OPINION: City governments to lead the way on climate change

By Dr Stephen Jones

With most of the world’s population now living in urban areas, town and city councils are charged with the responsibility of reducing the impacts of climate change.

The United Nation’s human settlement agency, UN-HABITAT, has reported that cities are having a major impact on climate change. 

Most of the world’s population now live in towns and cities and our use of energy and the way we live will continue to have the greatest influence on global warming. 

The UN recently issued a bleak warning that all coastal cities face threats from climate change, but the impact on cities with over 10 million people is potentially much more devastating. 

UN-HABITAT executive director, Anna Tibaijuka, warned that the impacts of climate change will threaten urban communities.

“We must bear in mind that the greatest impacts of disasters resulting from climate change begin and end in cities,” she said.

Research is now showing that some of the most effective ways of reducing the impacts of climate change will be through better land-use planning and building codes so that cities keep their ecological footprint to the minimum, and make sure their residents, especially the poorest, are protected as best as possible against disaster.

This scenario puts a tremendous responsibility on city governments who must begin looking for solutions to these major challenges.

Unfortunately, to date, there are only a few examples of comprehensive climate change programmes at the local level.  However, some Australian cities have been working on these issues for over a decade and have been part of international alliances to discuss ideas on the best methods to deal with these potentially catastrophic situations.

International research shows that city politicians often show a greater commitment to reducing GHG emissions than do national politicians.

One example of this commitment is the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) program which is widely regarded as the largest greenhouse gas mitigation program in the world. The CCP is part of the broader ICLEI- Local Governments for Sustainability initiative established in 1990 as an association of over 900 local governments undertaking climate protection and sustainable development policies.

Two Australian members of the CCP serve as examples of the level to which city governments are prepared to take the initiative and commit to some action on reducing global warming. The Brisbane City Council has established a target of reducing GHG emissions by 50 per cent less than 2000 levels by 2026 through its Plan for Action on Climate Change and Energy.

Melbourne City Council introduced policies in its Greenhouse Action Plan 2006-2010 to reduce Melbourne’s emissions by 20 per cent below 1996 levels by 2010, and to reach zero net emissions for the city by 2020. 

Other Australian city governments have introduced strategies that include policies in areas such as avoiding taking actions that produce or increase GHG emissions; reducing their own contribution to GHG emissions; adapting to climate change through identifying opportunities, such as new ‘green’ businesses and industries; and reducing the impact of climate change through ‘offset’ initiatives such a planting green zones.

The fact that over 80 per cent of Australians live in cities means that what city governments decide has the potential to impact considerably on how we deal with climate change issues.

So while the introduction of the emissions trading scheme and the renewable energy target continues to cause angst for the Rudd Government many of our city governments have been busy introducing their own policies and signing international agreements that will potentially reduce our impact global warming.

But to be most effective we need to have all three levels of government working together on these issues. Without a coordinated approach we run the risk of reducing the impact of our efforts.

President Barack Obama has been stressing this need for coordination for all levels of government in the US to work together on climate change; hopefully Australian governments can show how it should be done successfully. 

Dr Stephen Jones is a lecturer in public sector administration and public policy at the UQ Business School, University of Queensland. His current research work includes a comparative examination of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures by local governments in both the Australian and international context.

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