It is, most would now say, a defining issue of our time. Government organisations around the world - including many councils - have declared a state of climate emergency. By 2030, temperatures may rise by more than 1 degree in Victoria - and annual temperatures are already up by an average of 1.5 degrees since the early 1960s. Droughts and storms may strike more often with less rainfall and harsher heatwaves.
With such a backdrop it is no surprise that City of Ballarat councillors unanimously endorsed a plan this month with targets to cut and offset the council's own carbon emissions.
In a wider context, Ballarat is of course a tiny microcosm in a country that has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. But both council officers and councillors say they want council to play a leading regional role.
The organisation created 39,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions last year - more than Geelong but less than Bendigo - and a fraction of a percent of Victoria overall.
As stated in the "Carbon Neutrality and 100% Renewables Action Plan" the target is to cut Ballarat's CO2 emissions to just over 23,000 tonnes by 2025 and offset the rest. Here are some of the keys to success.
1. CUTTING EMISSIONS
At its core, the plan outlines "big ticket" actions that will cut CO2 emissions. They are:
1. Reduce electricity emissions to zero - potentially in 2020 when existing contracts expire and the council hopes to be able to purchase all its power from "green" sources.
2. Divert waste from landfill with the planned building of the All Waste Interchange.
3. Change the city's streetlights from mercury to LED (estimated for completion in 2022).
4. Cut the use of gas at energy-guzzling facilities such as the Aquatic Centre - possibly using biomass or heat pump technology.
5. Push fleet emissions down - the planned installation of the All Waste Interchange in particular should mean shorter journeys. Note there are no confirmed large-scale plans to migrate the fleet to hybrid or electric vehicles - but options are being considered.
There are also easy wins such as: installing solar panels on buildings such as Girrabanya and Wendouree childcare centres, training drivers to minimise fuel use and updating tenders to encourage environmental purchasing policies.
2. OFFSET EMISSIONS
Even if all the cuts work, the council's annual CO2 emissions are projected at around 23,000 tonnes in 2025 - a considerable amount to offset if carbon neutrality is to be reached. Some councils - such as Brisbane City Council - are already registered carbon neutral - but they often achieve this by purchasing carbon credits. Whether that is an option that Ballarat will take is unsure - officers are watching carefully in the hope new emission reduction options will become available over the next years.
One potential offsetting measure in Ballarat is the council's recently approved Urban Forest plan, which aims to increase canopy cover in the city from 17 per cent as it currently stands to 40 per cent in 2040. There is no tangible figure for how much this would offset yet.
READ MORE: Urban Forest plan approved
Councillor Belinda Coates put forward the motion a little over two years ago for council to develop a strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025. While she praised the plan for its ambition and realism, she did say that residents could still push for more emissions to be cut rather than offset. "To make it realistic at this point, this is what we've agreed on - but it always should aspire to go further," she said.
We're not the United Nations nor the World Bank. But we see our role as having to take a genuine lead in our region in addressing climate change.Terry Demeo, City of Ballarat council
3. GET RESIDENTS ON BOARD
The next challenge is how council shapes a plan that involves everyone who lives in Ballarat. Hepburn Shire is a nearby local government area viewed as a leader in this respect. Its Z-NET community transition plan was launched earlier this month - a vision for all its 15,000 residents to be completely carbon neutral in their energy use by 2029. Their smaller size is an advantage - as is an already existing community-owned energy generator Hepburn Wind, and state funding for additional solar power.
While Ballarat's plan mostly targets the council's own emissions, there are areas where the council hopes to involve the wider community - such as the Solar Savers program for low-income households. For Cr Coates, facilitating a "whole of city" approach is one of the great challenges in the next stage.
4. BROAD COLLABORATION
Both councillors and officers stressed the collaborative effort involved in putting together the neutrality plan. It involved the Regional Sustainability Alliance Ballarat, departments across council and other community groups.
Success will ultimately be dependent on the ambition of state and federal policyCouncillor Belinda Coates
Officers also said they looked for strong examples in councils known for good environment policies - Yarra and Darebin are both cited - and adapted ideas to work for Ballarat. For Terry Demeo, the council's director of environment and infrastructure, the council "can continue to grow our partnerships." For example, working with a network of 13 councils through the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance could boost purchasing power for the bulk-buy of electric vehicles.
5. STATE AND FEDERAL HELP
Mr Demeo is unequivocal on this point. "Council can't do it all on its own," he told The Courier, a sentiment that Cr Coates agrees with. "Success will ultimately be dependent on the ambition of state and federal policy," she said.
For one City of Ballarat officer, the heavy diesel fleet is a concern, saying: "There is a lack of available alternative renewable fuel options, which is one of the big challenges." It is another area where a federal policy intervention could help.
That also applies to waste disposal, perhaps the most substantial problem facing Ballarat. Landfill is easily the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases for the council and while more landfill gas could be captured, it will only account for a small percentage of the total.
With councils around the country struggling with China's ban last year on accepting recycling goods, Mr Demeo said: "We can't tackle recycling and waste on our own."
He says he would like a waste-to-energy plant, viewed by many as crucial for long-term sustainability for waste disposal, to click into action "tomorrow" but knows there is likely to be a substantial wait. "The reality is that it's not a simple problem in terms of quantity of investment - there's a lot of moving parts."
"The opportunities to divert from landfill, having policies and investment given there is a significant contribution from councils with the landfill levy, that would certainly help our aspirations."
One other upshot of the newly approved plan is that it will now form part of the council's annual report, which normally goes out to the public in late spring each year. The council also produces a State of the Environment report which is designed to be an easy-to-understand public document.
It includes a snapshot of the council's environmental targets and achievements in water, energy, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as biodiversity and waste.
Within the council itself, two sustainability officers are set to be employed to push the plan, monitor energy emissions, look out for new developments and help council staff to keep up with any new technologies.
2025 AND BEYOND
While there are many pieces of the puzzle that have not yet clicked into place, for councillors and those who worked on the plan, it is a substantial start.
"A 2025 target of carbon neutrality and 100 per cent renewables is very, very challenging. It's really committed council to a significant body of work," said Mr Demeo.
He added the people who made submissions before the plan was considered at the last council meeting made it clear that the environment is "a fundamental plank" of operations generally.
"We do play a role," he said. "We're not the United Nations or the World Bank - we're not the biggest economy in the world. But we see our role as a city as as having to take a genuine lead in our region in addressing climate change and the challenges to reduce carbon.
"Reducing your reliance on energy and what your pay for energy bills can't be a bad thing. It is good business whether you are a believer or not."
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