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Helen Oakey, Executive Director

The ACT has been at the forefront of action in Australia to tackle climate change. We have achieved 100% renewable electricity, and in 2018 our net zero emissions target was brought forward from 2050 to 2045.

From a global perspective, the earlier we reach zero net emissions, the more likely it is that warming will be limited to 1.5 degrees – the aspiration of the 2015 Paris Agreement.  

Unfortunately, the window for successful global climate action is rapidly closing, as is our opportunity to limit sea level rise, prevent more damaging weather events, and stop irreversible damage to ecosystems. Based on the latest IPCC report in 2018, we have less than 10 years to plateau and begin to turn emissions downwards. 

From this advice, we can conclude that the ACT’s 2045 net zero emissions target is no longer aligned with climate science. The Conservation Council has proposed a more aggressive goal: to reach net zero emissions by 2030. This would bring the ACT in line with other leading cities such as Bristol, Glasgow and Copenhagen which all have zero emissions targets of 2030 or earlier. We must dedicate all of our efforts to reaching this target, in spite of the challenges.

Of course, the challenge we are facing is global, and many Australian politicians have used this fact as an excuse for no action on climate change. But there is a strong case for the ACT to take action.

Firstly, Canberrans create far more than our fair share of emissions: from 1990 to 2014 the average Canberran caused over 500 tonnes of CO2 emissions, compared with the world average of 110. Is it right to continue to accept the use of fossil fuels when it’s clear that greenhouse emissions are having an impact on our local and global environment? Can we keep driving vehicles with poor emissions standards, and continue to build inefficient houses that rely on gas to heat? If we vote for those kinds of policies, will we be able to look our children in the eye in ten or twenty years when the repercussions are indisputable?

Secondly, we have a great opportunity in Canberra to demonstrate that new ideas are possible. We did this by purchasing 100% renewable electricity, by setting a net zero emissions target, and by committing to phase out natural gas, a fossil fuel almost as polluting as coal.  These measures have received national attention, and are welcomed by those who oppose a “gas-led recovery”. Each time we showcase good policy and good outcomes, it reverberates around the country and the world. 

Thirdly, while the ACT’s emissions are small in a global context, so are most other jurisdictions! Yet the cumulative action of jurisdictions (and of companies) makes a difference. Since no jurisdiction can single-handedly change the global emissions trajectory, the argument that none should do so is baseless. Every action to purchase renewable electricity can contribute to a fundamental shift in our energy market. Yes, it can seem like slow progress when national governments abdicate their climate responsibility, but when the community is empowered, important changes happen that national governments can’t ignore. 

The key change is community understanding, which provides the social licence for governments to act.  Governments can build social licence by explaining, reassuring and allaying fears – something the Australian government has failed to do over the past seven years.  It therefore falls to local and regional communities to show leadership. The more we listen and talk with the community, the more we can strengthen that social licence for action, and remove the social licence for policies that perpetuate the problem.

Right now, the scale of the climate crisis means that every single action, policy and commitment made by governments, companies and communities needs to be pulling us in a direction of climate action. Decisions must be approached through a “climate filter”: what is the policy aiming to achieve and does it also reduce emissions? For example, a car registration policy that incentivises switching to electric vehicles is better than a policy that perpetuates the use of petrol/diesel cars. 

At this ACT Election there is a chance for parties to outline how they will build on local climate action to meet net zero emissions. Burning gas contributes to 22% of the ACT direct emissions. There is an imperative to immediately stop all new residences connecting to gas, and then to phase out gas from existing Canberra households by 2030, in favour of electric appliances for heating and cooking.

Transport currently represents 60% of the ACT’s emissions, with emissions from private vehicles dominating. A major effort will be needed to replace a significant proportion of car journeys with public transport, walking and cycling; and (since many journeys will still depend on cars) to replace petrol and diesel vehicles with zero emission vehicles. This will require significant infrastructure for separated cycleways, an integrated light rail and electric bus network, and incentives for electric cars and electric bikes.

To ensure community buy in, and to build a just transition, these policies must be cognisant of the needs of the whole community, and not disadvantage specific groups, especially those who already live with hardship.

ACT Labor, the Canberra Liberals and the ACT Greens have all committed to deliver the ACT’s net zero emissions target. We need to ask them how they are planning to do that and how quickly? Do their policies pull us towards, or away from, a safe-climate future?


Helen Oakey is the Executive Director of the Conservation Council ACT Region. 

The Conservation Council ACT Region is hosting an online Election Forum on Tuesday 29 September at 5.30pm to discuss Climate Change and Urban Sustainability with ACT Election candidates.

Read the Conservation Council’s ACT 2020 Election Priorities, or find out how to take action this election.