Climate emergency: can local governments lead the way?


On June 24, Sydney declared a climate emergency. In doing so, it joined the ranks of councils around the world advocating for stronger climate action. The trend marks a movement that is increasingly gaining momentum, with over 850 local governments worldwide declaring climate emergencies in the absence of national efforts to properly address the threat of global warming.


The collective leadership shown by local governments is a welcome change. Supporters of the movement claim that emergency declarations put climate change “at the centre” of policy and planning decisions. This gives hope to constituents who are familiar with inaction in the face of mounting evidence for global warming.


But while the movement has gained considerable traction, it has also been met with a wave of scepticism. Critics argue that governments that declare climate emergencies without a concrete plan of attack are just paying lip service to the cause. Some councils that have declared emergencies have even dismissed the municipal movement as “worth nothing” without real action from national governments. 


These arguments raise an important question for the future of bottom-up leadership on climate action: ‘what impact can local governments make by declaring climate emergencies’?


Firstly, we need to understand what declaring a climate emergency means. Unlike declaring a ‘state of emergency’, a climate emergency is not legally binding, and does not mandate governments to make change. Notably the Canadian House of Commons declared a climate emergency earlier this year, and the next day approved a significant expansion to a heavy crude oil pipeline. With this in mind, we should reserve some scepticism for governments that profess their allegiance to the cause. 


We should also examine whether effective climate policy needs to come from the top down, as opposed to from local governments. It is true that sweeping national energy reforms are necessary for countries to meet their Paris Agreement targets. The United Nations Environmental Programme’s 2018 annual review of global emissions found that nations need to triple their carbon emission reduction efforts to halt global warming at 2 degrees celsius. Considering the scale of these changes, it’s understandable that critics of the climate emergency movement feel that the efforts of local governments are trivial.  


They have a point, but we should not let them discredit the leadership local governments have shown. Yes it’s incremental, but we are already seeing the impacts of local governments advocating for stronger climate action. 


Most notably, this year the UK, Ireland, France, Portugal and Canada declared national climate emergencies, which were largely influenced by local councils. As a result, most of these countries have taken strong executive action to reduce their carbon emissions, like pledging carbon neutrality by 2050 and going weeks without burning fossil fuels.


Again, we should reserve some scepticism, as nations will likely fall short of their commitments due to their political and economic ties to fossil fuel industries. However, their support for the movement still sends a powerful message: local governments can collectively push climate emergencies onto the national agenda.    


A pessimistic view of bottom-up climate leadership also undervalues the impact councils can make in their own municipalities. Considering that cities account for more than 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions, by declaring climate emergencies major hubs like New York, London, Dublin, Toulouse, and now Sydney, have the potential to significantly reduce emissions. 


The rulings of some courts can also have ripple effects beyond their jurisdiction. Earlier this year the Chief Judge of the New South Wales Land and Environment court made a historic ruling by blocking an application for an open-cut coal mine near the Hunter Valley, on the basis that its approval would contribute to global warming. Chief Judge Brian Preston’s Rocky Hill decision set a climate change precedent for courts around the world to follow. 


Local governments have never been more important. When nations fail on climate change, it’s up to them the way.  


Ben Grace is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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