To get to zero emissions, residents need to walk and talk.
IN 2008, the City of Yarra set a target to be carbon neutral by 2020. Not just council headquarters – the entire inner-city municipality.
But how does a whole district go carbon neutral?
It can’t rely on government subsidies, or an unforeseen technological breakthrough, says Alex Fearnside, CEO of Yarra Energy Foundation, the organisation established in 2010 to make it happen.
Instead, it needs to start with residents pounding the pavements, knocking on doors and sharing their knowledge. That’s the cornerstone of the foundation’s campaign, called Yarra Project Zero.
“We have some very active citizens already. We know that about one-in-ten households and one-in-twenty businesses are well on the way to zero emissions,” he says.
“Yarra Project Zero is about recording those stories and making them known to others. It’s about amplifying them, and showing that retrofitting is a normal and practical action to take.”
As a baseline, the foundation calculated Yarra’s carbon footprint from electricity and gas use in 2008-09. About a quarter of those emissions come from households, and the rest from businesses, large and small.
(The zero emissions target also includes the impact of transport, consumption, food and waste – but the project starts with electricity and gas.)
To cut out the carbon, Mr Fearnside has a rule of thumb: one-third will come from efficiency, one-third from low-carbon energy and one-third from offsetting.
In time, he expects efficiency will play a greater role. He says four simple improvements – installing efficient lighting, windows, heating and cooling, and hot water systems – could cut household energy use by more than two-thirds.
Retrofitting those measures across the municipality would cost about $350 million, or $12,000 per home. “We believe the vast majority of that must come from the private sector,” he says. “It’s about getting people to engage, learn and share their learning, and invest wisely and strategically.
“Over a period of eight years, homeowners could choose to invest that amount to get a more comfortable, efficient and affordable home.”
Since 2008, Yarra’s emissions have fallen by nearly one-fifth, but most of the reduction came incidentally, from the closure of Amcor’s paper mill at Alphington.
Getting all the way to zero won’t be so easy, and that’s why the project involves some old-fashioned community organising. “We’re getting trusted sources in the community to carry the message for us. That’s where people get their information from,” Mr Fearnside explains.
He’s encouraging residents and local workers to register online and participate any way they can. One option is by studying: employees can learn about carbon auditing, and budding communicators can enrol in a multimedia and sustainability course, in which they’ll document the stories of citizens who are taking action.
Meanwhile, corporate volunteers have begun spruiking the project to businesses up and down the area’s busy shopping strips: Swan, Victoria, Brunswick, Smith and Gertrude Streets.
It’s a model many councils could follow, but there’s a catch. Under the federal government’s cap-and-trade system, the City of Yarra’s target won’t reduce Australia’s overall greenhouse emissions. It’ll just free up permits for polluters somewhere else.
Mr Fearnside is undeterred. “The people who work, live and play here will reduce costs, increase comfort and build a stronger more resilient local economy.
“We’ve talked to businesses and households in Yarra and they’re very excited about accelerating change and getting to zero as quickly as possible.”