Weather map showing record temperatures in the UK and CASBE zero carbon plans

From Climate Emergency to Climate Catastrophe and CED action

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a change in the language used in media articles. ‘Climate catastrophe’ is nudging out ‘climate emergency’ in reports of climate impacts. But also, and this is not new, there have been numerous articles about actions being taken by climate emergency declaration (CED) councils.

Climate catastrophe

The devastating and continuing flooding in Pakistan is causing death and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. The UK recently reached record high temperatures not expected till 2050 (top image) and is currently experiencing an early ‘false autumn‘. Many parts of the world are experiencing either massive fires, flooding, heatwaves, and/or water shortages and famine caused by droughts. Many of the great rivers of the world are starting to dry up.

Flood evacuees living in tents in Pakistan
Flooding in Pakistan

Impacts are becoming horrendously obvious. For everyone and all levels of government, doing anything less than ‘as much as possible as soon as possible’ is inexcusable. Even if ‘as much as possible’ is genuinely very little, it is still worth doing.

Meanwhile, back in May, the World Meteorological Organisation predicted there is a 50:50 chance of global temperature temporarily reaching the 1.5°C threshold within the next five years. But 1.5°C is sounding increasingly arbitrary given the catastrophic impacts that are occurring already at about 1.1°C.

Council climate emergency actions

The examples of local government climate actions below are just from very recent news articles, making them a fairly random sample. They’re not necessarily the ‘best’ actions, or ‘enough’, and these are not the first or only local governments already taking these actions. Hopefully any that are not will start to think they can (and should) emulate these examples, or work out the most cost-effective measures for their own local circumstances. It is crucial that local councils leverage the maximum climate benefit from their limited resources as quickly as possible. You can see other examples of climate emergency actions by local councils here.

Knox City Council, Victoria – from ‘acknowledgement’ to ‘climate emergency declaration’

Knox City Council passed a resolution acknowledging the climate emergency back in September 2021. They upgraded this to a ‘declaration’ in late July to indicate a higher level of climate ambition, as discussed in our July blog post, but this week it received media attention again, with a focus on budget implications – $30 million over 10 years – and planned actions.

The actions include advocating for zero carbon developments, replacing street lights with LEDs and powering them via a wind energy power purchase agreement, installing solar panels and EV chargers, hosting educational webinars for local businesses and residents, developing a Biodiversity Resilience Plan, including tree canopy analysis and a habitat corridor plan, and tackling ‘heat islands’. These are all fairly typical climate emergency actions that any council can emulate. No rocket science required – just a heightened resolve to get on with the job.

Wellfleet Town Council, USA – Climate Emergency public workshop series

Screenshot showing Climate Emergency workshop series by Wellfleet Town Council

This small town of 2,750 in Massachusetts declared a Climate Emergency in September 2020. Now it is holding a series of three public workshops entitled It’s a Climate Emergency! What we can do!

The first session was Household Electrification and Energy Conservation, the second next week is Electrifying Transportation, and the final one will be Solar Photovoltaic Arrays.

Queenscliffe Borough Council, Victoria – 73% reduction in emissions in one year

Queenscliffe Council adopted its Climate Emergency Response Plan in May 2021, containing 49 actions designed to reduce the entire Borough’s carbon output to zero by 2031. Since then they have managed to reduce the emissions from council’s own operations by a whopping 73% in just one year.

Again no rocket science. The bulk of that reduction was achieved by deciding to purchase 100% renewable electricity for all of its operations, including council buildings, tourist parks, street lights and public facilities. They also started kerbside food waste collection.

Plans to achieve further reductions include swapping its vehicle fleet for electric vehicles, disconnecting remaining gas services, and investing in more sustainable building and construction methods. Mayor Ebbel hopes council’s achievements will inspire residents to “take the next step on our journey to becoming a more climate-friendly community.”

Derwent Valley Council, Tasmania – engaging entire community in climate action and advocacy

Derwent Valley Council declared a Climate Emergency just recently, in July 2022, and they have now added a new Get Active On Climate page to their website.

Screenshot of Get Active on Climate webpage by Derwent Valley Council

They clearly recognise that engagement of the entire community is key, and are refreshingly up-front about expecting everyone to do their part.

Jersey, UK – subsidised commercial energy auditor training and audits

Jersey has a population of just over 100,000 so is similar in size to a large local council despite being a subnational government. Their subsidised auditor training is an intriguing precedent for tackling community-wide emissions and one which local councils might consider modifying to suit their own communities.

Jersey already had a Home Energy Audit scheme whereby home owners can apply for very generous subsidies to cover most of the cost of the audit. They are now starting to offer subsidised training for commercial energy auditors. Soon they will also be offering subsidies to help cover the cost of commercial audits.

For home owners and businesses, key barriers to energy efficiency upgrades are the unknowns. They probably realise an audit and energy efficiency measures will ‘pay for themselves’ and would happily pay for the up-front costs themselves, but who can they trust to perform a reliable audit? Do they need and can they afford efficiency improvements, and if so who can they hire to do a reliable job on the improvement work?

A carefully implemented scheme that overcomes those barriers with some sort of reliability and quality guarantee may well be sufficient with only small, if any, financial incentives from local government. But it seems prudent to make sure any recipients of audit subsidies follow through by taking at least some of the recommended actions. Possibly a council could offer reimbursement of the cost of the audit after a specified amount of efficiency upgrade work has been completed?

Leicester City Council, UK – mapping and costing of 2030 carbon neutral pathway

Leicester City Council hired experts to map out a 2030 carbon neutral pathway for the entire community and analyse the up-front implementation costs – from £900milllion to £5billion over the next eight years. This could create an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 local jobs.

The pathway focuses on three main areas: buildings (35%), active transport and electric vehicles (14%), and energy. The buildings component includes retrofitting energy efficiency measures to around 65,000 properties and around 100,000 homes swapping their gas boilers for heat pumps.

Council already had a Climate Emergency Action Plan and has already achieved significant reductions in community-wide emissions, but this new report makes it clear that even more ambitious action is necessary and will inform development of their second action plan to cover 2023 to 2030.

Yarra City Council, Victoria – zero carbon developments

Yarra City Council is a member council of the Climate Alliance for a Sustainable Built Environment (CASBE) involving 31 Victorian councils. They are pursuing a planning scheme amendment that builds on existing local Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) Policies. The project aims to deliver revised and elevated ESD targets, including targets for zero carbon developments.

Sefton Council, UK – drop-in sessions to inform community engagement strategy

Sefton Council already has a Climate Emergency Action Plan and a 2030 target to make its own operations carbon neutral, but now it has launched a public consultation to collect views on how the entire community can tackle climate change together.

Feedback from the consultation will be used to produce a Climate Change Community Engagement Plan for the next phase of their climate action plan.

Sydney City Council, NSW – net-zero policy for new developments beginning 2023

The City of Sydney has just unanimously endorsed energy controls that require applications for new office buildings, hotels and shopping centres, and major redevelopments to comply with minimum energy ratings from January 2023. This is part of council’s plan to achieve city-wide net-zero emissions by 2035, recognising that 68% of the city’s total emissions is from hotels, apartment complexes, and commercial office space.

The new controls focus on increased energy efficiency, on-site renewable energy production and offsite renewable energy procurement.

Shipley Town Council, UK – Citizens’ Jury

Town councils in the UK are the lowest tier of local government and don’t have a lot of resources, but Shipley Town Council (population 15,483) is using some grant money from the National Lottery to cover the costs of holding a citizens’ jury.

Every household in Shipley has been sent a letter inviting them to become a member of the 25-person jury to ensure a cross-section of residents can have their say on the question: How can we work together in Shipley to limit climate change and its impacts while protecting our environment and health?

Quite apart from whatever solutions the jury might come up with, even just the invitation letter sent to all households will ensure everyone knows about council’s climate emergency declaration and could inspire new enthusiasm to take action.

3 UK councils – grants to low-income households for efficiency upgrades

Three UK councils, Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, and North Somerset, jointly secured £2.7m in government funding to enable them to give energy efficiency grants to low-income households. Householders can apply for Home Upgrade Grants of up to £25,000 to install efficiency measures such as loft, underfloor, and wall insulation, air source heat pump central heating systems, and solar panels.

To be eligible a house must currently have a low energy performance rating and use oil or coal for heating. This reflects a point made in this article by Alan Pears, namely that the best bang for buck in terms of climate action comes from improving the energy efficiency of buildings with very low star ratings rather than from making further efficiency improvements to buildings that are already relatively efficient.

Only one of these examples is unique!

Over the last couple of years I’ve seen many media articles reporting similar actions by other local councils that have declared a Climate Emergency.

The one action that I’d not seen before was the Jersey scheme offering subsidised training for performing energy efficiency audits. A carefully planned scheme combining auditor training with something that removes the barriers for the entire community to improve the efficiency of their buildings could be ground-breaking. It might provide an inspiring example of how a council could leverage relatively small financial contributions from their limited budgets in order to achieve widespread investment by the entire community in tackling the Climate Emergency.

Please leave a comment if you know of other ways local councils can leverage their limited resources to achieve big community-wide achievements!


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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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