graph showing search trends for climate emergency and climate action for year to April 2023

Behaviour change and the Climate Emergency

The October 2022 report from the UK’s Environment and Climate Change Committee, In our hands: behaviour change for climate and environmental goals, states that one third of greenhouse gas emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households. The report says that without behaviour change it will be impossible to meet the UK’s 2050 net-zero target. (The report does not question whether targets based on IPCC projections are adequate for tackling the climate emergency.)

Something similar could be assumed for countries like Australia, Canada, and the US, or perhaps behaviour change is even more essential since their current per capita emissions are roughly double those of the UK.

The above graph showing Google search trends for the year to April 2023 suggests quite a high interest in climate action, but what type of action? Are people searching for information on how to change their own behaviour? Or are they hoping the big climate-related actions only governments can make will be sufficient?

Certainly per capita emissions will fall regardless of behaviour change if and when governments take the necessary actions for enabling use of renewable energy for everything, but even if governments operate in true emergency mode that will take time…and we don’t have time. Perhaps that’s why the above report identifies ‘up to 2035’ as a key period.

Who should change their behaviour?

The following chart is based around the overly-conservative IPCC projections. Really we need ‘as much as possible as quickly as possible’, preferably by yesterday. But despite being overly rosy, the chart paints a daunting picture of the scope of change that the UK report says is required, particularly in rich nations.

A recent Guardian article makes the point that “nearly half the world’s carbon emissions are caused by the world’s richest 10% of people, and nearly two-thirds of Australian adults fall inside that 10%”. Further, it states that the poorest 50% of the world’s population averages 1.4t per person per year. (Mine is about double that despite having solar on the roof of my all-electric house, not having a car, and rarely buying anything other than food.)

A University of NSW study showed that the average Potts Point resident could reduce their footprint by 60% simply by living like someone 25km to the west in Auburn. Relatively rich people can afford to reduce their emissions via energy efficiency upgrades and fuel switching, but their biggest capacity to reduce carbon emissions is simply to consume a lot less. Ironically, the bigger our current carbon footprint the more scope we have for achieving climate benefit by changing our behaviour.

Are education and incentives enough?

Local councils that have passed a Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) rely heavily on education and incentives to encourage voluntary behaviour change. By way of recent examples, Cambridge City Council is providing funding to Cambridge Carbon Footprint to host free climate change training sessions for residents to help them make positive changes. Darwin City Council is providing grants of between $5,000 and $50,000 for community projects that advance the aims designated in their Climate Emergency Strategy.

A large percentage of CED councils have climate education website pages that encourage behaviour change, and some also offer incentives. You can see a random selection of examples here. But how many residents see those pages? And even if they do, how many residents will feel sufficiently motivated to make more than the minor or easiest voluntary behaviour changes?

The tone of such pages is generally just gentle encouragement, with little sense that big changes in behaviour are necessary. Recently though I’ve seen a couple of cases of UK CED councils, including Cambridge, encouraging residents to use carbon footprint calculators to measure (and reduce) their own climate impact. Another, Gateshead Council, is encouraging local residents and businesses to make climate pledges.

Mandatory behaviour change

The UK report on behaviour change mentions regulation as a third means of achieving change, alongside education and incentives. However, local councils have much less scope than national and state governments for introducing climate-focused regulations.

The European Investment Bank’s (EIB) climate survey for 2022-2023 reports that two-thirds of the people in Europe (66%) support stricter government measures to change people’s individual behaviour to tackle climate change. 56% say they support a carbon budget system that would allocate each individual a fixed number of yearly credits to be spent on items with a big carbon footprint (non-essential goods, flights, meat, etc.)

One of the big obstacles to achieving voluntary behaviour change is a sense that change by one person won’t make much difference. Even if someone is well aware of the carbon footprint of flying, for example, it can seem pointless to miss out on things that require taking a flight if one sees everyone else flying just as much as ever.

However, if there were mandatory limits on flight miles, or even an almost total ban, everyone would be in the same boat. It would be fair, and we’d know that the change in behaviour is making a difference. I guess nobody really liked rationing during WWII, but it was generally accepted as being fair and effective.

In addition, regulations and bans have educational benefit. Who stopped to think that there might be more efficient lighting options until the sale of incandescent light bulbs was banned? Once upon a time gas appliances were generally considered to be a good choice, but proposals for (and controversy over) local bans on gas connections to new buildings raise awareness about why that is no longer so.

Local council regulations

Local councils might not have a lot of scope to make climate-related regulations themselves, but it seems highly unlikely that voluntary behaviour change will be enough. Councils could lobby national and state governments for climate-related regulations or bans for things beyond council control.

But what climate-related regulations might be possible for local councils? Some French councils have banned outdoor heating at cafes and bars. Some US councils have banned gas use in new buildings or new gasoline stations for refuelling conventional vehicles. Some UK councils have banned car idling outside schools when parents wait to pick up their children.

Eleven Australian local councils have banned advertising of carbon-intensive products in council-controlled areas. The Climate Emergency UK council scorecards includes the question, Has the council passed a motion to ban high carbon advertising and sponsorship?, as one of their scored action items.

If local councils can introduce some regulations or bans, even if minor ones, it sends a message to the wider community that the council recognises that behaviour change is essential.

And finally…an update!

At the third(?) attempt, the South Australian Local Government Association (LGA), the peak body for local councils in SA, this week declared a Climate and Biodiversity Emergency. The motion read:

Part 1: That the LGA recognise the climate crisis; and

Part 2: That the LGA declare a Climate & Biodiversity Emergency.

This follows on from climate emergency declarations by the SA state government and 16 local councils in SA. In earlier years there have also been Climate Emergency motions by the state LGAs of Victoria (May 2017), WA (May 2018), and NSW (Oct 2019) and by the national LGA peak body (June 2019). Those motions can be seen here.

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Susan Close and School children launching Create4Adelaide climate action project

Sub-national governments and the Climate Emergency

Most of the 2,300+ known Climate Emergency Declarations (CEDs) so far have been at the local government level, but 41 have been by sub-national governments. They include UK devolved governments (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), state governments (eg. Hawaii, Quebec, and South Australia), six of the 26 cantons in Switzerland, eight of the 20 regional governments in Italy, four of the 17 autonomous regions in Spain, and seven of the 47 prefectures in Japan.

While sub-national governments have much greater capacity to take action on the climate emergency than lower levels of government, I don’t often see reports in English-language media about good things they are doing (although there may be more in other languages). It was refreshing therefore to see the recent reports on the sub-national government actions below.

Climate Emergency action in Wales

Wales was one of the earliest sub-national governments to declare a Climate Emergency, on 29 April 2019. They have adopted a net zero 2030 target for the public sector and a 2050 target (with numerous interim targets) for Wales as a whole.

In February 2023 the Welsh Government scrapped all major road schemes, placing the climate and ecological emergency at the heart of decision making on future infrastructure spending. After a review some of the previously planned road projects are likely to proceed, but priority is being given to rail, bus, walking, and cycling projects.

In March 2023 the Welsh Government announced £60 million to make schools and colleges across Wales more sustainable. This will include money for efficient low-carbon heating and LED lighting.

And an article just this week discusses the Welsh response to the highly topical issue of climate migration. On one hand they are dealing with strategies for relocation of the first Welsh town likely to become uninhabitable due to erosion, extreme storms, and sea level rise, Fairbourne in Gwynedd. But they also are focused on a humanitarian response to the broader global issue of climate displacement. This includes the Wales Strategic Migration Partnership, under which the Welsh Government provides funding to help coordinate refugee schemes and settle refugees in Wales.

Action in South Australia

South Australia has a long history of championing renewable electricity and reached an average of 70% renewable electricity over the last year. The state Upper House passed a Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) back in September 2019, then in May 2022 both houses passed a CED motion. The government also announced plans for a new green hydrogen project in SA at that time.

In February 2023 Deputy Premier Susan Close announced the Create4Adelaide project. This is a novel community outreach scheme involving a survey asking school children to vote on their top priorities for climate action, followed by a climate emergency art competition which will continue in schools throughout the year. The resulting artworks will be part of the 2024 Adelaide Festival of Arts. While none of that directly reduces carbon emissions, it is a clever mechanism for normalising climate emergency thinking and action.

Additionally, in April the SA Government will be holding an Industry Climate Change Conference exploring the path to net zero.

Hawaii state climate emergency action

The state of Hawaii passed a CED motion back in April 2021, so far the only US state to do so, and set a 2045 carbon neutral target date. Hawaii is also one of the very few sub-national governments to support the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty so far.

In February 2023 Hawaii created a $100 million climate fund to continue guiding the state’s adaptation and mitigation efforts. The fund will be used to leverage historic federal matching funds for climate action, to provide a year-round source of funding for government and communities, to facilitate better coordination between communities and agencies, and to receive donations to address climate issues from non-government organizations.

Other sub-national climate actions

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed a CED motion back in 2019 and was the first sub-national government to sign the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty. The ACT has already reached 100% renewable electricity and has various schemes in place geared to ending fossil gas use as early as possible.

The of Quebec Parliament passed a CED motion in 2019. While they’ve not signed the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty, they did ban all new coal, oil, and gas extraction and production in April 2022.

No state CED yet – but some good climate actions

New York state has not yet declared a Climate Emergency (New York City has), but they currently have a bill before the Senate to declare a climate emergency and place a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Similarly the New South Wales state government has not passed a CED motion but are making good progress on their Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) rollout.

In an even more encouraging move, NSW has announced an $8 million electrification pilot program during which householders in three towns (one each in an urban, regional, and remote community) will have the opportunity to ‘electrify everything’ and stop using fossil gas. The focus is on finding the best ways to upgrade existing homes with all-electric and energy efficient appliances and technologies before expanding to other towns and regions.

To my mind the really very best thing about this electrification pilot scheme is that it amounts to unusually explicit recognition by an Australian state government that ‘getting off gas’ is the way to go.

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A semon representing new fossil fuel projects and a smiley-face world for a safe climate

Quebec: Climate Emergency Declaration and fossil fuel ban

Quebec declared a Climate Emergency in 2019, and in April 2022 Quebec banned all new coal, oil, and gas extraction and production. This ban is a massively important precedent, but I’d not heard about it until I saw this announcement from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Quebec has ended fossil fuel exploration and development projects on its territory — a historic victory for its ecosystems and population … proving that it’s possible to act on the science the climate emergency requires.

Charles Bonhomme, Public Affairs and Communications Manager

Quebec has huge amounts of hydroelectricity, perhaps making a fossil fuel ban easier to achieve than in many other jurisdictions. But even so, the Suzuki article mentions a handful of proposed oil and gas projects that now will never be able to go ahead. It also claims Quebec is the “first jurisdiction on Earth to ban fossil fuel development in its territory — a visionary lead for all of Canada, and the world.”

It is certainly visionary and makes Quebec an inspiring precedent to emulate, but it isn’t actually the first. The first subnational jurisdiction to ban new fossil fuel projects was the Australian Capital Territory when it signed on to the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty in June 2021. In May 2022 the state legislature of Hawaii also signed that treaty. However, neither the ACT or Hawaii had current or proposed fossil fuel projects, so in that respect the Quebec ban could be counted as the first to achieve a really tangible benefit.

Fossil fuel bans as a follow-on action to Climate Emergency Declarations

Banning new fossil fuel exploration and extraction seems like such a very obvious first step to take after declaring a Climate Emergency for any jurisdiction that has control over such things. It is essential even if it is hard to achieve. However, so far Quebec, the ACT, and Hawaii are the only ones I’ve heard of doing so out of the 41 subnational jurisdictions (states, provinces, etc) and 18 nations globally that have passed a Climate Emergency Declaration (CED).

South Australia has declared a Climate Emergency, and like Quebec has much less dependence on fossil fuels than many regions. Could South Australia be the next jurisdiction to sign the non-proliferation treaty and/or simply ban new fossil fuel projects?

In Australia it is the state governments that make fossil fuel decisions and building regulations rather than local councils, but Darebin (and maybe some other CED local councils) have sought state government exemptions to enable them to ban gas connections to new buildings in their area. Local councils can also sign on to the Fossil Fuel Non-proliferation Treaty like five of the Australian CED councils have done (Sydney, Darebin, Maribyrnong, Moreland and Yarra), and they can lobby their state governments to do so too.

Climate Emergency Declarations in Quebec

Climate Emergency awareness seems to be unusually high in Quebec.

In Montreal 150,000 people turned up in May 2019 for the first of the really large global school climate strikes, by far the biggest turnout anywhere. For that particular strike, numbers of 30,000 or less were reported for other major cities. The September 2019 global school climate strike in Montreal was even bigger, with an estimated 500,000 attendees, compared with 100,000 or similar in other major cities.

GMob campaigners promoting climate emergency declarations in Quebec
Promotion of GMob Climate Emergency Declarations in Quebec

Climate Emergency Declarations in Quebec have taken a different path to those elsewhere, with no apparent cross-fertilisation between Quebec and other regions. The GMob Climate Emergency Declaration (Déclaration d’Urgence Climatique) is a strong declaration statement that was drafted by the GMob team. They lobbied all Quebec local councils to sign that declaration rather than having each council develop their own CED motion. In most other countries – South Korea was an exception – each council has been responsible for developing their own declaration text albeit with a degree of copying and pasting from earlier declaration texts, particularly in the UK and USA.

At the time of the first 20 Quebec declaration sign-ons in September 2018 there were already four CED councils in Australia and four in USA, but Quebec campaigners told us they had not heard about those. There were another 80 declarations in Montreal in November 2018, around the time of the first CED in the UK, but similarly we in Australia did not hear about any of the Quebec declarations till much later.

As of April 2021, 525 local councils, representing 83% of the population of Quebec, have signed the GMob declaration. Of those, 403 councils had already signed by the time of the Quebec state-level Climate Emergency declaration in November 2019. Quebec has thus been one of the few regions where the pattern campaigners expected has materialised: first a groundswell of climate urgency support at the local level, then a state-level CED, followed by major state-level actions such as the recent ban on new fossil fuel projects.

The power of precedents

The global spread of CEDs has been helped along by the power of precedents, with clear cross-fertilisation firstly from Australia to USA, then from USA to the UK before becoming widely visible and spreading to Europe, the rest of Canada, South America, and Asia.

It is hoped something similar will happen with bans on new fossil fuel projects, but precedents only have power if they are seen!

If you want South Australia to follow its CED with a ban on new fossil fuel projects, you could try telling your MPs about the precedents set by the ACT, Hawaii, and Quebec. If you want your local CED council to restrict fossil fuel use in new buildings, or sign on to the fossil fuel treaty, they are likely to prick up their ears if you tell them about the other CED councils that have already taken those initiatives. And please tell us all in a comment below if you know of other fossil fuel bans I’ve missed!

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SA Parliament House, with Susan Close MP holding 10,000+ petition signatures

South Australia declared a Climate Emergency

On 31 May 2022, South Australia became the first Australian state to declare a Climate Emergency, although the Australian Capital Territory did set a precedent for a sub-national region to do so back in 2019. The SA declaration was passed by both Houses of Parliament. The Liberal opposition proposed amendments, which were rejected, with the original motion then passing unanimously in the Lower House. The Liberal opposition voted against the motion in the Upper House but it passed with Labor and cross bench support.

The motion stated:

That this house —
(a) notes the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report confirms that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and current plans to address climate change are not ambitious enough to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial level — a threshold scientists believe is necessary to avoid more catastrophic impacts;

(b) notes that around the world, climate change impacts are already causing loss of life and destroying vital ecosystems;

(c) declares that we are facing a climate emergency; and

(d) commits to restoring a safe climate by transforming the economy to zero net emissions.


In September 2019, Mark Parnell MLC (Greens) moved a Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) motion in the Upper House. At that time, the ACT had already done so in May 2019, and around 45 local councils around Australia had too. The SA upper house CED motion passed with support from Labor and most of the cross bench, but was opposed by the Liberals. It was not debated in the Lower House at that time.

Soon after new legislation was passed in SA such that formal on-paper citizen petitions with over 10,000 signatures would be ‘taken seriously’ due to the effort require to achieve that – would be tabled in parliament, entered in Hansard, and be guaranteed a ministerial response (either in support of or rejecting the petition). Accordingly 3 ‘ordinary citizens’ started such a petition, and a wide range of grassroots helpers (individuals and members of climate groups) put many hours into collecting signatures. You can see the petition text here.

Helpers could download the petition sheet online and print it themselves, or collect printed sheets from a centrally located petition box at the Conservation SA premises. Signed sheets were returned either through a slot in the petition box or sent to a PO Box set up specifically for that purpose.

By Jan 2020 the team had already collected around 6,000 signatures, so we sounded out Labor MP Susan Close (opposition party at the time) about tabling the petition when we reached 10,000 signatures. She jumped at the chance to do that and indicated willingness to also propose a CED motion alongside tabling it. But then Covid struck and made signature collection really hard, so it ended up taking until mid-2021 to reach 10,000 signatures.

In August 2021, Susan Close tabled our petition and proposed a CED motion, with a large show of support from people on parliament house steps on the day she did that. Her motion was eventually allowed to be put on the debate agenda, but ultimately there was not sufficient time for it to be debated before the state election.

The 2022 state election saw Labor back in power, so the CED motion was put on the agenda again as a first order of business. In speaking to the motion Susan Close, now Deputy Premier, positioned the motion as being in response to clear community demand for urgent climate action. She also announced two initial climate policies for putting words into action: a green hydrogen project and removal of an EV tax.

You can see a global list of jurisdictions that have declared a Climate Emergency here, or click on the pins in this map.

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