From declaring a climate emergency to setting a 1.5 degree regional target, Auckland Council has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to doing its bit to tackle climate change. The question is, how exactly does it plan to do that? Acting chief sustainability officer Alec Tang explains.
The Spinoff: Tell me about the key areas Auckland Council has identified as emissions sources. What are they and why do they have such sizeable footprints?
Alec Tang: We’ve been looking at our emissions inventory for quite a few years now, trying to understand where our biggest emissions came from. We realised early on that almost half of our emissions came from our buildings, so in September 2015 we entered into a three-year partnership agreement with EECA (the government agency that works to improve energy efficiency), which focused on creating an energy management plan and identifying opportunities to reduce our buildings’ energy use from our lighting to our heating, cooling and ventilation. That includes looking at our office buildings, but also our swimming pools, libraries and regional hubs, and since 2015, we’ve seen a 16% reduction in energy use.
For the most part, buildings and electricity use has been our main focus. But in the last two years, we’ve been getting our emissions footprint externally audited, allowing us to start to get a grasp of where our other emissions come from. We found that almost half of our emissions came from buildings, about a quarter came from farms, and another quarter came from transport and contractors/suppliers.
With farms, we have some large land holdings around the region like Ambury Farm, which is a working farm but with an educational focus that’s targeted at kids and families. Farms aren’t a huge revenue generator, but it’s quite interesting and surprising that we have farms that make up a quarter of our footprint.
With transport, we have a fleet of around 800 vehicles to be used by council staff. For example, when building consent people need to go out and do building inspections, or when our research monitoring unit have to go out and sample things. Some of our parks have got vehicles as well.
Then there’s suppliers and contractors which include, for example, people who go around and maintain public toilet cubicles, collect rubbish from bins in parks, and mow the lawns. Conventionally, you wouldn’t always include emissions from your suppliers and contractors in your inventory. But one of the requirements in the Climate Leaders Coalition declaration is about helping your supply chain reduce their emissions. Most of these suppliers manage our parks, our waste, so it kind of made sense for us to include them in our footprint because we have quite a bit of control over what they do.
What are your key action areas for each of these emissions sources?
Carbon neutral growth and green building/infrastructure: One of the key challenges we face is that the region is growing, which means we’re going to have to build more facilities. If we’re going to make sure our emissions profile continues trending down we’re going to need to make sure that anything we build from now on won’t add to our emissions profile. We need to design new buildings in a way that maximises things like natural light and natural ventilation through good building practices.
Gas boiler phase-out: There’s a whole bunch of natural gas that’s used to heat our swimming pools, libraries and other buildings that require relatively low heat. We can use electricity-driven heat pumps instead, and you can imagine there’s a whole heap of carbon savings associated with that transition. It requires a bit of budget – not all those gas boilers will be due for replacement – so we need to take that into consideration during the budgetary process to show this is what we’re going to do to deliver these savings.
Gigawatt & Off the Grid: Gigawatt is a programme that looks at how we can make the most of our community facilities. A lot of these facilities have a whole lot of roof and land area, so how can we make the most of those areas for renewable energy generation? We’ve had teams go out and request expressions of interest, asking facilities what their ideas are for making the most of their acreage. Meanwhile, Off the Grid looks at how we can take those small facilities (eg: toilet blocks) completely off-grid so they’re powered 100% by electricity in their vicinity.
Zero-emission fleet and fleet rationalisation: This includes looking into more electric or hybrid vehicles, but also looking at car share and fleet share programmes, which we already have with a fleet of electric bikes. Do we have enough chargers if we’re going to electrify all our fleet? Is there enough charging infrastructure? It also means asking if there are things that we’re doing right now that we don’t need to do in person. Can we introduce Skype? Or remote working?
Travel plan: How do we help our staff transition to more eco-friendly transport options? For example, if they decide to cycle, there’s going to need to be places to freshen up and lock up your bike, so it’s important to have those end-of-trip facilities.
Farms and open spaces
Farms obviously generate emissions associated with the animals that live there, so we need to look at how we can optimise farms and make them more efficient. Is there any unproductive land we can retire into forestry so we can offset some of our emissions? Although from a land maintenance perspective, sometimes it’s better to have animals rather than trucks or tractors to mow the lawns.
Suppliers and contractors
Collectively we have something known as Project 17 city-wide maintenance contracts, which actually requires contractors to conduct environmental monitoring, management and reporting on carbon emissions. That’s part of our goal in helping suppliers and recognising that we can’t just go, ‘hey, everyone report on your emissions and reduce your emissions by this amount’. Some of our suppliers are fairly small, so it’s a case of how do we support them through that process? How do we help our suppliers reduce their emissions, which is part of our commitment to the Climate Leaders Coalition.
When it comes to council-controlled organisations (CCOs) like Auckland Transport and Watercare, what’s their reaction been like to what Auckland Council has proposed? Obviously, they have their own initiatives and report on their emissions separately, so have they been supportive of what you’re trying to do? Has there been any pushback?
They’ve been really supportive. Auckland Council, AT and Panuku all joined the Climate Leaders Coalition in September 2018, while Watercare was actually founding signatory when CLC launched in July.
In building up to joining the CLC, we sat down with AT, Watercare and Panuku – our main emissions sources – and said, ‘look, if we’re going to do this, we need to take a consistent position’, because not everyone realises we’re different organisations. We all need to aim for the same target of 1.5 degrees and have the same approach to monitoring and measuring our emissions.
We need to do this together, but we also need to recognise that we all have very different footprints. Our focus is on buildings, farms, transport, and suppliers, while AT’s focus is on things like bus fleet and street lighting while Watercare is focusing on pipes and the embedded carbon in those assets and services.
So we need a consistent overarching structure, but let’s recognise that we’re all going to be dealing with our emissions profiles in very different ways. But broadly speaking there hasn’t been anyone saying they can’t meet that 1.5 degree target. So whether it’s Watercare, Air New Zealand or Fonterra, the broad sentiment throughout the region is that we need to hit this goal.
What effect, if any, has declaring a climate emergency in June had on Auckland Council?
We’d already committed to the 1.5 degree regional target last year, so declaring the climate emergency in June mostly helped in terms of accelerating some of those programmes we’d already discussed. Fundamentally, it all boils down to funding and financing, which is where the decision really sits, and now that we’ve declared a climate emergency, it means we’ve got also got unanimous political backing. It’s really helped to bring up the prevalence of those discussions that were already going on and getting politicians all together on that.
Currently, hundreds of candidates are campaigning for local elections and it’s clear that not everyone running for office is likely to share your enthusiasm to reduce emissions. With voters going to the polls next month, is there any nervousness or concern on your part?
There’s obviously some nervousness in terms of who gets in and what their focus will be, but that’s where the sustainability office comes along and says “these are the reasons we think you should do this” from a business or moral/ethical sense. The case for reducing our emissions is compelling on a number of different fronts. It’s not like we’d disappear if someone else came in.
It’s important to note that the climate emergency was unanimously passed and that the council table already has all kinds of political viewpoints. My takeaway from the unanimous vote is that we’re all in agreement that we need to do something on climate change. And going beyond my current role, when it comes to sustainability and climate change, we need to get past the political.
Although we’re a big organisation, Auckland Council makes up just 1.2% of the emissions profile. It’s a tiny fraction, but we need to lead by example. We want to demonstrate that actually, you can reduce your emissions while maintaining service. That 16% reduction in electricity already shows we can do it without compromising our delivery of services. The more examples like that we have – from council, from SkyCity, from Spark – that show we don’t necessarily need to compromise our growth ambitions to act on climate change, the better. And actually, we’re more resilient in the long term if we do.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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