Instead of being a passive actor in the face of climate change, the local government of Darebin in Victoria is taking actions that are intended to have a transformative effect on the way that people in their city view energy and its effect on the environment. The Darebin Climate Emergency Plan 2017-2022 was adopted in 2017. It is an explicit reframing of the discourse around climate change from that of ‘risk’, with its connotations of uncertainty and technical analysis, to that of ‘emergency’, implying the need for urgent and radical action right now. This plan argues that in order to avoid dire consequences, we need to enact a complete transformation of the way that energy is considered, produced and used.
In their own actions, the City of Darebin has taken a two-pronged approach, aiming to address the emissions created by the City itself as well as those created by the wider community. The City has already implemented a number of strategies to achieve their goals, centring on concepts of renewable energy, energy efficiency and offsetting energy usage. Examples of such measures include, retrofitting City infrastructure to improve energy efficiency, providing households with window shades and weather proofing to reduce energy costs, helping business to switch to LED light bulbs through their Light$mart program, investing with fossil fuel free financial institutions where possible, providing incentives for staff to use environmentally friendly transport options and the organisation of a climate change emergency conference.
One of the most successful and revolutionary programs that Darebin has established is the Solar Saver program, which synergistically responds to several related concerns: managing health risks associated with heat waves, transitioning to renewable energy, and distributional justice. A survey of 440 pensioner households in 2013 identified that 73% could not afford the upfront costs of solar panels and, more surprisingly, that many were also unable to afford the cost of their air-conditioning on hot days. In response, the City developed an arrangement for financing solar panels on interest-free terms, recouping costs over 10 years through a special charge in addition to annual rates, calculated to be lower than residents’ estimated power bills in the absence of the solar panels. The program was initially restricted to pensioners, but having proven highly successful in terms of both take-up and cost recovery, has been gradually extended to other households, social housing providers, community groups and businesses.
An interviewee noted that this measure was deemed the most responsible way that the City could help those who were struggling economically to access the energy necessary to cope with extreme temperatures without contributing further to greenhouse gas emissions – that is, it is an adaptive response that is not maladaptive. It was noted that this was a significant departure from traditional support programs that provided subsidies and discounts to improve the affordability of renewable energy infrastructure, but failed to address either the issue of sustainable energy provision for disadvantaged communities. It has been achieved through a significant rethinking of the relationship between the local government and its citizens, in that the City has become, for those in need, a financial service provider, as well as a provider of more traditional services.
This has had a wider transformative effect in three important respects. As a model for this new role of local government, Solar Saver has been widely disseminated and adopted by other Councils, including 24 in Victoria, and similar programs enacted in South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (scaling out). Councils in New South Wales are lobbying their own State government to enact legislative change to enable Solar Saver-like programs there, and recently the Victorian government has announced an intention to develop a similar scheme at the State level (scaling up). Thirdly, an important ‘side effect’ of this program is that owning solar panels has become a matter of pride (and envy) among Darebin’s pensioner community (scaling deep), and this is playing a role in building political support for a reconfigured State energy regime that privileges renewables over fossil fuels.
While the City of Darebin has transformed its approach to energy, they acknowledge that effective climate change adaptation and mitigation require a broader scale approach. This has led them to strengthen their connections through involvement with entities such as the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action, the Cities Power Partnership, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, as well as various other local councils and community groups in order to develop and spread their message. An interviewee noted positive relations between local governments surrounding Darebin, highlighting a healthy sense of competition between these entities to attain the highest environmental credentials. The input and involvement of Darebin’s diverse community has been a central component of efforts to change the City’s approach to energy, with consultation undertaken at various stages of projects to ensure that they are culturally and socially appropriate.
The approach that the City of Darebin has adopted accepts the transformational limitations it is faced with, aiming to attain carbon neutrality of the community by 2020 largely through offsets due to the current cost and impracticality of householders sourcing all of their energy from renewable sources. Such a transformation is not without its problems, particularly when trying to challenge entrenched policies and beliefs. Further complications occur as certain projects have to be prioritised due to limits on funding and resources.
As the City of Darebin looks to the future, there are questions regarding the best direction to move in.