There has been an increasing focus upon the role of cities and local government in respect of action upon climate change.
In a recent book on Climate Change and Global Energy Security, Marilyn Brown and Benjamin Sovacool highlight the benefits of local action on climate change. The pair commented that small-scale and local actions can promote experimentation and innovation: ‘Local actions can create competition that can optimize environmental policy and create ‘laboratories of democracy’ that experiment in crafting better policies.” Brown and Sovacool elaborated: ‘These benefits include experimentation and innovation, more flexibility, greater accountability and participation, simplicity, and positive competition among local actors that sometimes race to the top to craft better policies.’
In his edited collection on Local Climate Change Law: Environmental Regulation in Cities and Other Localities, Benjamin Richardson from the University of Tasmania observed that: ‘Efforts to deal with climate change increasingly recognize that cities, on the other one hand, are significant hubs of economy activity and major contributors to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, but, on the other hand, are also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels and heat island effects due to their infrastructure and highly concentrated populations.’ Richardson acknowledged that ‘municipal administrations that govern cities and other localities can help address climate change.’ Richardson also foresees that ‘local governments are seeking to become transnational actors and to acquire a voice in international environmental regulation and policy, including climate change governance.’
It is worthwhile considering developments in respect of local government and climate change in the Australian Capital Territory, Australia; the United States; and at an international level.
1. Australian Capital Territory
On 2 May 2014, Simon Corbell presented a paper on ‘Canberra’s Low Carbon Future’ at the ANU College of Law. Simon Corbell is the ACT Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development, Attorney-General, Minister for Police and Emergency Services, and Minister for Workplace Safety and Industrial Relations. He has been keen to position the ACT as a national renewable energy leader in Australia.
The ACT Government has enacted a number of legislative reforms to help promote a low carbon future in the national capital of Australia — including the Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act 2010 (ACT), the Energy Electricity Feed-in (Renewable Energy Premium) Act 2008 (ACT), the Electricity Feed-in (Large-scale Renewable Energy Generation) Act 2011 (ACT), and The Energy Efficiency (Cost of Living) Improvement Act 2012 (ACT).
The Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act 2010 (ACT) mandates 40% below 1990 emission levels by 2020 (a reduction of approx 2 million tonnes C02e per annum); Peaking emissions per capita by 2013; 80% below 1990 emissions levels by 2050; and a 90% renewable electricity supply by 2020. Simon Corbell is confident that such targets are achievable and affordable.
Canberra’s renewable energy future is already taking shape. The 20MW Royalla Solar Farm is now under construction south of the city. Being developed by the international solar company FRV, Royalla will deliver enough energy to power about 5000 homes, abating 700,000 tonnes of carbon during its operational life. When completed later this year it will be the largest operational photovoltaic solar farm in the country. Two more solar farms to deliver a further 20MW are proposed at Mugga Lane and at Uriarra and are currently at the planning stage. To cut Canberra’s annual carbon emissions by 2 million tonnes by 2020 will require a further 450 MW of renewable energy generating capacity.
The ACT Government is also keen to identify sites and scope next generation energy systems for a 50 MW solar technology innovation precinct. The ACT Government is keen to encourage local research and development into clean technologies. The Minister hopes to leverage Canberra’s world-leading research capacity in photovoltaics and wind resource assessment —at such institutions as Australian National University and CSIRO.
The ACT Government will also implement a reverse auction to support 200MW of new wind generation with feed in tariff in 2014. Simon Corbell is also interested to waste to energy facilities.
The ACT Government is cutting emissions from residential homes, and improving the energy efficiency of commercial buildings. The ACT Government is also developing sustainable transportation. Capital Metro — which will link the City with Gungahlin — will be the first stage of light rail for Canberra.
The ACT Government has developed an ethical investment policy. However, at the moment, the only key prohibited investments are tobacco; cluster bombs; and land mines. There has been local debate over whether the ACT Government should adopt a fossil fuel divestment policy.
Simon Corbell has promised: ‘Despite the Australian government’s abandonment of a credible national framework for climate action, residents of the capital expect strong action by the ACT government to cut our city’s carbon emissions’. He has assured local residents that they ‘can be confident a comprehensive plan to shift the national capital to a low carbon future is now being put into action.’
There are significant tensions between the ACT Government’s support for renewable energy, and the approach of the Federal Government.
Later the same day, there was a national controversy over the ACT Government’s reliance upon clean technologies. The Federal Treasurer, Joe Hockey, objected to the sight of wind turbines located near Lake George and Bungendore in New South Wales. He told Alan Jones on Macquarie Radio:
Can I be a little indulgent? I drive to Canberra to go to parliament … and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive. I think they’re a blight on the landscape.
In response, ACT Environment Minister Simon Corbell commented: ‘The personal views of Mr Hockey when it comes to wind farm aesthetics should not be the basis on which we determine renewable energy policy in this country.’ He feared: ‘Australia is now facing the prospect of being well behind the rest of the world when it comes to the transition to renewable energy.’ Corbell worried that ‘Australians will pay the price for that by being hostage to dramatic increases in fossil fuel prices over the coming decades if we don’t act now.’
2. The United States
Releasing the 2014 National Climate Assessment, President Barack Obama highlighted the present and real danger posed by climate change to a wide range of regions and sectors of the United States. He stressed in an interview with meteorologists:
This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now. Whether it means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires — all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.
The 2014 National Climate Assessment emphasized the impact of climate change upon cities, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. The report noted that ‘Climate change poses a series of interrelated challenges to the country’s most densely populated places: its cities’. The National Climate Assessment stressed: ‘Cities have become early responders to climate change challenges and opportunities due to two simple facts: first, urban areas have large and growing populations that are vulnerable for many reasons to climate variability and change; and second, cities depend on extensive infrastructure systems and the resources that support them.’ The report noted: ‘Many cities depend on infrastructure, like water and sewage systems, roads, bridges, and power plants, that is aging and in need of repair or replacement.’ The report was concerned about the impact of extreme weather upon cities and infrastructure: ‘Rising sea levels, storm surges, heat waves, and extreme weather events will compound these issues, stressing or even overwhelming these essential services.’ The report recommended a number of adaptation strategies.
As the Mayor of New York, Mike Bloomberg emphasized the need for cities to show leadership on climate change. He observed: ‘For the first time in human history, more than half the world’s population is living in cities, which now produce approximately 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.’ He commented: ‘That puts cities on the frontlines of the battle against climate change — and more and more cities are leading the charge.’
Mike Bloomberg played a key role in establishing the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of mega-cities, which are committed to addressing climate change. He commented: ‘Acting both locally and collaboratively, C40 Cities are having a meaningful global impact in reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks.’ Bloomberg stressed: ‘C40 brings together a unique set of assets and creates a shared sense of purpose.’ He emphasized: ‘C40 offers cities an effective forum where they can collaborate, share knowledge and drive meaningful, measurable and sustainable action on climate change.’
There has been a push by Bill McKibben and 350.org for local governments in the United States to adopt fossil fuel divestment policies. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was a powerful leader of the local government movement on fossil fuel divestment in the United States. He has encouraged other United States cities to adopt ethical investment policies. McGinn observed:
The City of Seattle is a leader on addressing climate change on many fronts, and our investment strategy is only one of the avenues we are pursuing. We are implementing a Climate Action Plan that aims to make the city carbon neutral by 2050 by making our buildings more energy efficient and putting more of our people into vibrant neighborhoods with easy access to transit, walking and biking. Our city-owned electric utility, Seattle City Light, has been carbon neutral for over eight years, strategically investing in conservation and renewable energy so that the city no longer relies on coal fired power.
In June 2013, Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced his support for fossil-fuel divestment and urged the state of Oregon to follow his lead. He commented: “By acting locally, we can send a message to the world that investment in fossil fuels is a losing proposition, and that loosening our dependence on fossil fuels will increase our quality of life.” The Board of Supervisors in San Francisco have adopted an ethical investment policy dealing with fossil fuels. A number of other cities have also made commitments to engage in fossil fuel divestment. The Mayors Innovation Project has developed a guide for cities to engage in fossil fuel divestment.
There is even a state-based effort by Pittsburgh Senator Benjamin Downing to introduce a fossil fuel divestment bill to Massachusetts.
In June 2014, US Ambassador to Australia, John Berry, emphasized the need for co-operative action in respect of climate change:
The United States and Australia can — and should — work side by side to clean up, to innovate, and to discover new energy sources. It’s not only good environmental policy, it’s also good business.
He highlighted the need for international co-operation between governments, business, and civil society on climate change action.
3. International Policy
The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted the role that cities can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, the IPCC Working Group Co-Chair, commented:
Climate policies in line with the two degrees Celsius goal need to aim for substantial emission reductions. Ambitious mitigation may even require removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual. Many different pathways lead to a future within the boundaries set by the two degrees Celsius goal. All of these require substantial investments. Avoiding further delays in mitigation and making use of a broad variety of technologies can limit the associated costs.
Edenhofer stressed: ‘Climate change is a global commons problem.’ He observed: ‘International cooperation is key for achieving mitigation goals. Putting in place the international institutions needed for cooperation is a challenge in itself.’
The report analysed key sectors: including energy, transport, construction, and building, industry, land use, agriculture and forestry. Chapter 12 focuses in particular upon human settlement. The report summarized its findings for policy-makers in this area thus:
Successful implementation of urban‐scale climate change mitigation strategies can provide co‐benefits. Urban areas throughout the world continue to struggle with challenges, including ensuring access to energy, limiting air and water pollution, and maintaining employment opportunities and competitiveness. Action on urban‐scale mitigation often depends on the ability to relate climate change mitigation efforts to local co‐benefits.
The report noted: ‘For rapidly developing cities, options include shaping their urbanization and infrastructure Development towards More sustainable and low carbon pathways’. The report observed: ‘In mature or established cities, options are constrained by existing urban Forms and infrastructure and the potential for refurbishing existing systems and infrastructures’. The report stressed: ‘Key mitigation strategies include co‐locating high residential with high employment densities, achieving high land use mixes, increasing accessibility and investing in public transit and other supportive demand management measures’. The report commented ‘Bundling these strategies can reduce emissions in the short term and generate even higher emissions savings in the long term.’
The report emphasized the opportunities for cities in responding to climate change. Responding to the report, Christina DeConcini, director of government affairs for the World Resources Institute commented: ‘A lot of cities have sustainability departments and people focusing on it, and more and more of the work they are doing is focused on climate and climate impacts.’ She observed that ‘Cities that are more at risk are definitely paying more attention.’
Discussing the report, Professor Tim Dixon from the University of Reading, UK, highlighted the dual role of cities in the debate over climate change: ‘In a sense, they are the carbon criminals of this world, but they also provide us with really good opportunities.’ Dixon, a researcher on the Retrofit 2050 project, calls for creative urban responses to climate change:
We need to think creatively and imaginatively. In an era of austerity, it’s not going to be the public purse that pays for this, the private sector has to be involved, so we have to think about how we can engage them in these kinds of major energy efficiency measures across cities.
As Paul Rincon, the science writer for the BBC, has observed: ‘For effective climate change adaptation, as for mitigation, coherent visions for future cities will be key.’
In this context, Canberra could play an important role in international debates over climate change through presenting a creative vision in respect of local government, clean technology, and climate action.
Dr Matthew Rimmer is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on Intellectual Property and Climate Change. He is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law, and an associate director of the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture (ACIPA). He holds a BA (Hons) and a University Medal in literature, and a LLB (Hons) from the Australian National University, and a PhD (Law) from the University of New South Wales. He is a member of the ANU Climate Change Institute. Dr Rimmer is the author of Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands off my iPod, Intellectual Property and Biotechnology: Biological Inventions, and Intellectual Property and Climate Change: Inventing Clean Technologies. He is an editor of Patent Law and Biological Inventions, Incentives for Global Public Health: Patent Law and Access to Essential Medicines, and Intellectual Property and Emerging Technologies: The New Biology. Rimmer has published widely on copyright law and information technology, patent law and biotechnology, access to medicines, clean technologies, and traditional knowledge. His work is archived at SSRN Abstracts and Bepress Selected Works.