Chart showing emissions reductions from switching to all-electric homes

Engaging Australia in Climate Emergency action

Average annual per capita carbon emissions in Australia are 15.37 tons CO2-e according to the interactive map in the 3 October 2022 Guardian article on tracking Australia’s progress. And according to recent detailed analysis from the Climate Council, entitled Switch and Save, the national average for the emissions reduction achieved simply by stopping use of fossil gas and switching to an all-electric home is around 2 tons CO2-e per year. That’s per household, not per capita, but it still represents a significant contribution to tackling the Climate Emergency.

The above chart shows the carbon savings over 10 years in each capital city.

Map showing per capita carbon emissions by country

The above map (scroll down the article at that link to see the interactive map) shows Australia really is not doing our ‘fair share’. Only three countries have higher per capita emissions: Mongolia (26.98), Kazakhstan (15.52), and Saudi Arabia (17.97). Even Canada (14.2) and the US (14.24) are slightly lower, and New Zealand (6.94) and the UK (4.85) have much lower per capita figures.

Resource for Climate Emergency councils in areas with reticulated fossil gas

Fossil gas might still be needed for some industrial uses and as backup electricity generation, for now at least, but it really is not necessary for households and most businesses. Vast regions of Australia have never had mains gas available and they get along fine. Increasingly other people too are choosing to live in all-electric homes.

With its Switch and Save publication, the Climate Council has provided a valuable resource that local councils can use to encourage behaviour change in their local community. Even as recently as 10 years ago, gas appliances were a sensible choice. Gas was cheap and electric appliances were much less efficient than they are now. A much higher proportion of grid electricity was from coal-fired power stations than it is today, so fossil gas seemed like a lower-carbon option at the time. But all that has changed.

How many Australian households continue to use gas appliances just because that is what they have become used to using? They are familiar, or that’s what their house already had when they bought it, and unless they are energy nerds they might still think ‘gas is better’.

The Climate Council analysis debunks that myth. Click here to go directly to the pdf download. It contains details of the potential financial savings from going all-electric, and for those not yet familiar with new and efficient electric options it explains how heat pumps and induction cooktops work. It also has clear explanations of the climate benefits of switching away from fossil gas. Not only do all-electric homes have lower carbon footprints right now…much lower if they also have rooftop solar…but the grid is rapidly becoming ‘greener’.

Behaviour change for tackling the Climate Emergency

A recent publication by the UK House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee – In our hands: behaviour change for climate and environmental goals – states that:

without changes to people’s behaviours now, the target of net zero by 2050 is not achievable…32 per cent of emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households to adopt low carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as reduce carbon-intensive consumption.

I’ve not seen similar analysis for other countries, but given that local council carbon emissions are only a very small percentage of overall community emissions, household-level behaviour change is clearly critical.

And behaviour change relating to how people choose to warm their homes, heat water, and cook dinner is an effective place for councils that have declared a Climate Emergency to start. It is something everyone can do. It has immediate practical climate and health benefits, and as the Climate Council analysis shows, it will ‘pay for itself’ relatively quickly via reduced energy bills.

The last thing we need is households locking in continued high levels of carbon emissions by installing new fossil gas appliances when all-electric households will get closer and closer to generating almost no emissions as the grid approaches 100% renewable electricity.

Applying behaviour change thinking to getting off fossil gas

The Welsh Government as just launched for public consultation its draft Strategy for Public Engagement & Action (2022-2026). Its 4 E’s framework – Exemplify, Engage, Enable, Encourage – seems well suited to achieving a switch away from fossil gas. Even so, the very first challenge is cutting through the information overload and grabbing the attention of householders so that the 4 E’s can be implemented. Partnering with a wide variety of local organisations, like Greater Bendigo Council is doing, can help with that.

Exemplify: Lead by example. Report the motivation for and results of replacing gas use with electric appliances in council’s own operations. Make visible and celebrate getting-off-gas case studies from local climate champions (households and businesses).

Engage: Provide knowledge and involve the local community in decisions. Knowledge is particularly crucial for counteracting the clever and misleading gas industry advertising that claims gas use reduces emissions. Draw on the detailed analysis in Switch and Save to show the climate and cost benefits of all-electric homes.

Enable: While the above two E’s focus on making people want to switch to all-electric homes, the ‘enable’ step focuses on helping local households overcome the barriers that so often prevent putting those good intentions into action. This is an area where local councils can make a huge difference, for example:

  • Heat pump hot water systems are more expensive to buy than gas systems even though they have lower operating costs, so make sure people know about state government schemes that subsidise the upfront cost
  • Offer bulk buy schemes of high quality appliances installed by reliable companies to remove the guesswork for people who are unfamiliar with the various electric alternatives
  • If your council already has a Solar Savers scheme giving interest-free loans for solar installations, or even if it doesn’t, set up a similar scheme to cover the upfront cost of going all-electric
  • The end of life of a gas appliance is a perfect opportunity to replace it with an efficient electric appliance, but the quick and easy default option would be to replace like with like unless the householder had already researched and planned for an electric alternative. Can local councils help with that? Perhaps council could invite householders to pledge in advance to replace gas with electric and give them a number to contact for priority service to install their new electric appliances promptly when their gas appliances fail.

Encourage: Primarily this is an on-going consistent public narrative that normalises the choice to have an all-electric home, but it might also include incentives and reward schemes, regulations such as bans on gas connections for new builds, and emotional appeals and narratives.

A bit more about the Climate Council analysis

For a report entitled ‘Switch and Save’, its not surprising that it devotes more space to financial savings than to carbon emissions reductions. However, any local council initiative to encourage residents to switch to all-electric homes should focus primarily on its effectiveness as a climate mitigation tool. The resultant savings on energy costs can be presented as being a helpful enabler rather than the main motivator. Why?

If tackling the Climate Emergency requires widespread climate-motivated behaviour change, and it does, then it is vital to normalise that sort of behaviour change via showing that ‘everyone is doing it’. We all know we can’t do it alone.

Rooftop solar could have become a very visible indicator that ‘everyone is taking climate action’. This could have encouraged people to join in society-wide climate mitigation efforts, but it hasn’t. There has been so much focus on solar as a cost-saving mechanism that a street full of houses with solar panels simply looks like a street full of households who wanted to save money.

If switching to an all-electric home is promoted primarily as a cost-cutting measure its usefulness as a climate action engagement avenue would vanish. In contrast, information showing that it is an accessible and effective way of reducing household carbon emissions right now is empowering. It gives everyone who currently uses fossil gas a way to ‘do more’.

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yard sign promoting Ann Arbor City Council climate action tax

Funding council Climate Emergency action plans

Funding is a key challenge for local governments who have adopted ambitious Climate Emergency Action Plans. That is one of the main topics that will be discussed on 3-7 October at Daring Cities 2022, along with engaging the entire community and ensuring climate actions are equitable. You can register for this free online event here.

Daring Cities 2022 registration invitation

In the meantime, below are a few of the funding strategies local councils are already adopting, and a proven and empowering funding model being used by a grassroots non-profit group.

Ann Arbor City Council, USA: Community to vote on proposed climate action tax

Ann Arbor adopted its A2Zero carbon-neutrality plan in 2020, with a target of achieving community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030 and 100% renewable energy for the entire community. But this ambitious action plan requires funding, so as part of their elections in November they are asking the community to vote on a proposed 20-year tax. This would cost the average householder around $200/year and bring in $6.8 million in the first year, all of which would be spent on actions to help the entire community become carbon neutral.

Importantly, council has published action lists showing how the money would be spent so that residents know what their money will be achieving, and local climate groups have joined in a campaign to help build a ‘yes’ vote for the tax.

Often local councils seem reluctant to ask much of their residents even though the goal of their climate emergency actions is to protect their local community (and the rest of the world). But rises in rates or taxes tend not to be popular, so it is hoped the transparent planning and collaboration with local climate groups will prove to be an effective way of building community support.

Brighton and Hove Council, UK: Reallocation of budget

Reallocating budget is one of the simplest and quickest ways of funding at least some climate emergency action. Brighton and Hove Council was one of the earliest UK councils to declare a Climate Emergency, on 13 December 2018. Just prior to that they had set their new budget, but they quickly decided to revise it via the following budget reallocation decision:

£500,000 which was earmarked for the redevelopment of Brighton Town Hall will now be used for investment in “sustainability and carbon reduction”.
Labour leader Daniel Yates said: “We need to deal with the climate emergency facing the city and create a fund for those who wish to fight climate change.”

West Berkshire Council, UK: Community climate bonds to raise funds for climate emergency action

People in West Berkshire can invest in a ‘community bond’ for as little as £5, which will go towards plans to install solar panels and plant trees across the district and hopefully raise £1 million. The interest rate would be a bit lower than other options for borrowing, so it would save council (and ratepayers) money, but it could also be a very effective means of empowering local residents who want to ‘do more’.

Several other UK councils are also raising funds via climate bonds as promoted by the Green Finance Institute and administered by Abundance Investment.

Leicester Council, UK: Bid for government funding for £8m home insulation scheme

Leicester Council is retrofitting hundreds of older social housing and other affordable homes with wall insulation, enabled by a successful bid to receive £1million from the UK Government’s Green Homes Grant Scheme.

Stage 2 of the insulation scheme will be backed by £7million from the Government’s Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, following a successful joint bid by the city council and local housing associations.

Grants from higher levels of government may require council to match the funding, but even so it’s a good way of stretching a council budget further than otherwise if council can come up with a compelling business case for a grant bid.

Many local councils, everywhere: Schemes facilitating community expenditure on climate solutions

Bulk buy schemes are a classic example. Local householders and businesses might hesitate to install solar or upgrade their space heating to heat pumps, for example, simply because they don’t know which products are best and which tradespeople will do a good job. Councils can leverage climate-beneficial expenditure by the local community simply by organising a quality-controlled bulk buy scheme that the community can trust.

Or it could be a scheme that is partly funded by local government and partly by the local community, such as the scheme adopted by the Government of Jersey for subsidised commercial auditor training. They also subsidise audit costs and energy efficiency upgrade costs for both householders and commercial premises.

CORENA, Australia: Crowd-funding to pay for practical Climate Emergency projects

Not a local council! CORENA is a tiny non-profit community organisation run by volunteers, so the scale of their funding model is small compared with what a local council could manage with its much greater resources. However, their successful donation-sourced revolving fund provides proof of concept and could easily be adapted for local councils.

The funding model is incredibly simple and takes advantage of the fact that many of the practical initiatives that reduce carbon emissions, like energy efficiency and solar installations, also reduce subsequent operating costs. CORENA uses donations from the public to give interest-free loans to cover the upfront cost of practical climate projects. The loans are repaid into a revolving fund via subsequent savings on operating costs, meaning the donated money is used over and over again. Accordingly, the $500,000 donated so far has paid for $1 million worth of climate projects.

revolving fund cartoon showing donations coming in, loans going out, and loan repayments coming back in

Adapting the revolving fund model for local councils

For a local council, the first step is to identify an appealing goal that suits local circumstances. For example, the goal might be for everyone in the community to replace oil or gas space heating with efficient reverse-cycle air conditioners (heat pumps), with the added benefit of keeping vulnerable people cool during heat waves. Or it might be solar installations, or insulation, or whatever else would reduce local community carbon emissions most cost-effectively.

For householders who cannot afford the upfront cost themselves, council would use the donated funds to give interest-free loans to cover the cost, with the repayments set to fall within expected savings on operating costs. (For everyone else, they could organise a quality-controlled bulk buy scheme to make it easy for those who are time-poor rather than cash-poor.) If loan repayments are attached to the property rather than an individual, then loan repayments could be a simple extra payment added to rates payments, and even people who are unsure how long they will continue to live at their current premises can participate with confidence.

Empowering the local community

Finally council would ask everyone in the community to donate to help achieve the stated community goal. Quite apart from providing necessary funding, this is a great way of engaging the local community in collective action, with good opportunities to give visibility to the number of people ‘doing their bit’ to tackle the climate emergency. We all know we can’t do it alone.

For donors it is very empowering to see tangible climate actions they are helping to achieve, and even more so when they see their money being used over and over again in subsequent climate projects. By setting up the above type of donation-sourced revolving climate fund, council is providing a structure that enables everyone to ‘do more’.

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