What have Local Governments been doing about climate change - and where to now?

  • 1.  What have Local Governments been doing about climate change - and where to now?

    Posted 06 March 2012 18:26

    Considerable progress has already been made by local government to address climate change, within their capacities to do so.  In the early years of the new millennium, Australian local councils focussed mainly on climate change mitigation, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hence the rate of climate change.  Under programs instituted in that period many councils implemented energy reduction measures and installed renewable energy generating equipment.

    However, since adoption in 2007 by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) of the National Climate Change Adaptation Framework, and with considerable Commonwealth Government grant funding and support, local councils have been actively pursuing climate change adaptation, which complements climate change mitigation.

    Adaptation is defined as actions taken in response to actual or projected climate change and impacts that lead to a reduction in risks or realise benefits.  In other words, climate change adaptation is about increasing our ability to cope with the more severe (i.e. hotter, drier, stormier weather and higher sea levels) conditions that climate change is expected to bring.

    There are two stages to climate change adaptation.  The first stage is to assess the climate change risks, whilst the second stage is to plan and implement adaptation measures to treat the high priority climate change risks.  

    By now many local councils have undertaken climate change risk assessments, for which there is a well-established methodology, based on the Australian risk management standards, AS/NZS 4360:2004, its successor AS/NZS ISO 31 000:2009 and soon DR AS5334: 2012.  The councils have identified and prioritised their climate change risks.

    Some local councils have proceeded to the next stage and developed draft adaptation action plans, but there are significant difficulties in doing so, especially how to deal with the many uncertainties involved.  Moreover, there is presently no standard or other guidance on adaptation planning.  (Draft standard DR AS 5334 Climate change adaptation for settlements and infrastructure mainly deals with risk assessment, rather than adaptation planning.)  As a result, progress by local councils on developing and implementing adaptation actions has been much slower than progress on climate change mitigation.

    A survey of 106 councils by the NSW Local Government and Shires Association (LGSA) ( in late 2010 provides useful insights into the current status of climate change adaptation in local government.  It confirmed that far fewer councils have taken adaptation actions, compared with climate change mitigation.

    The survey found that the most common adaptation actions are only preparatory in nature, such as research or studies into impacts; seeking grants; amending planning instruments and building staff capacity.

    The main barriers to adaptation actions were found to be competing priorities, the availability of funding, limited staff capacity/ high turnover, the limitations of legislation; uncertainty about the role of local government and a lack of locally-relevant climate change information. 

    The main drivers for climate change action by local councils were support from council's executive, the opportunity to save money through resource efficiency and/or avoiding future impact costs; climate change being prioritised as part of Council's sustainability agenda and council concern over liability in not preparing for climate change.

    The LGSA survey report recommended more resources to undertake climate change actions; more help to complete climate change risk assessments and develop/ implement adaptation strategies; further information that is scientific and LGA-specific; climate change training for staff and executive managers; a facilitated network of local government climate change practitioners and a more co-ordinated approach by all levels of government.

    Local government & public works professionals will be directly responsibility for, or have significant influence over, development and implementation of climate change adaptation plans.  However, if the findings of the NSW LGSA survey apply nation-wide, they indicate that there are significant barriers to climate change adaptation by local councils. This suggests that the IPWEA could play a valuable role in supporting its members with information, guidance and co-ordination, like it has for asset management.  Indeed, many of the adaptation actions to be undertaken by IPWEA members will apply to local council assets, so the IPWEA's highly effective approach to asset management may provide a useful template for climate change adaptation.

    What have Local Governments been doing about climate change - and where to now?

    IPWEA is developing its strategy going forward on where and how it can best assist public works professionals plan and address the impacts of climate change on infrastructure.

    We are seeking your comments and contributions about your needs and issues. How can IPWEA assist?

    Stephen Lees
    National Director Sustainability
    Sydney NSW