Helping New Zealand Councils Act on Climate

By Bruce Gilkison, Jenny Easton, and Carolyn Hughes | 2020-10-01 12:00:00

New Zealand, with five million people and a land area a quarter the size of Ontario, does not have provincial or state governments. It has a central government and 78 local authorities (or councils). The latter have the powers and duties given to them by Parliament, including a range of local environmental, resource, infrastructure, waste, and transport matters.

They’re an important part of our climate response. A survey by Auckland Council, New Zealand’s largest, found that 88 percent of respondents thought the council had “a medium or critical role to play” in reducing the city’s emissions.

There are two adjacent local authorities in our area, Nelson City and Tasman District Councils.

The Zero Carbon Nelson Tasman (ZCNT) group has built a constructive relationship with both councils over the past two years and wants to share some of the things we’ve learnt along the way.

Local authorities can have major impacts. Convincing one council won’t save the world. We just have to hope there are other people doing similar work around the world. It’s a worthwhile journey.

Bruce Gilkison is a chartered accountant and sustainable business adviser.

Working on Climate Projects with Councils

While working with a group of community climate activists I realised we could use the knowledge gleaned from my 15 years working for one of the local councils as a resource scientist. Council processes seem very complicated from the outside, and people are easily put off. But I knew that there are some staff and Councillors who want to work with community groups because they lack the time, or the eyes and ears, to progress the things they want to happen. Generally the staff who come to the public drop-in sessions are the public-friendly ones, and in approaching them we tried respectful, well prepared, aware they are busy— and always offered to help. We have made a surprising amount of progress this way and by not minding who gets the credit.

You can gain recognition by fronting up to speak to your submissions to the councils’ strategic and annual plans, providing you have done your homework and can answer questions. Your reputation will help get traction on your projects. We wanted to encourage the council to declare a climate emergency and persuasion would be needed.

Darebin City in Melbourne had been the first to declare a climate emergency five years earlier with an eight-page Climate Emergency Plan. We circulated a copy of that because it made it look easy. The chapter headings were in familiar council language. Some of the old guard thought they were doing all those things anyway. We explained that they had to go faster and they accepted this.

At the start of an all-important council hearing regarding the vote on a Climate Emergency Declaration a rumour circulated that the councillors would neither pass the vote nor the funding to support it. Local climate advocates spoke passionately for urgent action, some nervously for the first time, some near tears as they gave their five-minute speeches.

Some naysayers wearing expensive suits flew in from the capital Wellington to say why the council shouldn’t proceed with this vote. Being lectured by outsiders actually made some of the councillors angry, and the mood slowly changed.

An indicative vote showed we were nearly there. Then, as each councillor gave their final speech, it was clear they had been influenced by the local public speakers. When the councillor in charge of the important and climate impacted Infrastructure subcommittee explained why he had changed his mind and would now vote for the declaration, a ripple of excitement went through the audience and we waved our hands vigorously in silent applause, knowing that the mayor and councillors could see us. Finally at the end of a long hot day it was passed with only three against. Everyone tumbled out of their seats to celebrate.

We followed the Climate Emergency Declaration with a proposal to establish a community-led Nelson Tasman Climate Forum (CF) across both of our local council areas and to ask for a grant to get started. By this time members of our Zero Carbon Nelson Tasman (ZCNT) group were being referred to by the mayor as “wise heads.”

Our preparation involved talking to friendly councillors, the mayor, seeking advice from leaders of other forums, and phoning organisations and key people to demonstrate the community’s broad support. The council staff supported us because they recognise that the public trusts community organisations more than politically constrained council consultations. As with any risk, you need to get the public on board to support mitigation of climate change. No socially just transition can happen unless public concern can override the louder voices that benefit from the status quo and stall climate action.

Once your group has the trust of both council staff and councillors, and you are prepared to work behind the scenes and let others take the limelight, you can get a lot of requests for help. Tricky things like helping formulate and establish the council’s environmentally responsible procurement policies, providing advice on what a “climate lens” policy would actually look like, suggesting easy and low cost “low hanging fruit” which council can choose to reduce greenhouse gases, suggesting how people can be encouraged to use active transport, providing factual articles on sustainability for the council newsletter, and providing workshops on climate.

Apart from our behind-the-scenes help to councils, we coordinate the community-managed Climate Forum and its 20 subgroups (energy, justice, land use, waste, etc), local businesses and organisations with climate action plans.

The work can be done by core ZCNT people but proactive allies are needed—especially when, as in our case, there are over 600 members of the Climate Forum. The council staff and councillors need outside help to keep up with the information about global warming, sea level rise, extreme storm events, fires, floods and droughts, fossil fuel disinformation, energy descent, short term effects of methane, dietary changes and global drawdown strategies.

Jenny Easton is a retired environmental scientist.

Leading by Community

The small seaport town of Lyttelton, population 3,000, is only 12 kilometres from Christchurch City, but when devastating earthquakes struck on September 4th 2010 and February 22nd 2011, the city seemed farther away because the tunnel connecting Lyttelton with Christchurch was compromised. The emergency services were unable to get through. Most of Lyttelton’s heritage buildings and many homes were rubble.

Immediately after the quakes the community organisation, Project Lyttelton, mobilised volunteer teams to work alongside local emergency employees, linked tradespeople to those whose houses were damaged or without water or power, provided people who were trapped or at risk with safe accommodation and hot meals, helped dismantle damaged chimneys, cleared roads of rubble, provided fridges, generators and emotional support where needed, joined the daily briefings for official emergency responders, and updated the community with critical information. How was Project Lyttelton able to organise such a rapid community response?

Project Lyttelton (PL) wasn’t formed explicitly for disaster preparedness. It had already, since the early 2000’s, created a Food Security project, a Community Garden, a Farmers Market, a Festival of Lights and many other community service projects. In 2005 PL set up a Time Bank and had become a trusted community hub with the capacity to draw on local skills, identify the services needed by the community and to mobilise the people to act.

Along with this access came the ability to respond to disasters. By the time of the earthquakes, the Time Bank had over 450 individual and 18 organisational members and had traded 30,000 hours.

But full-time volunteering often leads to burn-out. Time Banking (TB) has the advantage of acknowledging the volunteer’s contribution and introducing reciprocity. TB is a skill trading system with both offers of and requests for skills. Time rather than money is used as a unit of measurement, with everyone’s time having equal value. Members share their skills and time, gaining credits in return. They then use these credits to buy the time and skills of other members. A broker facilitates and records trades on a database. Over the years a rich resource of skills and networks has formed. Members can donate their credits to a Community Chest for targeted projects.

Once the worst of the crises had passed, Project Lyttelton’s Time Bank was faced with the long challenge of rebuilding. Research shows that people help each other immediately following a disaster but that this support generally tapers off when they are overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. Membership in Project Lyttelton’s Time Bank has doubled since the quakes and community support with the rebuild continued until Lyttelton had bounced back. In the meantime, an abundance of projects have been run, further strengthening Lyttelton’s cohesion.

Carolyn Hughes is a diplomat and climate chage activist.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2020

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2020, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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