As the Madrid country-level climate talks ended stuck in a climate change version of the congestion that Auckland’s commuters know only too well, pressure on the world’s cities to act more effectively grows. This is where more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions originate.

Auckland Mayor, and former Environment Minister, Phil Goff, had a chance to start a new city direction on climate change, one of his big re-election campaign priorities, when he outlined his budget plans for next year.

In doing so he repeated what he often said during the mayoral campaign: the council needs to act urgently to address climate change.

Yet the four modest climate change announcements he made won’t be fully underway until July next year and the bigger ones will take five years to implement. At a cost of $18.9m over the next five years, they represent a rounding error against total Auckland expenditure of $24 billion over the same period. The 6,000 tonnes of carbon that will be reduced by his key initiatives will cut the regions’ annual CO2 production by less than 0.2 percent.

Effective climate change action is not just about spending more money. How and what it is spent on is critical.

In February 2018, the council began developing an Auckland-wide climate action plan. It has been scoped, tested, refined and consulted on since then. There was no official update on it at the inaugural meeting of the council’s new Climate Change committee last month, but the final plan is expected early next year – nine months after the council declared a climate change emergency.

Back in 2015, Auckland Council joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy to help boost its climate action. It tracks cities’ progress towards achieving climate mitigation, adaptation and access to energy plans.

In the four years since Auckland signed, it has yet to move beyond the first of six steps – undertaking a mitigation inventory.

By contrast, cities such as Adelaide, Copenhagen, Melbourne, and Vancouver are all rated ‘compliant’ having achieved all six steps.

Melbourne’s Climate Adaptation Strategy was developed in 2009. Vancouver’s plan was adopted in 2012.

Auckland council has had many other priorities than climate change in its first decade, and big projects like the Unitary Plan do contribute to climate action. To those congested commuters, focusing on more immediate priorities may seem obvious. However transport is both Auckland’s leading climate emissions’ problem and biggest opportunity.

Other international cities are achieving greater climate progress in transport and other carbon intensive areas by such things as making car, bike and scooter sharing easier to get underway and more accessible.

They are creating car-light or low emission zones, and making the real cost of parking more visible by reducing or removing parking subsidies in specific areas – to encourage people to use public transport.

They are incentivising greater electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and encouraging freight carriers to operate at different times of the day.

They are making it easier for new integrated transport information, payment and route planning applications. They are increasing temporary street closures, and reducing the costly traffic management planning approach which makes this harder.

Melbourne, aiming for zero net carbon emissions by 2020, has toughened construction environmental standards and uses incentives to boost the sustainable retrofitting of existing infrastructure.

Copenhagen’s plan to be a net carbon-neutral city by 2025 has seen its CO2 emissions reduce by 42 percent since 2005. Key to this has been a ground-breaking collaborative plan with business, community and other groups taking responsibility for 22 separate climate reduction plans with 65 projects.

San Francisco aims to be a zero waste city by 2020. It mandated food scrap composting 10 years ago. Auckland won’t begin properly until 2021.

Although Auckland’s new climate action plan may be adopted by the council in the early months of 2020, Goff said any substantive decisions and significant budget changes would have to wait for the next 10 year budget – which won’t start until July 1, 2021.

This is a strange emergency.

A more ‘urgent’ response would be to introduce an extraordinary amendment to the 10 year budget. Christchurch council did this in the years following its earthquakes. Other councils do this when either unexpected or unplanned-for events arise.

In the long-prepared draft Auckland climate action plan there are 70 actions, a number of which could be pulled into an “extraordinary” budget change.

Potential quick climate wins for Auckland, include:

– encourage large scale uptake of zero and low emission vehicles.

– make freight systems more efficient.

– rapidly increase safe, high-quality cycling and walking infrastructure

– implement the proposed climate innovation system.

– develop and deliver local and regional decentralised energy solutions

– use council property to drive innovation in renewable energy development

As he left Auckland Council, its first Chief Sustainability Officer John Mauro, said the council and the community needed the courage to make better progress.

He criticised the slow movement on zero carbon buses, the failure to spend the budget on new cycleways and the need to plant a lot more trees.

Climate change is complex, as Goff also said last week – but decision makers still have choices about tackling easier climate congestion-busting actions first. Others have shown Auckland the way.

Mark Thomas leads Serviceworks, a cities and technology business. He was previously an elected member of part of the Auckland Council and is a director of the Committee for Auckland.

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