How Community is Shaping Wollongong City Council’s Net Zero Future

Jodie House reflects on Wollongong City Council’s emissions reduction engagement to understand how they’re working with the community to achieve city-wide net zero emissions by 2050. 

Today, the role of our community in fighting climate change is critical – there has been a huge shift in momentum and our community is very active.” – Wollongong City Lord Mayor, Councillor Gordon Bradbery AM, Wollongong Council

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a monumental year, particularly for Australians who have lived through drought, bush fires, floods, and now COVID-19. In recent months, if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that a large-scale response to a global crisis is possible, and our communities and businesses are at the heart of it, quite literally. If we can harness the compassion and creativity that’s surfaced in recent months towards protecting future generations from climate change, then we might just be able to reconfigure our future, before it goes back to the way it was.

Could there be a more poignant time for local government to draw on this creativity, to engage business and community, and to write plans and policies that reflect all that we have learned from one crisis response, in preparation for another?

Here, I’m sharing an example of an emissions reduction engagement undertaken pre-COVID-19, and I ask that you imagine what this engagement might look like, if replicated during and post COVID-19.

electric car charging

Local Government’s Influence on Australia’s Emissions

A report released recently by Climate Works found that 58 percent of Australia’s largest Councils (33 in total) now have targets to reach net-zero operational emissions by 2050.

To truly reach net-zero, Climate Works advises that local governments should have net-zero targets for both operational and community emissions. This makes absolute sense when you learn that 99 percent of emissions from local government areas on average are community emissions.

Wollongong City Council has done exactly that. They are one of just 26 Councils across Australia to commit to carbon reduction on behalf of their community. Not only have they committed to net-zero operational emissions by 2030, but as a member of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, they have committed to net-zero community-based emissions by 2050; and there’s even a chance they could bring this forward to 2030 pending the outcome of a review in 2025.

So, commitments have been set, but we need to actually get there, right? Wollongong City Council recognizes that there’s a long road ahead, and they cannot do it without the contribution and commitment of their community. As Wollongong City Lord Mayor Councillor Gordon Bradbery AM states: “Council is not solely responsible for the implementation of actions to achieve the whole-of-city target, but we have a leadership role and we will be working with the community and industry to meet the 2050 target.”

We’ve had a good chat with them to understand how they’ve engaged the community so far and what they’ve learned.

Community as a Pathway to Net Zero Emissions

In November 2019, Wollongong City Council launched an online engagement, inviting community, business and industry to share input on the proposed community target, and welcoming ideas on how ‘they’, collectively as a community, can achieve the target.

Wollongong City Council received an impressive 426 online submissions, including over 100 ideas from the community.

Before launching the engagement, Council wanted the community to have free access to put any idea out there and not be confined by a form. It was important to create a safe environment for community members to submit their ideas.

Using an interactive online tool, community members were able to:

  1. Write and share their ideas using virtual post-it notes
  2. Interact with other ideas using an interactive like/comment/share function

Draw on Knowledge Within the Community

The ideas collected from the community ranged from widely documented solutions like electric vehicle charging points and localized renewable energy power stations, to independent and creative solutions like solar-powered cycle lanes, public buses with bike racks, and the protection and restoration of coastal wetlands. What becomes immediately clear from these submissions, is the level of passion and knowledge amongst the community. Council has been able to draw on local knowledge from a diverse group of participants, whilst capturing the thoughts of the everyday person in the community. This response services as a reminder for all Councils that communities are keen to be involved in complex conversations and can offer practical solutions to significant challenges.

Build Trust

One of the things Bang the Table loves about this engagement is that Councilors have joined the discussion by liking and commenting on ideas, fact-checking, and probing deeper conversation like in the example below:

online idea board

These quick and simple interactions send strong signals to the community that their ideas are being listened to. The commenting capability also provides an opportunity for Council staff to clarify misconceptions or misinformation and provide additional detail to questions around what Council has already done, is doing, and can do to help.

We know the foundation for action and influence is trust. Increasingly, we must look to tools like this that open up the conversation and increase transparency between a Council and its community. Sadly, in Australia, we are experiencing the worst trust deficit in 40 years with only one in four Australians having confidence in politicians and institutions (Australian National University, 2019). The more that communities can see the efforts being made by a Council, then the more likely they will get involved, and to make their own personal commitments.

Find Shared Value

Humans are fundamentally wired for collaboration and empathy. While conversations about carbon emissions and climate change can be extremely divisive, online tools provide a platform for the community to share views and listen to others.

“The responses showed that the community has a consistent view around the direction Council should be taking.  The community appreciated having a voice and were very grateful. We have since received emails from the community saying thank you for the opportunity to engage.” – Engagement Officer, Wollongong City Council  

In doing so, a Council is able to identify and build on shared values within the community. In parallel, community members are more likely to bring about positive change within their circle of influence if they can see what other members of the community are doing.

aerial view of wollongong

Breakdown Barriers

“In order to leverage actions which yield the highest emission reductions, Council will work in partnership with major industry, business and the community, playing a leadership role.” – Wollongong City Lord Mayor Councillor, Gordon Bradbery AM

‘It’s the responsibility of Government’ is a challenging perspective to contend with. While this may not have been a direct sentiment from Wollongong’s community, it’s certainly one that exists globally.

An annual insights report released by Qantas points to a consistent increase in the Australian public telling us that ‘Government is not doing enough’. While sadly this does ring true in Australia when it comes to climate policy and emissions reduction, this does not mean that responsibility solely lies with Government. Quite the opposite, in fact, it provides an opportunity for local government to bring the community along with them, on the pathway towards a net-zero future.

This was the first time Wollongong City Council had engaged the community specifically on carbon emissions. The city of Wollongong is home to BlueScope Steel, Australia’s largest steel producer, and several coal mines, as well as an active and passionate environmentally-focused community. Going forward, Council recognizes the need to continue the conversation and discuss these challenges with the community, and build trust with local organizations, business and industry to come up with solutions together.

The city of Wollongong shared some valuable advice for other Councils looking to overcome similar challenges:

“Don’t be afraid about what the community has to say because generally feedback is constructive, and it’s okay to not have all the answers. A lot of the negative feedback has been around fear of job loss because it is close to people’s hearts. Communications should be centred around the opportunities that the net zero transition is creating, as opposed to the immediate changes. Language should be shifted to reflect ‘We’ and ‘Us’ to promote shared responsibility.” – Environmental Sustainability Officer, Wollongong City Council

Inform Action

Once the ideas had been collected, Wollongong City Council held an action planning workshop with 40 experts across all areas of Council. The aim of the session was to decide which ideas would be carried forward into Council’s Emissions Reduction Plan for the next two years that were the most fundamental and feasible to achieve.

Ideas were broken down into key themes which included land use, transport, infrastructure, etc, and groups were assigned a theme. Each group appraised the ideas using a simple voting system:

  • Green: already doing
  • Orange: good idea, needs more investigation
  • Red: outside of scope 

Council’s draft Emission Reduction Plan has been drawn up in the form of the Climate Mitigation Action Plan 2020-2022 and has been shared with the community for feedback on the ideas that Council is carrying forward.

What next?

This is just the beginning of City of Wollongong’s emissions-related engagement with the community. Council has demonstrated to their community that they care, and, from 13 July, is using the Q&A tool to answer questions from the community about the draft plans.

Follow Wollongong City Council’s journey as they work closely with the community to achieve net-zero emissions.

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