This week the City of Sydney declared a climate emergency, despite howls of outrage from predictable quarters. The declaration is timely — a recent United Nations report suggested we have just 11 years left to avoid a climate catastrophe. The declaration comes against a backdrop of years of government inaction, and Lord Mayor Clover Moore said successive federal governments had “presided over a climate disaster”.
Sydney’s declaration comes alongside a commitment to use 100% renewable energy by 2020 and to reduce its emissions 70% by 2024. The council also made vague promises to call on the federal government to reintroduce a carbon price. While Sydney is not alone in calling climate change an emergency, its unclear what exactly these declarations mean and whether they can do anything.
Who else has declared a climate emergency?
Climate emergency announcements like Sydney’s are gaining traction across the world. Before this week’s announcement, 658 jurisdictions covering roughly 119 million people around the world — including local, state and national governments — had declared climate emergencies.
In April, Scotland became the first country at a national level to declare an emergency, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met with student protesters on strike from school. In the following month, Wales, the rest of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and France all followed suit in declaring an emergency.
Local municipalities in the UK, US and Australia have made similar calls. Sydney joins cities like London, Auckland and Vancouver in declaring an emergency. In May the ACT became the first Australian state or territory to declare a climate emergency, and so far 23 other jurisdictions in Australia, largely local governments, have made similar pledges.
What does it mean?
There’s no consistent understanding of what exactly a climate emergency response involves. Still, most declarations have also come in combination with commitments to more ambitious action. In the twilight of her prime ministership, Theresa May passed a law committing Britain to net zero emissions by 2050. At a local stage, declarations are often accompanied by promises to decarbonise by 2030 and develop infrastructure to support increasing use of renewables and electric cars.
Declaring an emergency can operate as a normative platform on which to build future policy. In the UK, where the declaration followed weeks of sustained protests from grassroots environmental group Extinction Rebellion, MPs announced plans to create a “citizens assembly”.
Still, there are limits to how much simply declaring climate change an emergency can do, especially when these commitments largely come at a local level. Importantly, Sydney’s declaration does not have the same effect as a “state of emergency”, which in some instances may give a state power to requisition property and suspend legislation.
Internationally, there have been quite reasonable allegations of hypocrisy at nations who talk a big game about the climate emergency while simultaneously sustaining the fossil fuel industry. The very day after Canada declared a climate emergency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the expansion of a pipeline that will pump almost 600,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to British Columbia.
Meanwhile, the UK, Canada, France and Ireland together subsidise their fossil fuel industries to the tune of $27.5 billion.
Some have argued that using the strident language of emergency, especially over an issue like climate change that still causes division and uncertainty, can alienate certain people. When the council of Guelph, Canada voted against an emergency declaration in May, it was argued that declaring an emergency would kick 20-40% of people out of the conversation, because they would conclude the issue was only for radicals.
Climate action from below
The steady proliferation of emergency declarations, which began at a local level, are a perfect example of how much climate action is being driven in the face of stagnant governments still manipulated by denialists and the coal lobby. Sydney’s declaration comes after Australia’s emissions have risen over the last four years, despite record-breaking temperatures and a water crisis decimating the regions.
After the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017, city and state governments picked up where the federal government left off. Some 3000 US cities pledged to meet the US’ Paris targets, with or without the administration’s help. California is moving to 100% renewables by 2045.
In Australia, serious climate action is being taken up by seemingly everyone except the Morrison government — from the Land and Environment Court who rejected a new mine based on its potential emissions, to shareholder activists forcing the hands of large corporations.
As national governments continue to drag their feet and prop up dying fossil fuel industries, climate action may have to be driven from below through pledges like Sydney’s.
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