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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Coffs Youth Climate Alliance members with Councillor Cassell after council Climate Emergency Declaration

Climate Emergency trends in 2022

An overview of:

  • New Climate Emergency declarations
  • Local council Climate Emergency action reporting
  • Country-specific trends
  • VECO achievements
  • Klimakrise declarations in Norway
  • A new and worrying misuse of ‘climate emergency’
  • and a huge missed opportunity in the UK

New Climate Emergency declarations

The most recent Australian local council to declare a Climate Emergency was Coffs Harbour City Council. A long campaign by the Coffs Youth Climate Alliance (pictured above) was instrumental in getting the motion by Councillor Cassell over the line.

There were seven new declarations in Australia during 2022: Albury City Council on 28 March, Nillumbik Shire Council on 26 April, South Australia State Parliament (both Houses) on 31 May, Liverpool City Council on 27 July, Derwent Valley Council on 28 July, Whitehorse City Council on 12 September, then Coffs Harbour City Council on 8 December. In addition, Knox City Council upgraded their earlier ‘recognition’ to a Climate Emergency Declaration.

Globally there were 79 new declarations in 2022 (see the ‘Fact sheet’ tab of cedamia’s CED record sheet), the lowest annual count since the global spread of declarations began in late 2018. But there might have been more. I suspect that some are not reported in the media now that declarations are less novel, and declarations in some countries might not have been reported in English-language media.

At the local council level the 2022 declarations included 27 in USA, 9 in the UK, 8 in Canada, and 27 in Japan.

Officials displaying Peru's Climate Emergency declaration document
Emergencia Climática declaration in Peru

There were also two new national declarations: Peru in January and Vanuatu in May, meaning there are now 40 countries that have at least one Climate Emergency declaration either at the local or national level.

Local council Climate Emergency action reporting

These days the ‘climate emergency’ news articles in my daily Google Alerts feed are less often about new declarations. Instead an increasing number of articles report on newly adopted Climate Emergency Action Plans or give progress reports on plans and targets adopted earlier.

A lot of the action plans have taken 1-2 years to develop. That might seem awfully slow for an ’emergency’ response, but the focus seems to be on ‘getting it right’. In many cases there has been initial consultation and analysis of baselines, then development of a draft strategy, and finally a lengthy public consultation process. It’s understandable that all takes time, but I’ve often thought it would be good to pick one or two no-brainer actions – actions that anyone could predict would be part of the action plan – and to implement those immediately to show their communities they are serious about taking action.

One local council is now doing just that. Port Hope Municipal Council in Canada declared a Climate Emergency just last week. They plan to develop an action plan during 2023, but as an intermediate step they have asked staff to identify 3 priority actions to be adopted within 60 days.

Country-specific trends

After a while climate action plans all start to look much the same. (You can see quite a few of them in Column K of cedamia’s CED record sheet.) The required solutions are similar for most local jurisdictions in developed countries. Even so, some trends have emerged over the last year or so.

Banning the use of fossil gas in new buildings is becoming a feature of some action plans, particularly in Canada, California, and New York. In almost all US action plans, there is a strong emphasis on equity, on not leaving behind black and brown or other disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Two major responsibilities for larger UK local councils are local public transport and social housing. Accordingly their action plans tend to include decarbonisation of public transport and energy efficiency upgrades for social (and other) housing. Housing insulation schemes and replacement of gas and oil for home heating are particularly common themes. Tree planting and rewilding are also very common elements of UK action plans.

Local councils in Australia have a relatively narrow range of responsibilities and control – not quite just ‘roads, rates, and rubbish’, but close – so it’s not surprising that their action plans focus first on what they can control easily, that is, their own operations. Many seem to focus first on stationary energy, meaning solar panels on their own buildings, LED street lighting, and the VECO scheme below. Some are making a start on electrification of fleets, but that is harder due the high cost of EVs in Australia.

VECO achievements

We reported in an earlier blog article that Queenscliffe Borough Council had achieved a 73% reduction in emissions from it’s own operations in the first year since declaring a Climate Emergency. A large part of that achievement was due to participation in the Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO) power purchase agreement whereby 51 Victorian Councils signed up to buy renewable electricity. Collectively this has resulted in a reduction of 172,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its first year.

Over the last week or so there have been yet more happy reports of the emissions reductions and cost savings achieved from other participating councils over the last year: Ballarat (12,000 tonnes and 25% cost saving), Moonee Valley (6,000 tonnes and $92,000 reductions), Bass Coast Shire (2,000 tonnes and $30,000 reductions), and Greater Shepparton (6,406 tonnes and $99,571 reductions).

Hopefully other regions in Australia will be inspired to develop similar collaborations, or perhaps they are already working on doing so. It must be an enormous amount of highly challenging work for the core organisers, but once the groundwork is done it sounds like a no-brainer for individual councils to sign on.

Klimakrise declarations in Norway

Extinction Rebellion die-in in Norway

With the addition of Norway, the number of countries shown in the global list as having at least one Climate Emergency Declaration made a sudden jump from 39 to 40 in December 2022, but this didn’t represent new activity. According to this article, quite a few local governments in Norway declared a ‘klimakrise’ back in 2019. So far we’ve only been able to confirm and add three of them due to a rearrangement of council boundaries in 2020.

At first glance ‘klimakrise’ looks like it means climate crisis, not climate emergency, and if that were so these declarations would not be added to the global list. However, it now appears that klimakrise does equate to climate emergency – please correct me if I am wrong!

The Extinction Rebellion banner in the photo above uses klimakrise whereas an equivalent English-language banner would use ‘climate emergency’. But perhaps a more convincing hint is provided in the agenda notes for one of the Norwegian declarations. It refers to the climate emergency declarations in the UK as being precedents and it refers to those UK declarations as being ‘klimakrise’ declarations.

A new and worrying misuse of ‘climate emergency’

This MalayMail article on 22 December 2022 contains the following quote from the Home Minister:

For the moment, there is no need to declare a Climate Emergency because the situation (flooding) is still under control.

This was in response to a motion from another MP “seeking the Dewan Rakyat to declare a climate emergency and discuss immediate flood mitigation measures”. From the context it is clear what they really mean is a declaration of flood emergency, not a climate emergency declaration in the usual sense.

Then, the very next day I saw this article title in Yes! Magazine: Social Connections Save Lives During Climate Emergencies. Here they are using ‘climate emergencies’ (plural!) to refer to extreme weather events such as storms, heat waves, and cold snaps.

That’s not what ‘climate emergency’ means! Those weather events are flood / storm / heat / cold emergencies. They may well be more dangerous as a result of our changing climate but, unlike the climate emergency, these climate-related emergencies are isolated symptoms not the huge underlying cause.

Missed opportunity in the UK

Screenshot of UK government energy saving campaign website
Screenshot from the campaign launch press release

The UK government is spending £18million on a public information campaign called ‘It All Adds Up’. That includes a new dedicated website containing fairly comprehensive information about what everyone can do to reduce their energy bills by reducing their energy use. Some tips involve no cost and immediate savings. Others involve up-front costs but promise savings in the longer term

It’s all excellent information, but climate does not get a mention at either of those links. The list of tips is actually a pretty good match for the climate actions listed on local council climate emergency pages as ways everyone can reduce energy use in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the sake of everyone’s climate future.

With very little change the ‘It All Adds Up’ public information campaign could be transformed into a UK government campaign asking everyone to do their bit to help tackle the climate emergency. All the suggested actions could be badged as climate emergency actions – actions that everyone can take because, happily, doing so will also save them money.

Does this matter?

If the outcome is the same (lower energy use), does it really matter how it is ‘sold’ to the public? I think it matters greatly, for two reasons.

Firstly, it will take action and effort by everyone to turn the climate emergency around, and giving visibility to climate action efforts by lots of ‘ordinary’ people will help normalise taking climate action for its own sake. By focusing purely on the financial benefits of reducing energy use, the above campaign effectively makes energy saving actions invisible as climate actions. They become financial benefit actions. This is such a waste when reducing energy use is a large part of what many of us can do (and are doing) to help tackle the climate emergency!

Secondly, by focusing purely on energy poverty and financial savings, there’s an implication that the campaign is only relevant for poor households. Anyone who is rich enough to not care about high energy bills is not expected to do anything. But for climate reasons everyone should be reducing energy use, and perhaps that applies even more to rich households than to ones who are struggling.

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Reading football club climate stripe shirts

Beyond the Climate Emergency action bubble

Local councils who have declared a Climate Emergency are generally good at ‘walking the talk’. Some have already achieved carbon neutrality for their own operations, and others are well on the way. They’re also pretty good at focusing on climate justice and ‘leaving nobody behind’. Larger UK councils have responsibility for social housing and are ensuring new builds are energy efficient and are prioritising efficiency upgrades for older social housing. For example, Leicester City Council is spending £8m on an insulation scheme for low-income homes.

But what about everyone else? How are local councils reaching mid- and high-income households and engaging them in Climate Emergency action? Maybe they have more carbon-intensive lifestyles than their low-income neighbours, and more capacity to reduce their own emissions if only it were the social norm to spend on climate beneficial behaviour rather than over-consumption. How can councils cut through information overload and grab the attention of everyone, particularly busy people?

Reading Council’s climate stripe initiatives

Reading's biomethane powered bus with climate stripes
Reading’s climate stripes bus powered by bio-methane

Collaboration across organisations might be one key to reaching beyond ‘the usual suspects’. Reading Council arranged to use Ed Hawkins’ (Reading University) climate stripes on a bus powered by bio-methane which is used on a variety of routes to give maximum exposure. Reading Football club has also jumped in by featuring the stripes on the sleeves of their new shirts.

Reading Council then used a football club photo shoot featuring the shirts and the bus to kick off their 4-week community engagement campaign Stay Onside with Climate Change during November 2022.

Reading Borough Council declared a Climate Emergency back in February 2019 but they are very conscious that “The Climate Emergency is everybody’s responsibility, and no one organisation can deliver a net-zero carbon Reading in isolation.”

Imagining a zero-carbon future

Net Zero future image being painted on a wall
Net Zero mural at University of Plymouth

Net Zero Visions, an initiative of Climate Emergency Devon, builds on the idea that you can’t achieve a net-zero future until you can imagine it. They invite everyone to imagine what a net zero future will look like and submit their vision to be published on their website. They offer prizes for the best visions each month, with some being turned into public murals to help the public imagine a better future. There is now a mural in Tiverton, for example, and the above mural at the University of Plymouth.

Other ways to reach the broad public

Wrexham Council in Wales is currently conducting a climate action survey in which they hope a broad range of the community will participate, and they are offering free entry into a draw for some climate-positive prizes as an incentive. Alongside that they provide a link to a carbon footprint calculator and ask householders to use it to check (and reduce) their carbon emissions. Council’s aim is to:

“…work with people who live and work in Wrexham to increase the awareness and understanding of the changes we will all need to make to tackle the climate emergency.

“We’re hoping our survey can raise awareness of these issues, but it also allows us to learn a bit more about people in Wrexham, which will then help us to support them in making changes that can have a big impact.

The survey is well-designed and looks like it would be quite effective provided that it manages to grab the attention of people outside the climate bubble, but I suspect it might not reach most of the community. That would require some sort of mechanism for alerting all residents to the survey, such as inclusion with rates notices or other communications that everyone receives.

New climate-focused regulations

Back in January 2020, after declaring a Climate Emergency, Rennes Council in France banned outdoor heating at bars and cafes. Outdoor heating is enormously inefficient and they regarded the ban as an obvious way of cutting easily avoidable carbon emissions. I wonder if they also realised the controversy it generated would prove to be a very effective way of making sure all their residents were aware of their Climate Emergency declaration? It also signalled that they were serious about expecting everyone to make climate-focused changes.

Later Lyon Council also banned outdoor heating, and as of March this year a ban on outdoor heating has taken effect in all of France. This was one of the measures recommended by the French Citizens’ Assembly. It was originally due to start earlier but was pushed back in response to COVID measures.

Other councils too have introduced climate-focused bans, such as the bans on gas connections to new buildings that some local councils in the US have adopted. This would affect a narrower range of residents than the French ban on outdoor heating and so the incidental benefit of bringing notice to council’s focus on climate action might be weaker.

Local councils might prefer to avoid controversy but, in addition to the tangible climate benefits, a new regulation that has some sort of impact on a wide range of local residents is clearly useful for building awareness.

What to do next?

Make sure there is follow-up information clearly visible on the homepage of council’s website. Recent posts in the ‘good things CED councils are doing‘ series include examples of what some councils are doing to engage and empower the local community in Climate Emergency action – but the first challenge is catching everyone’s attention!

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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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question about the effect of Climate Emergency declarations on the local community

Community impact of Climate Emergency Declarations

Last week Whitehorse City Council in Victoria became the 115th jurisdiction in Australia to declare a Climate Emergency. That prompted the following question from a journalism student living in that area:

What is the effect within the local general community when their local council declares a Climate Emergency?

That raises another question – what percentage of the local population actually hear about the declaration?

I had to confess that I have no data on either point, and I can’t think of an efficient way of trying to collect that data either!

Do any readers have any data on reactions from the general public, or on how many people have heard (or not heard) about their local declaration? If so, please get in touch or leave a comment below this blog post. It will be valuable input even if it is just random anecdotal evidence, or the effect on you personally, rather than hard data.

What we do know

One theory of change driving the early Climate Emergency Declaration campaign was that a declaration by one local council would have influence in multiple directions. Not only would it have an effect on their own local community, it would also act sideways (to and from other local councils), upwards to higher levels of government, and inwards to their own staff.

  • Sideways: this has been working extremely well, as evidenced by the rapid spread of local government declarations. In addition, there are many examples of neighbouring councils sharing expertise and collaborating on initiatives, such as the power purchase agreement organised by the Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO), resulting in 46 Australian councils now buying renewable energy for their own operations. At Queenscliffe Borough Council, for example, that helped achieve a whopping 73% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from council’s own operations in just one year.
  • Upwards: in some regions there has been a direct regional influence. The Quebec state government declared a Climate Emergency after 403 of their local councils had done so, and the South Australian state government did so after 16 local councils covering 45% of the population in SA had issued declarations. In other cases the influence has been general rather than regional, but it is unlikely any of the 18 national and 41 subnational government declarations would have occurred were it not for the precedents set globally by numerous local councils.
  • Inwards: anecdotal evidence suggests that at some councils, their declaration and subsequent climate action focus has built engagement and enthusiasm for increased climate action amongst council’s own staff and Councillors, but I have not seen any publicly available data. What we do know is that some councils have included an internal climate-related education component in their action plans, and quite a few have hired external consultants to help staff learn more about what they can do.
  • Outwards: as stated above, we have no data on the effect of their Climate Emergency Declaration within a council’s own local community. However, in a more general global sense there clearly has been a broad diffuse outwards effect which goes beyond what was anticipated by the sideways-upwards-inwards-outwards concept. The term ‘climate emergency’ is now used very widely and was heralded as being the word of the year in 2019. By December 2020 it had reached the UN, with Antonio Guterres urging all countries to declare a Climate Emergency. In addition, numerous non-government entities – universities, schools, businesses, churches, and association bodies (eg. Architects Declare) – have declared a Climate Emergency. (You can see some of them in a sadly incomplete list here.)

So, if we did have the data, what might success look like in terms of the effect on the local community when its own council declares a Climate Emergency?

Scenario 1: Sounding the alarm

A key reason for an official trusted body to declare any sort of emergency is so that everyone knows about the danger and knows what to do (and not do) to increase their own safety. Importantly, an emergency declaration also brings out the best in people, leading to abandoning business-as-usual and going ‘above and beyond’ for the sake of the common good.

Similarly, I’d like to think that when their local council declares a Climate Emergency, everyone in the local community firstly knows there has been a declaration, and secondly, those who have been complacent about climate will:

  • pay more attention to climate information
  • change their behaviour
  • start helping others around them to respond to the emergency

But does that actually happen? Have any local residents been jolted out of climate complacency and into taking climate-positive actions in response to their local council declaring a Climate Emergency?

Scenario 2: Giving visibility to collective community effort

We all know we can’t do it alone. Climate-aware people might be discouraged from taking action and prone to pushing climate issues to the back of their minds if they think nobody else is doing anything. Many local councils were already taking at least some climate action, and some were doing a very large amount, but were their local communities aware of that before they declared a Climate Emergency?

I’d like to think that local council declarations and public commitments to climate action make everyone aware that collectively everyone’s actions can make a difference because:

  • their own council is treating climate like an emergency and is taking action accordingly
  • they are actively encouraging everyone in the community to take action, and reporting back on what members of the community are doing
  • and plenty of other local councils and communities globally are also joining in to help

Of course we still need to convince higher levels of government to pull the big climate levers, but a rising tide of engagement and action at the community level should make that easier to achieve.

Scenario 3: Sowing the seeds

Even if some of the local community initially fail to hear that their council has declared a Climate Emergency, I’d like to think that it will be brought to their attention later via projects that effectively engage a wide range of residents. I’m thinking, for example, of this charming scheme by Leeds City Council in the UK:

Leeds City Council is once again encouraging residents to get involved in an annual seed collection to help with the ambitious target of planting 5.8m trees over 25 years across the city.

Each Autumn people of all ages collect acorns, beech nuts, sweet chestnuts, and conkers which are then delivered to a specialist nursery to grow into seedlings. They are then planted in local parks and green spaces. What an engaging, enjoyable, visible, and empowering community activity! I can imagine a scenario that goes something like this:

  • Mummy, why are all those people picking up acorns?
  • I don’t know. Let’s ask them.
  • Council’s Climate Emergency declaration…planting millions of trees…everyone helping…
  • Mummy can we help find acorns too?

Please let us all know about any particularly effective schemes your council might have found for engaging their entire community.

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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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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 to comment.)

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Knox City Council meeting which passed a motion to declare (not just recognise) the Climate Emergency

From recognition to declaration: Knox City Council

This is a first! Or, at least, to the best of my knowledge Knox City Council is the first jurisdiction anywhere to upgrade an earlier motion recognising the Climate Emergency in order to explicitly join the ranks of local councils that have declared a Climate Emergency.

On 27 September 2021 Knox City Council adopted a new climate response plan, and in association with that they also recognised the Climate Emergency. Then, this week at their 25 July meeting, Cr Jude Dwight successfully proposed a new motion to explicitly declare a Climate Emergency.

Mayor Susan Laukens supported the motion to reaffirm the council’s commitment to act. “It is real, it is happening and climate scientists have been warning us of extreme weather events,” she said. “We need to be advocating and show leadership in this space”.

The new motion begins:

That Council

  1. Officially and publicly declare a Climate Emergency;
  2. Reaffirms strong commitment to the Climate Emergency and climate change mitigation and adaptation, as evidenced through…

To declare or to recognise – what is the issue?

A note on cedamia’s global list of Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) jurisdictions states that:

We include a jurisdiction if their resolution text includes ‘climate emergency’ or the equivalent in the local language. The resolution can declare, note, acknowledge, recognise (or similar) a climate emergency, or it can place climate emergency in quotation marks.

Accordingly, the earlier Knox City Council was recorded in the global list at the time it occurred (but it has now been updated to reflect the change from ‘recognise’ to ‘declare’).

But what prompted this note and this policy?

Warming banner - declare a Climate Emergency

As the above banner says, the grassroots Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) campaign which began in 2016 clearly asked all levels of government to declare a Climate Emergency. That’s what you do when you become aware of an emergency situation. You declare there is one so that everyone knows to take action if they want to remain safe.

In practice, particularly at first, many jurisdictions used words other than ‘declare’. Apparently they were concerned about unintended legal implications of declaring an emergency. (Even so, in general usage, all Climate Emergency resolutions tend to be reported as being ‘declarations’ regardless of the word actually used.)

Climate Emergency declarations in Australia

The first five CED councils in Australia either recognised, endorsed, or acknowledged the Climate Emergency. From 2020 onwards the vast majority used ‘declare’ in their CED motions but overall only half have done so. Incidentally, in Europe Climate and Ecological Emergency or Climate and Biodiversity Emergency declarations are quite common, but in Australia there have only been two of each, and one more that ‘recognised’ the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency.

Chart showing words used in Climate Emergency Declarations in Australia

Declarations in other countries

The first CED in the UK by Bristol City Council in November 2018 adopted a different solution. They declared a ‘climate emergency’, using quotation marks to signal that this was a new concept rather than necessarily having any sort of legal implications. During 2019 many other UK local councils copied that precedent, but these days new UK declarations usually don’t.

A few of the declarations in Canada and USA have used ‘recognise’ or similar, but the majority have simply used ‘declare’, as do all the CEDs in New Zealand and Japan.

Over the last couple of years there have been occasional cases of declarations in Australia and elsewhere that explicitly state that they should not be interpreted as having any particular legal implications. This seems like a practical way of circumventing debate on whether or not there are any legal issues to complicate declaring a Climate Emergency. For example, the Greater Wellington Council CED motion includes a clause saying, “Notes that the Climate Emergency declaration is made without explicit statutory authority or support.”

So…do CEDs have legal implications?

To be honest, I don’t think they do, but I’m not a lawyer. The campaign to declare a Climate Emergency is a bottom-up grassroots campaign. If CEDs were a top-down initiative there would be legislation saying what a CED is and setting regulations about them, but it isn’t. It came as a complete surprise to CED campaigners that the word ‘declare’ was considered a stumbling block considering that the entire CED concept was new and had no official standing.

However, some countries have legislation concerning other types of emergency declarations and the sorts of temporary powers and obligations that apply during those emergencies. It is understandable therefore that council legal teams wanted to take a cautious approach, at least at first.

All except two of the 20 most recent CEDs in Australia have used ‘declare’, and UK councils no longer bother using quotation marks. Has it now been established that such caution regarding potential legal implications is unnecessary? If you can answer this, please let us know!

In the meantime, I’m not sure if Knox City Council was concerned about legal implications when they used ‘recognise’ in their first CED, or perhaps they were influenced by the precedents set by some other Australian CEDs. Either way, it’s great to see them explicitly declare a Climate Emergency now. It really does sound much stronger.