May 15, 2017 / 12:06 AM / in 2 months

INTERVIEW-Glitter or green? Sydney's big bash gives way to speed climate action

6 Min Read

LONDON, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One of the highlights of the Sydney social calendar has long been the spectacular Lord Mayor's New Year's Eve party, held each year at the iconic Sydney Opera House.

This year, however, the money put into hosting the exclusive bash for the city's well-heeled has been reallocated to something more important, the mayor says: Ramping up action on climate change.

"People have been quite amazed that I'd do something so radical," said Sydney's Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who has run the Australian city since 2004 – and who last year took political heat over the rising cost of the party, which accompanies the city's famed fireworks display.

At a meeting late last year of the C40 network of cities that are leading on climate change action, she said, "the message to all city leaders was that to have any realistic chance of meeting the Paris Agreement, we had to do twice as much in half the time".

So the approximately A$750,000 ($560,000) cost of Sydney's big bash is now instead going toward things such as 10 new urban parks over the next year, a zero-carbon building competition, efforts to help tenants access renewable energy, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and expanding efforts to help commercial buildings cut their emissions.

Creating climate-friendly projects that people can see and benefit from on a daily basis – particularly new parks but also bike lanes and pedestrian-only streets – is crucial to building and maintaining support for action on climate change, Moore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

"People can't see emissions reductions," she said. But giving residents visual signs of green progress – amenities they want that also happen to cut emissions – "creates some ownership," said the mayor, who walks in the city's parks most days with her husband and dogs.

Zero Emissions by 2050?

The emissions-cutting moves are part of the city's broader Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan, which aims to reduce the city's emissions by 70 percent by 2030 and make it carbon neutral by 2050.

That is underway through efforts such as upgrading the city's car fleet to hybrid vehicles, planting 10,000 trees, promoting car sharing, installing solar systems and water harvesting, and working with businesses to cut emissions, particularly through better building design in the fast-growing city.

So far, the city's emissions have fallen by a little over a quarter since 2006 – despite a 25 percent growth in population and about A$26 billion ($19 billion) spent on development in the city since she took office, Moore said.

Commercial buildings in particular have managed to reduce their emissions by more than a third, through energy efficiency pushes and other action.

That's happened despite an indifferent or occasionally even hostile attitude toward climate action by Australia's national government, which under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott scaled back carbon reduction efforts, disbanded a key climate advisory group and was widely seen as obstructing action on climate change.

Such foot-dragging has happened despite clear evidence of the damage climate change is causing in Australia, such as blistering heatwaves and worsening bleaching and die-back of large parts of the country's famed Great Barrier Reef, Moore said.

That the United States now also is slamming the brakes on climate action under President Donald Trump is "very distressing, frankly," she said.

"What's heartbreaking is the damage governments can do in a short time when they're in power. The clock is ticking (on climate change), we're aware there's so much to do and we're still fighting these battles," she said.

The good news, she said, is that in terms of addressing climate change "the action is really in our cities".

"It would be good to have our governments working with us, supporting us, having policies of their own. But if they don't want to do that, we just want them to get out of the way," she said.

Political Longevity

The level of support for the city's green ambitions is evident in the mayor's own longevity.

After making climate change an early focus of her time in office, she has gone on to win three more elections, despite harsh criticism by some segments of the country's media over moves such as adding bike lanes, which opponents said would worsen traffic congestion.

"I was pilloried over the bike lanes – the tabloid press really went to town," she remembers. "But guess what? People like riding bikes and they're getting out there," she said.

She counts Sydney's business community as an ally in her climate change push. Having long-term plans and goals on climate change has helped win support from businesses, which can plan with more certainty about what's ahead, Moore said.

To get ambitious enough action to effectively address climate change, "leadership is absolutely crucial," she said – and she thinks city governments are well placed to provide it, particularly with national action faltering in parts of the world.

"We get up in the morning and do something. That's the fantastic thing about city government. We do things and we change people's lives," she said.

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Zoe Tabary :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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