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Cities and climate action after Paris

The 2015 Paris Climate Summit demonstrated the powerful leadership of cities and regions in closing the gap between national emission reduction commitments and the actions needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

In cities around the world, policy and investment decisions between now and 2020 will play a key role in locking in—or avoiding—high carbon pathways. This makes it vital for cities to transform urban systems from high to low carbon, especially in the way energy is generated and used, how buildings and urban form, transportation and waste systems.

The Turnbull government’s Smart Cities plan, released in April 2016, includes environmental outcomes and emissions reduction opportunities for Australia’s capital and regional cities, and ‘city deals’ to align the goals of local, state and federal government.

However, these objectives aren’t seriously backed up by the 2016-17 federal Budget, with roads dominating spending on urban infrastructure alongside cuts for renewable energy and continued handouts to fossil fuel companies.

In contrast, many Australian jurisdictions are making ambitious commitments to rapidly reduce emissions, building on strong community support and demonstrating leadership.

The cities of Adelaide and Melbourne are aiming for carbon neutrality by 2020, and the City of Sydney is targeting 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Regional cities and towns are also reducing emissions, with the entire Shire of Byron Bay pursuing net zero emissions within 10 years, and towns including Newstead in Victoria and Tyalgum in NSW going 100 per cent renewable.

State governments are also pressing ahead with ambitious strategies. South Australia is aiming for 100 per cent renewable energy and net zero emissions by 2050 and the ACT has raised its renewable energy target to 100 per cent by 2020.

These strategies have the potential to deliver many additional benefits, including improved public health, greater energy security and lower costs and new economic and employment opportunities.

The success of these strategies will depend on the strong alignment of institutions, governance mechanisms and financing towards the goal of emissions reductions across all levels of government.

And it is critical that the emissions reductions achieved by cities are not undone by increased emissions in sectors and policy areas over which sub-national governments have only limited control.

Stronger climate policy leadership by the Commonwealth government is needed. Key priorities including a national target of net zero emissions by 2050, a robust price on carbon, a rapid scale-up of renewables and co-ordinated phase out of fossil fuel energy, and an end to new coal mines.

The Paris Agreement clearly signals the end of the fossil fuel era and opens the door to transition to a just and resilient zero carbon global economy. However, the speed of this transition must be rapidly increased if we are to bridge the gap between national commitments and the actions required to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

The energy, creativity and determination of climate resilient communities, cities and regions can play a key role in achieving this goal.


This article is based on a MSSI Briefing Paper. Read the full paper here


Stephen Pollard,
Prof Brendan Gleeson,
Prof John Wiseman
University of Melbourne