By Eliza Booth, Editor, Council magazine

The science is clear – the world is experiencing a climate crisis. With groundbreaking reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Australia’s Climate Council sending urgent warnings about the deadly effects of our warming planet, governments at all levels are looking to accelerate their sustainability efforts. One of Australia’s leaders in sustainability and emissions reduction efforts is the City of Sydney, who are setting the example for local governments across the country. Here, we take a look at the City of Sydney’s sustainability journey to date, how the City is achieving its goals, as well as the newly updated net zero targets, and how these will not only benefit the local community, but the whole country.

In April of this year, the Climate Council released the Aim High, Go Fast: Why Emissions Need to Plummet this Decade report, which warned that collectively Australia needed to triple its current emissions cuts in the next decade and hit net zero sooner to avoid the devastating impacts of accelerating climate change – including a more than 1.5 degree increase in global heating.

The report suggested that action in Australia in the years to come needs to focus on cutting emissions by 75 per cent by 2030, and reaching net zero emissions by 2035 at the latest.

Spurred by the results of the report, the City of Sydney took stock of its current emissions reduction and net zero journey and concluded that, while it could not tackle climate change on its own, the City needed to lead the charge and inspire other local governments across the country to heed the climate science warnings and accelerate emissions reductions targets.

Earlier this year, the City of Sydney released its draft Environmental Strategy 2021–2025, which included the City’s new goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2035; five years ahead of its original target.

The report outlined how this goal would be achieved through numerous sustainable programs and initiatives across the City, helping to create a truly green, sustainable place for people to live and work in.

The journey so far

The City of Sydney has long been a leading force in sustainability and emissions reduction at the local government level. In 2007, the City was the first local government in the country to become carbon neutral, and in 2019 it was the first major city in Australia to declare a climate emergency, highlighting the urgency of creating greener cities across the country.

“To date, our sustainability achievements include contributing to a 22 per cent emissions reduction across the local area from 2006 to 2009, establishing a precinct recycled water scheme at Green Square, and helping 172 apartments reduce their emissions by 20,000 tonnes,” a City of Sydney spokesperson said about the City’s sustainability journey so far.

One of the most significant actions the City has taken to date was to fully switch to 100 per cent renewable energy as part of a $60 million, ten-year agreement with Flow Power.

“From July 2020, we began using 100 per cent renewable electricity, and we are expecting emissions to drop to more than 76 per cent below 2006 levels by the end of June 2021,” the City spokesperson explained. “The switch is responsible for reducing our CO2 emissions by an estimated 20,000 tonnes – the equivalent of powering around 6,000 households.

In addition, it’s projected to save the City as much as half a million dollars a year over the next ten years.” Additionally, successful initiatives across the local government are helping the City of Sydney to smash initial emissions reduction targets almost a decade ahead of time.

“This year we’ll meet our 2008 goal to reduce emissions by 70 per cent by 2030 – nine years earlier than initially targeted. We’ve used a range of initiatives to help reach this goal, including energy efficiency projects, rooftop solar, the installation of a grid size battery at our Alexandria Canal Depot and introducing hybrid and electric vehicles to our fleet,” The City of Sydney spokesperson said.

For Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, sustainability and climate change mitigation initiatives have always been a top priority. With a dedicated team at Council, the City has been successful in hitting it’s sustainability targets as it continues to strive to be one of Australia’s top green communities.

“Taking effective action on climate change has been a key priority for my entire term as Lord Mayor,” Mayor Moore said. “Overwhelming climate research tells us we cannot afford to take our time reducing carbon emissions in Australia – emissions need to plummet now if we are to avoid devastating consequences.

“After extensive citywide consultation, the City made the commitment in 2008 to reduce emissions by 70 per cent by 2030. We did the master plans, set the targets and took action, and we met this ambitious organisational target by reducing greenhouse gas emissions nine years early in 2021, securing Sydney’s future as one of the world’s top green, liveable and creative cities.”

A new net zero target

With the Climate Council urging  Australia to cut emission drastically, and a recent report from the IPCC warning of the catastrophic effects of climate change – including increasing heatwaves, devastating droughts, more frequent floods and intense storms – reassessing and bringing forward emissions reductions targets is more important than ever.

To address these concerns and to do its part towards a net zero future, the City of Sydney released its draft Environmental Strategy 2021–2025, which outlined the City’s future sustainability journey and its updated emissions targets.

“The City of Sydney announced in June that it would target net zero carbon emissions by 2035 – five years earlier than previously planned – in a move to help avert catastrophic climate change,” a spokesperson for the City of Sydney said.

“The target is in line with research confirming Australia and the rest of the world need to reach net zero emissions by 2035 to avoid the devastating consequences of more than 1.5 degrees of global heating.”

The Strategy was placed on public exhibition for four weeks to receive feedback from the public, to help inform the City’s final version of the Strategy. The draft Strategy received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community with residents showing their support for the proposals and identifying the factors of sustainability that matter most to them and their daily lives.

“Residents expressed a desire for greater action from all levels of government on climate change, more access to walking and cycling, and the importance of transitioning to renewable energy, as well as the need for ambitious targets,” the City of Sydney Spokesperson explained.

“Given these areas already feature heavily in the Strategy, we only needed to make minor amendments to the plan before it was approved by Council.” Mayor Moore said that the Strategy’s goals will be achieved through numerous new initiatives and expansions on projects currently underway.

“We brought forward our target for city-wide net zero greenhouse gas emissions to 2035 from 2040, which we believe can be achieved through the further expansion of renewable energy, working with our partners to increase the efficiency of our buildings, better managing our waste, supporting active transport choices and switching to electric vehicles.”

Taking action

To see their goals and targets be fully achieved, the City of Sydney is tackling emissions reduction on several fronts, including extensive work in the transport, waste, fuel, energy and water sectors, among many other programs and initiatives.

“Greening the grid, diverting waste  from landfill and increasing green building standards will all play a part in how we meet the challenges of the climate crisis and create a city that is net zero in less than 15 years. The City will attempt to slash local area emissions by targeted programs to manage waste, energy and fuel,” a City of Spokesperson said.

“Energy consumption produces 73 per cent of the local area’s greenhouse gas emissions. By encouraging businesses, residents and other organisations to use renewable energy sources and switch to green power, we plan to significantly reduce this number.”

A major sector the City is working on to cut emissions is transport. The City will be focusing on encouraging the community to utilise public and active transport options like buses, trains, cycling and walking.

“The transport sector is the second biggest contributor to emissions after energy. In 2018–2019 it was responsible for 16 per cent of the local area’s carbon emissions, either through petrol from vehicles or the electricity used to power public transport,” the spokesperson explained.

“We aim to lower these emissions by continuing to encourage a shift away from private vehicles and towards public transport, walking and cycling, as well as supporting businesses to shift to electric vehicles.”

Waste management is another area the City is looking to overhaul and improve, especially focusing on food waste across the residential sector.

“Waste and waste management currently account for around 9 per cent of the City’s emissions,” a City spokesperson said. “From tackling single-use plastics to recycling food scraps, reducing waste and better waste management is another key component of lowering the area’s emissions.

“Our Environmental Strategy 2021- 2025 targets waste reduction across the residential sector, aiming to divert 90 per cent from landfill by 2030. “By far the greatest contributor to residential waste is food, accounting for more than a third of space in our bins.

We are running a food scraps recycling trial, with around 11,000 households currently able to access the scheme, and another 10,000 households expected to have access by September 2021. “Recycling food waste saves landfill space and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

It can be used to create green electricity and fertiliser. Every tonne of food waste we divert and process saves 1.69 tonnes of carbon emissions.”

The City spokesperson said that in addition to cutting emissions, programs across energy and water efficiency are helping the community save money. One such project is the Smart Green Apartments program, which is helping more than 170 buildings save approximately $3.49 million in utility bills each year.

Creating a better future for the planet

While the outlook from climate science may seem grim, the good news is that it isn’t too late to change our world’s current trajectory.

With leaders in emissions reduction activities and net zero targets like the City of Sydney leading the charge, other local governments across Australia can benefit from a demonstrated roadmap of successful achievements.

For the City of Sydney, leading by example to address climate change and reaching net zero as soon as possible is a huge step toward a greener planet for us all.

“While the City of Sydney cannot tackle the climate crisis alone, we can lead and encourage others to do the same within their communities,” Mayor Moore said.

There is a lot of work to be done, but through collaboration, advancing technologies, evidence-based research, and an overall desire from all sectors and communities to adopt sustainable practices, we can fight off the devastating effects of climate change and continue to enjoy the beauty of our planet for generations to come.

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