video of Onkaparinga Council debate of Climate Emergency Declaration motion

Climate Emergency Declarations: Why and why not?

In Australia, 22% of local councils have declared a Climate Emergency so far, the most recent being Onkaparinga City Council on 30 January 2023. You can watch the video of the debate concerning that motion at the 1:35:50 mark here.

Background information included in the agenda item stated that 15 councils in South Australia and a total of 112 nationwide had already declared a Climate Emergency (actual figures at that date were 16 and 116 respectively). This is not at all unusual. Arguments in favour of local council declarations have almost always cited the number of local and/or global precedents at the time the Climate Emergency motion was proposed.

The intended implication appears to be that such declarations are considered a good idea by numerous Councillors elsewhere and that passing the declaration motion would not be particularly radical or controversial – or perhaps that failing to do so is falling behind on current expectations.

However, one Onkaparinga Councillor seemed to think it significant that 78% of councils – the rest of the 537 local councils in Australia – had not passed a Climate Emergency Declaration motion. He wondered what their reasons were.

Number of CEDsTotal councils% of CED councils
Aust Capital Territory11100.00%
New South Wales3912830.47%
Northern Territory1175.88%
South Australia176825.00%
Western Australia111387.97%
Percentage of councils that have declared a Climate Emergency in each region of Australia

Local councils who have not declared a Climate Emergency

Unfortunately I don’t have comprehensive data on councils that have not (yet) declared a Climate Emergency. I have a record of 17 councils where such a motion was proposed and rejected, but there might have been a few more. Some of those simply voted down the declaration motion. Some amended the motion to remove the ‘climate emergency’ part then passed a more generic climate action motion.

I can’t be sure without contacting all the rest, but I suspect that in most cases council has not yet had a Climate Emergency Declaration motion on their agenda so has not yet voted either for or against. I’ve heard of some areas where lobbying efforts by local climate campaigners have fallen on deaf ears. Or, perhaps like my own area one or two Councillors react positively but they don’t want to propose a declaration motion until they are confident it will be supported.

However, is it that most non-declaring councils simply haven’t thought about a declaration, perhaps due to there being no active community campaign in their area, or do they actively oppose the concept? (Or do both cases amount to the same thing?)

Community support for Climate Emergency declarations

While a show of community support is often helpful there is not necessarily a clear correlation between community support and the outcome of a Climate Emergency Declaration motion. Observed success patterns amongst Australian councils include:

  • a concerned Councillor takes full initiative to propose and successfully achieve a declaration with no input from the local community
  • a concerned Councillor announces an intention to propose a motion, with members of the local community then providing a show of support via emails, deputations, attendance at the council meeting, or similar
  • local climate campaigners take the initiative to start the process via a petition, contacting Councillors, etc. They find a supportive Councillor to propose the motion and then organise deputations and community attendance at the relevant Council meeting.

Councillors proposing declaration motions have an easier job if they can show community support for their motion, but in some council areas even a huge and sustained show of community support has failed to achieve success. Ultimately the fate of the motion will depend on the opinions of the elected Councillors and the dynamics between them.

Declaring a Climate Emergency at a second attempt

At least six councils in Australia, including Onkaparinga, rejected a declaration motion the first time one was proposed but eventually passed one. In Onkaparinga’s case this might have been because there had been council elections in the meantime with new Councillors appointed but that wasn’t the case for some others.

The first attempt at a declaration motion failed at both Adelaide City Council and Holdfast Bay Council but both passed one several months later without any change in Councillors. In both cases there was a strong showing of community support at the first attempts, then no community involvement in achieving the subsequent successful attempt and no publicly obvious reason for the change of heart.

Post-declaration action planning

An amendment to the Onkaparinga motion added the following:

That a report come back to Council’s July 2023 meeting outlining the potential cost and investment opportunities and any reports from councils who have already declared a climate emergency for Council to enhance the Climate Change Response Plan 2022-27 in line with the Climate Emergency Declaration.

Happily there is a strong culture of mutual sharing between Climate Emergency councils, and progress reports are available from some of them (eg. Yarra City Council). Many have now published their Climate Action Plans, and links to those are in Column K at this Google spreadsheet. There is also a random collection of some of the less obvious post-declaration actions in various countries on cedamia’s Council post-CED actions page.

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