO2-e over the last year.

EMissions reductions achieved by Indigo Shire Council

The biggest reduction has been in their Scope 2 emissions, which includes the indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity.

To put that 2021/22 total emissions figure of 19 t CO2-e in perspective, the average per capita emissions per year in Australia in 2020 was 19.9 t CO2-e. Simply by buying 100% renewable electricity, Indigo Council’s own operations now have slightly less negative climate impact than the everyday living of one ‘average’ Australian. (The per capita figure for the UK is 7.3, and much of Europe has similar relatively low figures.)

What difference will achieving local emissions reduction target dates make?

It’s not completely clear from the Indigo Shire website whether its 2035 net-zero target applies to the entire community rather than just to council operations. Assuming it does, and if the target is achieved, this will result in the 16,490 people living in the Shire producing a total of 2,625,208 t CO2-e between 2020 and 2035 and net-zero after that. If instead the community only reaches net-zero by 2050 in line with the national Australian target, they would produce 5,086,341 t CO2-e by 2050.

Chart showing the difference in cumulative emissions from Indigo Shire

Of the 112 CED councils in Australia, 50 have announced clear community-wide carbon neutral or net-zero target dates ranging from 2025 to 2050.

Chart showing the GHG emissions to 2050 from council areas with earlier target dates
The emissions column shows t CO2-e between 2020 and 2050 assuming net-zero is reached by the targeted year

If all 39 of the councils with target dates earlier than 2050 achieve those goals, they will emit 702,033,215 t CO2-e before reaching net-zero. If instead those communities only reach net-zero by 2050 in line with the national Australian target, they would produce almost twice as much: 1,348,951,171 t CO2-e by 2050.

Chart showing cumulative emissions from CED council areas in Australia with earlier targets

Setting ‘as soon as possible’ as a carbon neutral or net-zero target date

Some local councils in the UK and USA have simply set ‘asap’ as their community-wide target. Is this a cop-out, or is it the only serious target to set?

The above charts show the significant benefit from setting target dates earlier than 2050, but climate impacts are already dangerous. Every tonne of emissions between now and reaching net-zero will only make things worse. Even achieving a 2025 or 2030 community-wide target will do that.

From that grim perspective, a seriously implemented ‘as soon as possible’ target, based on thinking that every tonne of avoided emissions will make future climate impacts a little less bad, seems like a logical choice.

It’s tricky! Setting ‘asap’ might leave a lot of wiggle room. Some people might think it means tomorrow and some might think anything earlier than 2050 is not possible. Setting a specific date makes a council’s ambition less ambiguous, but the down side is that it suggests the adopted date is sufficient to achieve a safe climate…and that we don’t necessarily need to act just yet.


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map showing the 114 Climate Emergency Declarations in Australia before August 2022

Climate Emergency: declarations and/or actions?

Last week saw two new Climate Emergency Declarations (CEDs) in Australia, taking the total to 114, along with some interesting twists and turns. Liverpool City Council in NSW and Derwent Valley Council in Tasmania both passed CED motions, and Eurobodalla Shire Council adopted a new 10-year Climate Action Plan but postponed a decision on declaring a Climate Emergency.

The Liverpool CED is the first example I’ve seen of a council developing their climate action plan as a precursor to passing a Climate Emergency motion. However, in April this year Nillumbik Shire Council also took an atypical step by declaring a Climate Emergency and simultaneously adopting their Climate Action Plan 2022-2032.

Item 2 of the Liverpool motion explicitly “Acknowledges the progress made in developing and adopting a Climate Change Policy and Action Plan”. The preamble to their motion provides a clear hint of a reason for doing so:

Some have called declarations of climate emergencies as largely symbolic or tokenistic, that don’t entail substantial or systematic changes.

Claims that CEDs are ‘just words’ are so ubiquitous that it is easy to imagine a council wanting to avoid such criticism. But is it a valid criticism? Where is the evidence? Have CED critics bothered to look at the track records of CED councils to see what they have done, or do they just assume that claim is true because such a large number of media articles say so?

Which should come first – climate emergency declarations or action plans?

The vast majority of CED councils globally have declared a Climate Emergency first. Many (but not all) of the CED motions have included a commitment to develop and implement a Climate Emergency Action Plan.

The Derwent Valley CED motion follows that typical pattern. Part of Item C commits to:

Engage with our community, staff, climate experts, and other stakeholders to develop a Climate Emergency Action Plan in line with the review of the Council’s Strategic Plan

The discussion points included in the minutes identify many advantages of declaring a Climate Emergency, but one that relates specifically to the timing of a declaration states:

Declaring a climate emergency would provide a clear mandate for the council to embed climate emergency response in our operations and put climate emergency response as the top priority for all strategy and policy reviews.

In contrast, Eurobodalla Shire’s approach appears to be to wait on a mandate from their community, firstly to develop the action plan they’ve just adopted, then to potentially declare a Climate Emergency sometime in the future.

The declaration first scenario reflects the notion that a local council has a responsibility to take a leadership role in an emergency: firstly to announce that there is an emergency, and then to say what they are doing and what the local community can do to tackle the emergency. That makes sense to me, but on the other hand, a key challenge for society-wide change is for local councils to ‘take the community along’ with their climate emergency action. From that perspective, it will be interesting to see if the Eurobodalla approach ultimately proves to be more effective.

Fact check: Are Climate Emergency Declarations ‘just words’?

The Australia section of cedamia’s global CED data sheet shows links to 89 climate action plans (81% of CED councils). They have a wide variety of plan names, not necessarily Climate Emergency Action Plan or even Climate Action Plan and some are still at the draft stage, but almost all are climate focused action plans developed in response to passing a CED. A few plans, such as the 2025 Carbon Neutral Adelaide Plan, were adopted prior to council declaring a Climate Emergency. Even so the Adelaide plan has one of the most ambitious community-wide carbon neutral target dates.

Pie chart showing the community-wide carbon neutral target dates of CED councils in Australia

14.3% of Australian CED local councils have set a 2030 carbon neutral target date for their entire community, 11.6% have set 2040, and 9.8% have set 2050. These dates reflect the relative difficulty for a council to affect the carbon emissions of local residents, business, and industry. However, council’s own operations generally only account for 1-2% of all the climate-damaging emissions from their local area. That makes it critical that councils find innovative ways of inspiring action within their communities and making it easier for everyone to ‘do the right thing’.

Pie chart showing the carbon neutral target dates of CED councils in Australia for their own operations

Local councils have close to complete control over their own carbon emissions and there are some notable success stories. 9.8% of Australian CED councils have already achieved carbon neutrality for their own operations. 11.6% have set a 2025 target, and 20.5% have a 2030 target.

I suppose one might argue that even action plans and targets are ‘just words’ and it is actual outcomes that count. More on specific actions taken by CED councils in future blog posts, but in the meantime you can see some of them on cedamia’s post-CED action page. Please leave a comment below if you have something to add to this story. (If reading this article via email, go to https://www.cedamia.org/news/ to comment.)


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